It is a day violently etched on the South African collective conscience. It is the day that honours the deaths of hundreds of Soweto schoolchildren, a day that changes the course of the country’s history.
In 1953 the Apartheid Government enacted The Bantu Education Act, which established a Black Education Department in the Department of Native Affairs. The author of the legislation, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd (then Minister of Native Affairs, later Prime Minister), stated: “Natives [blacks] must be taught from an early age that equality with Europeans [whites] is not for them.”
Black people are not to receive an education that will lead them to aspire to positions they wouldn’t be allowed to hold in society. Instead they receive an education designed to provide them with skills to serve their own people in the homelands or to work in labouring jobs under whites.
It is cold and overcast as pupils gather at schools across Soweto on 16 June. At an agreed time, they set off for Orlando West Secondary School in Vilakazi Street, with thousands streaming in from all directions. The planned is to march from the school to the Orlando Stadium.
Once at the stadium, the plan is to agree on a list of grievances, and then possibly to march to the offices of the Transvaal department of education in Booysens, in Johannesburg’s southern suburbs.
Police form a wall facing the pupils, warning them to disperse – an order met with resistance. Teargas is fired into the crowd and police dogs released. In the chaos, children run back and forth, throwing stones at the police – who fire more teargas.
Then comes the first shot – straight into the crowd, without warning. Other policemen take up the signal and more shots are fired. Twelve-year-old Hector Pieterson falls to the ground, fatally wounded. He is picked up by Mbuyisa Makhubo, a fellow student, who runs with him towards the Phefeni Clinic, with Pieterson’s crying sister Antoinette running alongside.
Students target apartheid symbols: administrative offices, government buses and vehicles and municipal beer halls, which are first looted and then set alight. By the end of the day thick clouds of black smoke hang over the township, and the streets are littered with upturned vehicles, stones and rocks.
Anti-riot vehicles pour into Soweto, roadblocks are erected at all entrances, the army is placed on alert and helicopters hover overhead, dropping teargas canisters and shooting.
As night falls, the unlit township becomes even more terrifying: blinded by the night, police simply fire into the blackness. The students return the fire with their own weapons: bottles and stones, raising clenched fists and shouting “Amandla!” (Power).
The next day reveals the carnage: dead bodies and burnt-out shops and vehicles. The clashes continue, between police and students, joined by street gangs. Violence spreads to another volatile Johannesburg township, Alexandra, and then across South Africa. By 18 June, all schools in Soweto and Alexandra have been closed by the authorities.
Most of the victims are under 23, and shot in the back. Many others are left maimed or crippled. By the end of the year about 575 people have died across the country, 451 at the hands of police, according to SA History Online. The injured numbered 3 907, with the police responsible for 2 389 of them. About 5 980 people are arrested in the townships that year.
International solidarity movements are roused as an immediate consequence of the revolt. They soon give their support to the pupils, putting pressure on the apartheid government to temper its repressive rule. This pressure is maintained throughout the 1980s, until resistance movements are finally unbanned in 1990.
Thousands of the young leave the country, disillusioned with the government crackdown and harassed by the police. They never finish their education, choosing instead to go into military camps and receive training. Some are then infiltrated back into South Africa over the next decade, to perpetrate acts of sabotage. This is part of the steady onslaught against apartheid that finally broke its back towards the end of the 1980s.