Soweto: the Black students’ rebellion of 1976

On the fortieth anniversary of the 1976 Soweto Rebellion in South Africa, we reprint two articles from International Viewpoint, the English-language on-line journal of the Fourth International.

The author of the first article, Noor Nieftagodien, is the head of the History Workshop at Wits University. The second author, Leigh-Ann Naidoo, is currently a PHD student in the Wits School of Education. She was actively involved in the Wits chapter of the Fees Must Fall movement


JUNE 16—It’s 40 years today since a peaceful demonstration by Black students in Soweto was met by brutal police violence, resulting in the death of 23 people.

The national uprising by students in 1976 marked a decisive turning point in South Africa’s history. Together with the Durban strikes of 1973, it shattered the political quiescence that followed the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. On June 16, thousands of Black students in Soweto embarked on a peaceful march to object to the introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. But the police responded with violence, killing Hector Pieterson, Hastings Ndlovu, and several other young Black children. As a result, what started as a protest against the state’s language policy rapidly transformed into a struggle against “the system,” which spread across the country.

Henceforth townships such as Soweto, Alexandra, and Bonteheuwel became the epicentres of the struggle against apartheid. A defining feature of the 1976 uprising was the decisive entry of Black students onto the stage of history. Until the 1960s, the number of Africans in schools remained relatively low. But the urban African population was growing, especially the number of young people. And industry required a larger pool of industrial labour. So there was a rapid expansion of schooling for Africans.

In 1976 there were 3.8 million Africans in schools. Nearly 10% percent of those were in secondary schools. In Soweto alone the number of secondary school students increased from approximately 12,500 to more than 34,000.

What these figures highlight is the emergence of a new social force in South Africa. They shared similar experiences. They were based at institutions where they could be relatively easily organized into a significant political force. Once mobilized behind the banner for liberation, Black youth became leading actors in the struggle to defeat apartheid. The trigger that ignited this transformation was the apartheid government’s determination to impose its racist policies on Black South Africans.

Bantu Education aimed to entrench the oppression of Africans and to prepare them for unskilled employment. Apartheid’s foremost ideologue, H.F. Verwoerd, insisted there was no place for Africans “in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour … What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? That is quite absurd. Education must train people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the sphere in which they live.”

According to this racist rationale, education for Africans was designed to prepare them to tend to the needs of white society. To meet this objective, they had to be taught in the languages of whites: English and Afrikaans. Although this policy was on the books from the 1950s, the government insisted on its implementation from the early 1970s.

At the time, the apartheid rulers felt emboldened by the successful repression of Black resistance. They imagined that their ideology would remain unchallenged.

The spirit of Tiro

In retrospect, the events of 16 June 1976 shook the country to the core. But at the time they caught many by surprise. Consequently, one of the main narratives about the rebellion has been that it was a spontaneous outburst of anger by Black students. For the apartheid state and white society, this version conformed to their racist belief that Black protests were irrational and destructive, and that Black students could not formulate political demands or organise protests without the incitement of outside “agitators”.

In fact, the historic march was the culmination of months of mobilisation and years of rebuilding township-based resistance organisations. From the early 1970s a largely autonomous process of building political cells and networks began to unfold in townships across the country. The first cells were small, disconnected, and often temporary. Many of them were created by school students who were searching for ways collectively to develop their political education and to mobilise limited forms of protest.

Most of these political activities were either inspired or directly initiated by the Black Consciousness Movement. Its popularity grew rapidly after the 1969 launch of the university-based South African Students’ Organisation (SASO). In March 1973, SASO initiated the formation of the South African Students’ Movement (SASM) to organize among school students. Black Consciousness ideas of psychological liberation, Black pride and leadership, and challenging the status quo enjoyed strong support from the majority of students in these movements.

This spirit of Black defiance was most memorably demonstrated in April 1972 at Turfloop University, when the president of the SRC , Onkgopotse Tiro, delivered his historic graduation speech in which he mounted a scathing critique of white authority. For this he was expelled. This led to a mass solidarity strike at the university. Thereafter, Tiro was briefly employed as a part-time history teacher in 1973 at Morris Isaacson School in Soweto, where he inspired students to become politically involved. Tiro and other BC figures embodied confidence and defiance. But it was the loss of fear that they instilled that arguably defined the youthful uprising of 1976.

