Youth and the National Liberation Struggle
June 16 Soweto Youth Uprising
The introduction of Afrikaans alongside English as a medium of instruction is considered the immediate cause of the Soweto uprising, but there are a various factors behind the 1976 student unrest. These factors can certainly be traced back to the Ban tu Education Act introduced by the Apartheid government in 1953. The Act introduced a new Department of Bantu Education which was integrated into the Department of Native Affairs under Dr He ndrik F. Verwoerd. The provisions of the Bantu Education Act and some policy statements made by the Bantu Education Department were directly responsible for the uprisings. Dr Verwoerd, who engineered the Bantu Education Act, announced that “Natives (blacks) must be taught from an early age that equality with Europeans (whites) is not for them”.
Although the Bantu Education Act made it easier for more children to attend school in Soweto than it had been with the missionary system of education, there was a great deal of discontent about the lack of facilities. Throughout the country there was a dire shortage of classrooms for Black children. There was also a lack of teachers and many of the teachers were under-qualified. Nationally, pupil-to-teacher ratios went up from 46:1 in 1955 to 58:1 in 1967. Because of the lack of proper classrooms and the crippling government homeland policy, students were forced to return to “their homelands” to attend the newly built schools there.
The government was spending far more on White education than on Black education; R644 was spent annually for each White student, while only R42 was budgeted for a Black school child. In 1976 there were 257 505 pupils enrolled in Form 1 at high schools which had a capacity for only 38 000 students.
To alleviate the situation pupils who had passed their standard six examinations were requested to repeat the standard. This was met with great resentment by the students and their parents. Although the situation did not lead to an immediate revolt, it certainly served to build up tensions prior to the 1976 student uprising.
In 1975 the government was phasing out Standard Eight (or Junior Certificate (JC)). By then, Standard Six had already been phased out and many students graduating from Primary Schools were being sent to the emerging Junior Secondary Schools. It was in these Junior Secondary schools that the 50-50 language rule was to be applied.
The issue that caused massive discontent and made resentment boil over into the 1976 uprising was a decree issued by the Bantu Education Department. Deputy Minister Andries Treur nicht sent instructions to the School Boards, inspectors and principals to the effect that Afrikaans should be put on an equal basis with English as a medium of instruction in all schools. These instructions drew immediate negative reaction from various quarters of the community. The first body to react was the Tswana School Boards, which comprised school boards from Meadowlands, Dobsonville and other areas in Soweto. The minutes of the meeting of the Tswana School Board held on 20 January 1976 read:
"The circuit inspector told the board that the Secretary for Bantu Education has stated that all direct taxes paid by the Black population of South Africa are being sent to the various homelands for educational purposes there.
"In urban areas the education of a Black child is being paid for by the White population, that is English and Afrikaans speaking groups. Therefore the Secretary for Bantu Education has the responsibility of satisfying the English and Afrikaans-speaking people. Consequently, as the only way of satisfying both groups, the medium of instruction in all schools shall be on a 50-50 basis.... In future, if schools teach through a medium not prescribed by the department for a particular subject, examination question papers will only be set in the medium with no option of the other language".
Teachers also raised objections to the government announcement. Some Black teachers, who were members of the African Teachers Association of South Africa, complained that they were not fluent in Afrikaans. The students initially organised themselves into local cultural groups and youth clubs. At school there was a significant number of branches of the Students Christian Movements (SCMs), which were largely apolitical in character. SASM penetrated these formations between 1974 and 1976. And when conditions ripened for the outbreak of protests, SASM formed an Action Committee on 13 June 1976, which was later renamed the Soweto Student Representative Council (SSRC). They were conscientised and influenced by national organisations such as the Bl ack Peoples' Convention (BPC), South African Student Organisations (SASO)and by the Black Consciousness philosophy. They rejected the idea of being taught in the language of the oppressor.
The uprising took place at a time when liberation movements were banned throughout the country and South Africa was in the grip of apartheid. The protest started off peacefully in So wetobut it turned violent when the police opened fire on unarmed students. By the third day the unrest had gained momentum and spread to townships around Soweto and other parts of the country. The class of 1976 bravely took to the streets and overturned the whole notion that workers were the only essential force to challenge the apartheid regime. Indeed, they succeeded where their parents had failed. They not only occupied city centres but also closed schools and alcohol outlets.