How They Changed the World: Commemorating the Soweto Uprising
“History works through people and we have availed ourselves to history to work through us.”
These words of Bantu Stephen Biko, the founder of South Africa's Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), were top of mind last week. In large part because on June 16th, South Africa commemorated a significant day in the history of its anti-apartheid struggle and of youth activism.
On June 16, 1976, thousands of youth marched out of their schools to protest inequality in education. While the Bantu Education Act, which legally entrenched racial inequality in South African education, came into being in 1953, it was in 1975 when the imposition of Afrikaans—a creole language derived from the Dutch many colonial settlers spoke—as a medium of instruction was implemented. This move would disadvantage many students who were already learning in English, a foreign language, and who would be forced to learn in Afrikaans as well.
While this edict was the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back, the student protests were not only about language policy but addressing a system that regarded Black people as inferior and which sought to undermine their humanity, dignity, and agency.
Under the leadership of the South African Students Movement (SASM), the high school wing of BCM, thousands of youth were mobilized to protest. The plan was for students to leave their classrooms and to march to the nearby Orlando Stadium for a rally.
They never made it.
En route, protesters were met by tanks and heavily armed police who opened fire on the students.
Image by Courts Molony
One enduring image from the day is of Hector Pieterson, a 12-year-old boy who was killed by police. The image of him being carried by 18-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubo, with his 15-year-old sister Antoinette Pieterson running alongside them, appeared on news bulletins and front pages worldwide. Much like the footage of George Floyd's death at the hands of American police in 2020 (which was filmed and released by a then 17-year-old Darnella Frazier), this image forced many to reckon with the reality of state-sponsored brutality they had previously refused to acknowledge.
The peaceful protest initiated by students on June 16, 1976, became a nationwide, year-long uprising that many regard as a turning point in South Africa's liberation struggle. While official numbers vary, estimates are that 176 to 700 people were killed while thousands of others were detained.
Although the toll was unimaginable, as a result of the Soweto Uprising, calls for divestment and an international boycott of South Africa were strengthened; the African National Congress (ANC) and Pan African Congress (PAC)—liberation movements in exile—were invigorated by young recruits who joined them to fight for their freedom; and communities across South Africa were re-engaged in mass protests, which became a major contributor to the fall of the apartheid regime.
When students began marching in 1976, it is unlikely that anyone would have imagined the day's outcome or the lasting impact their activism would have. Yet because they availed themselves to history, they made an indelible contribution.
While the efforts of the class of 1976 were extraordinary, they are by no means singular. In each generation, we have seen youth at the vanguard of struggles to secure more equitable futures for us all. Our contemporary moment is no different. From environmental activists like Vanessa Nakate of Uganda, to Water Defenders at Standing Rock, to EndSARS—Nigerian youth's challenge to police brutality—and beyond, young activists are shaping the world in significant ways.
The question, is when engaging with young activists, what are our responses? Especially those of us who are no longer youth? Do we challenge their efforts with dismissive retorts about their inexperience and the fact that "they’ll learn when they get older”? Or do we embrace their efforts and become allies in achieving their new vision for the future?
As Biko says, “History works through people, and we have availed ourselves to history to work through us.” As Biko’s own life of activism, which began when he was a teenager, indicates, there is no prerequisite—age or otherwise—for being a change agent. The only requirement is that we make ourselves available to history and, I would add, to one another.
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