Youth Day, 16 June, is a national holiday that commemorates the 1976 student uprisings in Soweto. In 1953 the National Party government of South Africa introduced The Bantu Education Act, which segregated the education system along the lines of race. While this act enabled more children to attend school, it forced children of color into a secondary and substandard education system designed to produce a more docile workforce. Overwhelming frustration began to take hold of communities as a result of this exclusionary educational system causing many children to drop out of school. In 1976, the government took another step to alienate the majority of non-white South Africans when they introduced the compulsory use of Afrikaans in classes starting from Grade 7. As the majority of South Africans did not speak Afrikaans as their first language, teachers were not able to teach their subjects and students had difficulties learning. Very dissatisfied with the direction the government had taken the education system, the youth in Soweto decided to demonstrate. Over 20.000 students gathered on 16 June to march to the office of the department of education in Booysens to express their dissatisfaction.
The peaceful demonstrators were met by armed police and military vehicles. Without warning, a policeman shot into the crowd. The unprovoked shot tore through the crowd and struck twelve year old Hector Pieterson. The photo of his lifeless body has become a symbol of uprisings in Soweto.
The official number of deaths after the brutal conflict is only 23, but unofficial numbers range anywhere from 200-600 and most of the victims were younger than 23. The student uprisings of 1976 were a turning point in the long struggle for liberation and helped to guide South Africa to a more inclusive, democratic order. As South Africans stop work to remember this day, let’s all take a moment to remember the lessons history has taught us.
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