The road to June 16

Opposition to the imposition of Afrikaans commenced within weeks of the new academic year in 1976. Students at Thomas Mofolo Secondary School in Soweto were among the first to take action. On 24 February, they confronted the principal about the new language policy. Sporadic protests occurred between March and mid-May. They tended to be confined to individual schools and were usually quickly quelled by the police. During this time, Phefeni Junior Secondary emerged as a prominent site of mobilisation, particularly the Form Two students who were directly affected by the introduction of Afrikaans. They first employed a “go slow” tactic to bring their dissatisfaction to the school’s attention.

When their pleas were rejected, the students embarked on a class boycott from 16 May. This action introduced a critical shift in gear of the protests: on 19 May, schools in the surrounding area launched a solidarity boycott, involving approximately 1,600 students. An informal coordinating body was established, mainly comprising junior secondary schools, which attempted to unite these separate struggles. Seth Mazibuko, a senior student at Phefeni, was a pivotal figure in these efforts.

A week later, under the pressure of the mounting protests in Soweto, the annual General Students’ Council of SASM passed a resolution offering unambiguous support to the junior students: it undertook “[t]o fully pledge solidarity with the schools on strike against Afrikaans being used as a medium of instruction [and] to actively sympathise with those schools on strike.” Thereafter, SASM leaders became actively involved in the movement and worked with the coordinating committee of the junior secondary schools to convene a meeting of student representatives from all over Soweto on Sunday, 13 June, at the Donaldson Community Centre in Orlando East.

This was an historic meeting at which activists committed themselves to support the boycotting students by organising solidarity action. An Action Committee was established, comprising members of the SASM leadership and the junior secondary schools’ coordinating committee, including Tsietsi Mashinini, Murphy Morobe, Seth Mazibuko, David Kutumela and Isaiah Molefe. The scene was set for the march that would change the course of history.

June 16, 17, and 18 witnessed unprecedented state violence, first in the streets of Soweto and then in townships across the country, resulting in scores of deaths and hundreds of injured. At the same time, students in Alexandra, East Rand, Cape Town, and elsewhere mobilized solidarity action with their Soweto comrades, producing the first national anti-apartheid movement since the early 1960s. Having failed to crush this movement, the state abandoned its Afrikaans medium policy on July 6.

Student and worker unity

This victory did not end the struggle. Students now refocused their campaign against state repression and Bantu Education as a whole. A crucial question posed then was how to extend the struggle beyond the schools, especially by involving parents and workers. Black parents have been accused of acquiescing in apartheid and being cowed into submission by state repression. Their apparent silence over the issue of Afrikaans has also been contrasted with the militancy of the students’ rebellion. While this may be true for many parents, it would be wrong to assume that parents or teachers did not object to the state’s policy on Afrikaans.

In fact, some of them voiced opposition as early as 1974, but mainly through the politically moderate School Boards, which were generally ignored by the white education authorities. Mr Kambule, the Orlando High principal, captured the generational divergence on this issue early June 1976: “School children are doing exactly what the parents and everybody feels about Afrikaans—only they had the courage to stand up against it.”

Undoubtedly, many parents feared state repression, which had become increasingly brutal during the 1960s. They also feared what would happen to their children. Nonetheless, some parents had begun to organize themselves to address the education crisis, and on June 17 the Soweto Parents’ Association (SPA) met student leaders to show their solidarity. Soon thereafter, the SPA renamed itself the Black Parents’ Association, which went on to play an important role in Soweto’s political resistance. In early August the Action Committee established the Soweto Students’ Representative Council (SSRC), consisting of two representatives per school, to coordinate students’ struggles. Tsietsi Mashinini was elected as chairman. The new student leadership immediately launched a campaign for the immediate release of all detained students. The first action was a march to the police headquarters in Johannesburg.

Crucially, the SSRC appealed to parents and workers to stay away from work and join their march to John Vorster Square. On 4 August, approximately 20,000 residents marched along the Soweto Highway, the main road between the township and the city. Although the police stopped the march, the action highlighted the power of solidarity between students and workers. Emboldened by this success, the SSRC called for a second stayaway for 23 to 25 August. This was by all accounts a successful demonstration of the SSRC’s capacity to unite students and workers behind clear political demands.

Most significantly, a reported 75% of Johannesburg’s African workforce was absent on 23 August. This was not only an improvement on the figures of the previous stayaway, but also represented the largest strike in Johannesburg since the early 1960s. But, there was one constituency that did not heed the call for a stayaway: the hostel dwellers, who tended to be aloof from the township’s life and politics.

