It took a single day for young South Africans to change the course of South Africa’s history, setting us on the path to democracy. That day was 16 June 1976. Here is an hour-by-hour account of events as they unfolded, 40 years ago.
Background: An education denied
By 1976, the frustration had been building for a generation. Young black South Africans knew their schooling was the worst in South Africa. In 1953, the new National Party government had passed the Bantu Education Act, which made sure black youth were educated only to the point that they could be servants to white people’s prosperity. Before then, South Africa had a rich tradition of mission schools. Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, and many others had been given the opportunity to become some of the best minds in South Africa as a result of their quality schooling. But the apartheid government wanted the threat of bright African minds to stop. Many mission schools were closed. By 1976, students’ frustration reached boiling point when the government began to introduce Afrikaans as the language of teaching. Black students, particularly in the cities, were fluent only in African languages and in English. Few knew Afrikaans well enough to be taught in it, let alone write exams in the language.
It is a Wednesday morning, 16 June 1976. Today, the Soweto Students Action Committee have organised the township’s high school pupils to march to Orlando Stadium, as a protest against the government’s new language policy. The student leaders come mainly from three Soweto schools: Naledi High in Naledi, Morris Isaacson High in Mofolo, and Phefeni Junior Secondary, close to Vilakazi Street in Orlando. The protest is well organised. It is to be conducted peacefully. The plan is for students to march from their schools, picking up others along the way, until they meet at Uncle Tom’s Municipal Hall. From there they are to continue to Orlando Stadium.
Students gather at Naledi High. The mood is high-spirited and cheerful. At assembly the principal gives the students his support and wishes them good luck. Before they start the march, Action Committee chairperson Tepello Motopanyane addresses the students, emphasising that the march must be disciplined and peaceful. At the same time, students gather at Morris Isaacson High. Action Committee member Tsietsi Mashinini speaks, also emphasising peace and order. The students set out. On the way they pass other schools and numbers swell as more students join the march. Some Soweto students are not even aware that the march is happening. “The first time we heard of it was during our short break,” said Sam Khosa of Ibhongo Secondary School. “Our leaders informed the principal that students from Morris Isaacson were marching. We then joined one of the groups and marched.” There are eventually 11 columns of students marching to Orlando Stadium – up to 10 000 of them, according to some estimates.
There have been a few minor skirmishes with police along the way. But now the police barricade the students’ path, stopping the march. Tietsi Mashinini climbs on a tractor so everyone can see him, and addresses the crowd. “Brothers and sisters, I appeal to you – keep calm and cool. We have just received a report that the police are coming. Don’t taunt them, don’t do anything to them. Be cool and calm. We are not fighting.” It is a tense moment for police and students. Police retreat to wait for reinforcements. The students continue their march.
The marchers arrive at today’s Hector Pieterson Square. Police again stop them. It was here that everything changed. There have been different accounts of what actually started the shooting. The atmosphere is tense. But the students remain calm and well-ordered. Suddenly a white policeman lobs a teargas canister into the front of the crowd. People run out of the smoke dazed and coughing. The crowd retreats slightly, but remain facing the police, waving placards and singing. Police have now surrounded the column of students, blocking the march at the front and behind. At the back of the crowd a policeman sets his dog on the students. The students retaliate, throwing stones at the dog. A policeman at the back of the crowd draws his revolver. Black journalists hear someone shout, “Look at him. He’s going to shoot at the kids.” A single shot rings out. Hastings Ndlovu, 14 years old, is the first to be shot. He dies later in hospital. After the first shot, police at the front of the crowd panic and open fire.