Why the 1976 student uprising resonates today: Youth of today emulate their predecessors and discover their mission to improve their own lives, achieve a better society, and build a better world.

Posted on June 23, 2020

In the wake of the global #BlackLivesMatter movement that started in the US after the death of George Floyd, past and present learners from 20 Model A (private and self-funded) and Model C (semi-private) schools in Cape Town took to social media to protest the blatant racism at their schools. Within a matter of days, an Instagram account where mainly testimonies of racist and homophobic experiences were posted had garnered more than 10 000 followers. This comes as South Africa observes Youth Month and 16 June, the 44th anniversary of the Soweto uprising.

The 1976 uprising started with learners at Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto rejecting the move by the Bantu Administration to enforce the ruling that maths and science be taught in Afrikaans at black schools. This despite the fact that teachers and children were not conversant in the language. This was the final straw in a long line of oppressive measures that had started with the inferior Bantu Education Act passed in 1953, pass laws restricting the movement of black people, forced removals, no land ownership and migrant labour.

Youth leaders were inspired by Steve Biko and his Black Consciousness Movement, and their protests set South Africa ablaze for the first time since Sharpeville, 16 years previously. The passive resistance campaign against pass laws then culminated in the massacre of 69 protesters, leading to the banning of the African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress; a decision to resort to guerrilla warfare; and to Nelson Mandela’s arrest and imprisonment.

The Soweto uprising was quelled in a wave of repressive action, and by 1977, the government had banned 22 Black Consciousness organisations, had killed 600 people – including Biko while in police detention – imprisoned thousands of activists and driven many into exile. Seventeen months of worker stayaways and consumer boycotts of white-owned businesses crippled the economy, and led to states of emergency and international sanctions being imposed against the apartheid regime. The uprising effectively started the end of apartheid and drew attention to the realities of black lives.

Post-Apartheid South Africa

Forty years later, students espousing black consciousness ideologies on university campuses around the country were once again at the forefront of political protests, in what became known as the Fallist Movements of #RhodesMustFall followed by the #FeesMustFall movements. Anne Heffernan, assistant professor of Southern African History at England’s Durham University, observes that while these students might have changed the topic of conversation around education more effectively than any since 1994, when South Africa had its first democratic elections, and gains such as the outsourcing of jobs on campuses have been made, the movement to decolonise university curricula and faculty has not moved off-campus. 

Professor Siona O’Connell of UP proposes that the student-led campaign served to draw attention to the fact that the power structure at the university bore little resemblance to the demographics of a post-apartheid South Africa, and that our colonial and apartheid histories, pasts and memories continued to be disavowed while our value as human beings continued to be denied. The generation of South Africans born after 1994 continue to grapple with what it means to be free in a post-apartheid society, wherein blackness continues to be mocked and marginalised.

Why does 16 June still matter?

Restructuring post-apartheid South Africa in order to address poverty and gross inequality was always going to be complicated. The negotiated settlement that ended apartheid involved significant compromises, such as the granting of amnesty to those who had perpetrated human rights abuses. Two strategies were adopted: the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to engage with human rights abuses that had been committed; and reconstruction to move the country forward socially, politically and economically, along with the removal of barriers of class, race, ethnicity, gender and language. Vusi Gumede, professor and head of the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute at the University of South Africa, argues that the economic inequality in South Africa post-democracy remains high and is still a race issue, and requires a complete reconfiguration of society.

Nearly 50 years ago, while speaking about white racism and black consciousness at a conference in Cape Town, Biko stressed the same need to overhaul the whole system in South Africa before hoping to get black and white people (who needed to address the inferiority and superiority complexes deliberately cultivated by the system) “walking hand in hand to oppose a common enemy”.

As South Africans we have yet to address the colonial and apartheid history of our country, and to truly bring about restitution, thereby contributing to the healing of intergenerational trauma and substantiating the possibility of a reimagined post-apartheid South Africa. As South Africans we need to think about the kind of country we want to build and about what transformation means, by examining the narratives of those who were oppressed and how we might be free. Unless we take this opportunity to candidly learn from our mistakes and to consider what it means to be human, the hurt will not be healed.

A global pandemic

Today South Africa is fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 70 000 confirmed cases and about 1 600 deaths. The pandemic has exposed the deep inequalities in health care, education and economics in a society where black people continue to live in apartheid-era townships that make social distancing impossible. Is COVID-19 Biko’s common enemy, the rupture that demands that South Africa finally address its shortcomings and lost opportunities, or do we still carry the seeds of instruction within us?

On the 44th anniversary of the Soweto uprisings, South Africa was presented with an opportunity for introspection. Will it seize the moment to finally address its past and create a new society, or will another generation of children have to fight the pervasive pandemic of racism that continues to inform our present? 

In addition to the online sources included as hyperlinks, the following texts have been consulted:

Biko, S. (2004). I write what I like. Johannesburg: Picador Africa.

Burton, M. (2016). The Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Auckland Park: Jacana.

Mangcu, X. ed., (2015). The Colour of Our Future: Does Race Matter in Post-Apartheid South Africa? Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Sparks, A. (2003). The Mind of South Africa: The Story of the Rise and Fall of Apartheid. Jeppestown: Jonathan Ball.



- Author Dr Nadia Kamies, postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History and Heritage Studies, University of Pretoria

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