Students also seemed to have made little effort to explain their campaign to the hostel dwellers. In fact, they viewed these migrant workers as strike-breakers and confronted them, which led to violence. At this point, the police joined in a sinister alliance with the Urban Bantu Council to mobilise the aggrieved hostel dwellers to launch an attack on township residents.

On the morning of 24 August a crowd of hostel dwellers, armed with an assortment of “traditional weapons,” descended on Orlando West and Meadowlands, attacking young people indiscriminately. The community organized self-defence and over the next few days Meadowlands and Orlando West resembled war zones, which led to dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries.

Within days the SSRC issued a pamphlet aiming to make common cause with the hostel dwellers: “The students have nothing against people living in the hostels, they are our parents, they are victims of the notorious migrant labour system. They are forced to live hundreds of miles away from their families, their needs and grievances are ignored by the powers that be … The students reject, in toto, the entire oppressive system with its largely pocket institutions like the UBCs and the bantustans, those toy telephones are designed to divide the Black community. United we stand”.

This intervention was part of a concerted effort to build unity among the different sectors of Soweto’s population. It aimed particularly to involve hostel dwellers early and directly in plans for a third stayaway from 13 to 15 September. The shift in tactics yielded positive results and, in sharp contrast to the August events, migrant workers were active in mobilising support for the planned action. As a result, the stayaway was the most successful of the three strikes called by the SSRC.

In fact, the September strike was a national success, with large numbers of coloured and African workers in Cape Town joining the action. The generation of 1976 understood that in order to challenge the power of the state, it was necessary to forge a strategic alliance with workers. In the years following the uprising, many young activists joined the independent trade union movement and built civic organisations, which laid the organisational basis for the unity of workers and students in the 1980s. A similar strategic task now confronts the current generation of Black student activists.

 Soweto anniversary :

Is our 1976 moment still to come?


JUNE 17—In June 1976, exactly 40 years ago, thousands of high school students took to the streets. They were resisting the apartheid state’s insistence that Afrikaans be a compulsory medium of instruction in schools along with English. In October 2015, thousands of university students across the country acted in unison against the annual fee increase. Some have argued that this was our “76 moment” in the new dispensation. I will suggest a different interpretation. I think that #FeesMustFall is more like the 1968/69 moment of university student resistance than the 1976 high school student uprising. The late 60s 1968/69 was a key moment in the world when students pushed the civil rights and anti-war politics of the time into a global movement of cultural resistance.

In South Africa, 1968/69 was the pivotal time where Steve Biko and other university students formed the South African Student Organisation (Saso), a radical Black student organisation that developed the philosophy of Black Consciousness (BC). This BC philosophy and practice centered the Black self through reflection and self-love. It insisted on connecting Black struggles across communities and national borders with a Pan African outlook. Saso also critiqued the university system, whilst at the same time developing its own educational programmes.

There were leadership-training programmes for university students and “formation schools” for high school students and community members. Saso significantly changed the thinking about education and society from 1968/69 onwards—they stopped fighting for education equal to white education, and started criticising white, privileged education as a domesticating or dominating one.

40 years later

The much publicized 2015/16 student resistance began at the University of Cape Town (UCT ) in March 2015 when shit was thrown on the statue of Cecil John Rhodes. This was a protest against the continuation of institutionalised racism at UCT . This racism was symbolized by the central place which the statue continued to occupy, two decades after the fall of legal apartheid.

The protest started with a critique of signage and heritage at the university. It quickly began questioning the emptiness of transformation by insisting on a process and programme for decolonizing the university. The three-week occupation at UCT inspired similar Black-led student movements across university campuses: the Black Student Movement at the University Currently Known as Rhodes, the Black Student Stokvel at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Open Stellenbosch at the University of Stellenbosch, October6 at Wits and the University of Johannesburg, Tuks UPrising at the University of Pretoria, and Reform Pukke at North West University.

For students, this meant a total change of the university as an institution. The starting point was understanding the devastating role and repercussions of colonialism and later apartheid, in order to figure out how to dismantle the institution of the university with its colonial roots. Students inside and outside of these student formations started to insist that language policy be relooked at, that the curriculum be reformed, that the faculty be more demographically representative, that institutional and interpersonal racism be eliminated, that the symbols and signage be changed, that the dehumanizing system of outsourcing on campuses be ended, and more.

