Commemoration of the Soweto uprising and it significant to contemporary South Africa youths movement’s demand for access to equitable quality education

Posted on June 16, 2023

As the country marks the 47th anniversary of the Soweto uprising, there should be deep reflection on the ultimate sacrifices made by several young South Africans in the fight for equitable access to quality education. The remembrance should begin with a serious thought on the significance of this day to young South Africans who are still fighting for equal access to quality education in the country.

On June 16, 1976, thousands of young black schoolchildren organised to protest the adoption of Afrikaans as the medium of teaching in black schools in the streets of Soweto. Protesters were confronted with harsh police brutality. Several of them were shot and killed, while others were injured to varying degrees. 176 children were killed, according to records. 

The incident became known as the "Soweto uprising" in South African history. The Soweto revolt led by young black school pupils was a watershed moment in the anti-apartheid fight both locally and internationally.

Amidst the commemoration of this historic event, questions have been asked about whether today's youths have the same passion or desire to learn from the youths of 1976 and continue to advocate for equal access to quality education for everyone in contemporary South Africa.

The end of apartheid South Africa and the post-Constitution South Africa that emerged paved the way for a democratic South Africa marked by equality, respect for human dignity, and other democratic norms and values. Children and young people in the South Africa today have a more solid legal framework through which to channel their advocacy for equal access to quality education across the country. This is evidenced by the emergence of a variety of youth-led movements in contemporary South Africa calling for improved access to equal-quality education within the legal framework.

“Fees Must Fall” was a student movement which started in 2015, in which University students on campuses around South Africa protested against the high cost of tertiary education. Students wanted a halt to tuition fee increments as well as more government financial support to ensure that all students have equitable access to education. The movement was largely successful in bringing about major changes to the financing of University education. This demonstrated that young people are tremendously capable of effecting the change they desire.

Equitable Education (EE) is another prominent modern South African movement that is leading the fight for equitable quality education for all children in South Africa, particularly at the basic education level. EE is a youth-led mass democratic movement comprising learners, parents, teachers, and community members who employ research-backed mobilization and public action to empower young activists known as the equalisers to demand equal quality education in South Africa.  Over the course of the years, EE has been able to put education on the national agenda, mobilizing school children, known as ‘equalizers’  who are directly touched by education concerns and has emerged as one of the country's major grassroots voices on education-related issues.

The Equal Education ‘equalizers’ have marched, written letters, held night vigils, advocated in the media, met with government officials, made submissions to parliament, and, where necessary, took legal action with the support of the Equal Education Law Centre, resulting in major victories. These successes have included school infrastructure development laws, billions of Rands in government infrastructure financing, scholar transportation policy, and school transportation for over 3000 students.

The emergence of these youth movements in contemporary South Africa to demand access to equal quality education is an indication that today’s youth still carry the fire and the passion of the 1976 youth to make a change in their time. It is a testament to the fact that the ultimate price paid by some of the 1976 youth was not in vain as it established a solid foundation for the youths of today to continue to advocate for access to quality education. 



- Author Professor Ann Skelton and Dr Perekeme Mutu

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