June 16, 1976
On the morning of June 16, 1976, between 10,000 and 20,000 black students walked from their schools to Orlando Stadium for a rally to protest against having to learn through Afrikaans in school. Many students who later participated in the protest arrived at school that morning without prior knowledge of the protest, yet agreed to become involved. The protest was planned by the Soweto Students’ Representative Council’s (SSRC) Action Committee, with support from the wider Black Consciousness Movement. Teachers in Soweto also supported the march after the Action Committee emphasized good discipline and peaceful action.
Tsietsi Mashinini led students from Morris Isaacson High School to join up with others who walked from Naledi High School. The students began the march only to find out that police had barricaded the road along their intended route. The leader of the action committee asked the crowd not to provoke the police and the march continued on another route, eventually ending up near Orlando High School. The crowd of between 3,000 and 10,000 students made their way towards the area of the school. Students sang and waved placards with slogans such as, ‘Down with Afrikaans’, ‘Viva Azania’ and ‘If we must do Afrikaans, Vorster must do Zulu’.
The police set their dog on the protesters, who responded by killing it. The police then began to shoot directly at the children. Among the first students to be shot dead were 15-year-old Hastings Ndlovu and 12-year-old Hector Pieterson, who were shot at Orlando West High School. The photographer, Sam Nzima, took a photograph of a dying Hector Pieterson as he was carried away by Mbuyisa Makhubo and accompanied by his sister, Antoinette Sithole. The photograph became the symbol of the Soweto uprising. The police attacks on the demonstrators continued and 23 people died on the first day in Soweto. Among them was Dr. Melville Edelstein, who had devoted his life to social welfare among blacks. He was stoned to death by the mob and left with a sign around his neck proclaiming ‘Beware Afrikaners’.
The violence escalated, as bottle stores and beer halls—seen as outposts of the apartheid government—were targeted, as were the official outposts of the state. The violence abated by nightfall. Police vans and armoured vehicles patrolled the streets throughout the night.
Emergency clinics were swamped with injured and bloody children. The police requested that the hospital provide a list of all victims with bullet wounds to prosecute them for rioting. The hospital administrator passed this request to the doctors, but the doctors refused to create the list. Doctors recorded bullet wounds as abscesses.
The 1,500 heavily armed police officers deployed to Soweto on 17 June carried weapons including automatic rifles, stun guns, and carbines. They drove around in armoured vehicles with helicopters monitoring the area from the sky. The South African Army was also ordered on standby as a tactical measure to show military force. Crowd control methods used by South African police at the time included mainly dispersement techniques.
June 16th or Youth Day, as it is popularly known, is now a public holiday in South Africa, commemorating the protest which resulted in the Soweto Uprising of 1976.