Students started using creative and disruptive forms of protest to put pressure on university managements to respond to their demands. These started out with calls for statues to fall and for changes to the names of buildings and to the artworks that hung on their walls. They were followed by exposing the actual racial and gender make-up of university staff. At Stellenbosch University a documentary film was made and distributed detailing the experiences of racism by Black students on their campus.

Many people agreed with the sentiment of the students’ demands. Fewer people agreed with the urgency and methods that students were using to insist that things change faster than before, that things change immediately, and more structurally. Everyone started talking about the merits of the student demands:

  • Was it necessary to remove statues?
  • Was that erasing history?
  • Whose history and heritage was being protected and preserved at universities?
  • Why are there still so few Black professors and even fewer women?
  • Were these students being racist by insisting that white people refrain from trying to insert themselves into protest spaces?
  • Would it be opening a Pandora’s box if university managements responded to the pressure and demands of students?
  • How many texts by Black authors would need to be added to curricula before students were happy, and how would these relate to the dominant Eurocentric curricula?
  • How do we deal with rape culture and male students and professors who are known sex pests?
  • Can we afford free quality higher education?

There were no easy answers, but the students succeeded in getting everyone talking about the unacceptable state of universities in 2015. Protests continued at individual campuses for reasons specific to those campuses until October 6, when a national day of protest took place.

Put the last first, and the first last

Students, academic staff and outsourced workers at the University of Johannesburg and Wits met collectively from July 2015, in order to respond to the questions raised by RMF a few months earlier. People sat together to think through what a critical relationship to the university could look like. There was a strong sentiment that universities had become talk shops and that little had actually changed since the first democratic elections. As a result, any collective engagement to change universities would need not only to think and talk about the problem but also to act to change it.

A framing question was suggested, debated and agreed upon: What is a decolonized public African university? On action, there was agreement to follow Frantz Fanon’s suggestion: in the decolonisation process, “put the last first, and the first last”. There was consensus that outsourced workers at universities were definitely “the last.” Many had been working for the university for many years and were still receiving no benefits. They were treated like second-rate university community members, and paid slave wages of R1800-2000 per month.

The campaign for fees to fall resulted in university campuses being shut down by students across the country. Within ten days of the first shutdown, President Zuma announced a 0% fee increase for 2016. We heard later that this commitment would be mostly paid for by the rerouting of unspent government funds from the Department of Basic Education budget, originally meant to upgrade school infrastructure. Surely this decision is one that will have repercussions and resistance from the high school students and schools where those funds were desperately needed?

The struggle in 2016

Student struggles are continuing. But the fledgling movement has stumbled. Flat, nonpartisan structures have been a very necessary experiment in more participatory forms of democracy. But how can they be made sustainable? University managements have placed the movement under severe pressure with tactics including:

  • securitised campuses, with increased numbers of riot style private security on campus
  • criminalisation of disruptive protest through court interdicts, which keep police on standby
  • expensive legal teams
  • prolonged internal disciplinary processes.

This has meant that the space to organise on campuses has been closed down and key student organizers have been excluded. In addition, different political formations have tried to capture control of the movement. And there have been serious divisions around questions of gender and sexuality. But even as these pressures have mounted, student organising and regrouping has continued in varying ways.

The battle to win a radical form of insourcing continues at universities, as management reneges on as much as it can, to make the process more affordable. Students and workers have continued to support each other’s struggles under difficult conditions. Workers have also managed to self-organise outside of traditional union structures as they have recognised the inability of union structures at present.

From university students to school students and communities

There have been various attempts to connect university student struggles with community and high school ones. As in the lead up to the 1976 uprising, the ideas of the new student movement have filtered into broader community discourse and struggles through the media. Some of the more radical student activists have been excluded, suspended, or expelled from university campuses, as the Saso students were forty-odd years ago.

And like the Saso students, they have returned to their communities armed with critical questions of transformation and power, and more committed to spreading at least the BC and Pan African philosophies and practices. So last year looks more like a 1968/69 moment. Black students organised themselves to reflect, critique, imagine and action a different kind of university, education system and society. Now, we have entered a time when communities and schools are figuring out their own learning from the student movement questions and actions of the last year. The possibility exists that a “1976” high school student uprising is yet to come.

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