“Our parents are prepared to suffer under the white man’s rule. They have been living for years under these laws and they have become immune to them. But we strongly refuse to swallow an education that is designed to make us slaves in the country of our birth.”
– Soweto Student, 1976
So often our society rejects or ignores young people. We need to wait our turn, we’re told; we don’t understand how the world works.
But a lot of times that’s backwards—young people are so important because they’re on the outside looking in, objectively observing the world that refuses to let them in. That was the case in apartheid South Africa, where thousands of black students demanded to be treated with respect and equality regardless of what adults told them they couldn’t do.
For decades, the black population of South Africa had been denied adequate education under the ruthless apartheid regime. In 1961, only 10 percent of black teachers had a high school diploma, and white schools were given much more funding. Blacks were given a different curriculum, one designed only to prepare them for laboring jobs under whites. The situation was already tense, and in 1976, it finally exploded.
In 1974, the South African government passed the Afrikaans Medium Decree—a law that required classes to be taught entirely in either English or Afrikaans. For many blacks, Afrikaans was a representation of the repression and cruelty of apartheid. It was the language of European oppressors, and now black students were forced to learn it.
Full of energy and potential—and not knowing or caring that this was simply “the way things were”—black students took action. In 1968, the African Students Movement (ASM) was born, a coalition of black students aiming to give the African population a voice. The ASM staged a series of boycotts throughout the month of June, eventually organizing a mass demonstration to oppose the law. The students made a pact not to tell their parents, knowing that they would try to stop the protest.
On June 17, tens of thousands of students marched on a secondary school in Soweto, a section of Johannesburg. The police were sent in, forming a line in front of the march and demanding that they go home. When the students bravely refused, police dogs were released and teargas was fired. Several accounts told of policemen shooting into the peaceful crowd, and then chaos ensued. Students began throwing bottles and stones at police, who continued to fire their pistols.
When dawn rose the next day, at least 23 were found dead and hundreds more injured. The rioting continued throughout the country, as students gained a new sense of empowerment as the story of Soweto spread. Police couldn’t quell the students, even with force, and protests continued for the rest of the year.
The riots garnered international attention—captured most powerfully in the famous photograph of 13-year old Hector Pieterson carried away after being shot by police. The voices of children carried all around the world, and the apartheid government was never able to regain the power they had enjoyed for decades. A new generation had made their voices heard, refusing to accept the discrimination and hatred to which their parents had already resigned themselves. And to this day, June 16 is celebrated as Youth Day in South Africa.
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