Youth Day: Understanding the history behind 16 June

We remember the youth of 1976 and what transpired on the day.

The iconic photo of Hector Pieterson being carried on 16 June 1976. Picture: Sam Nzima.

Youth Day, as it is popularly known, is a day in which South Africans honour the youth that was ambushed by the apartheid regime police in Soweto on 16 June 1976. On the day, over 500 young people, including school students, were killed.

16 June 1976

On the morning of 16 June 1976, thousands of black students from Soweto in the then Transvaal, now Gauteng, went on a protest rally from their schools to Orlando Stadium.

While black students were already getting conscientised by student organisations and the Black Consciousness Movement when the Bantu Education Act (1953) was instituted, they mobilised for a protest against an official order that made Afrikaans - along side English only - as the medium of instruction compulsory in black township schools throughout the country. The use of African languages was prohibited in these schools and the Constitution supported Afrikaans and English to be made the official languages of the country.

The rally was a peaceful protest intended to urge the government not to make Afrikaans compulsory in schools.

But when armed police were called in to disperse the crowds with dogs, teargas and bullets, they opened fire on the students. The protest turned into an uprising by students against the apartheid government, but hundreds of students were killed by police. And so the 1976 student uprising, as it was called, was born.

We remember them

The events of the day highlight a few individuals who took part in the protest. Among the first children killed was 15-year-old Hastings Ndlovu, and 12-year-old Hector Pieterson. We also remember Tsietsi Mashinini, who lead the students in protest.

Hector Pieterson

Hector was one of the first casualties of the 1976 uprising. He was killed by a shot fired directly at him, contrary to police claims that he was killed by a bullet "ricocheting off the ground". Pieterson was rushed to a nearby clinic where he was pronounced dead. He was 12 at the time of his death.

The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum was later opened in Soweto near the place where he was shot in Orlando West, on 16 June 2002. This was done in the honour of Hector and those who died around the country in the 1976 uprising.

Hastings Ndlovu

Although the media reports named Hector as the first child to die on 16 June 1976, Hastings Ndlovu was in fact the first child to be shot according to police records. Ndlovu's death did not become as iconic as Hector's because no photographer was present to record it and his name was not immediately known.

Tebogo 'Tsietsi' Mashinini

Tsietsi Mashinini was born on 27 January 1957 in Central Western Jabavu, Soweto. Mashinini became a historic icon for his contribution to student politics that led to the protests of 16 June 1976. On 13th June 1976, about 500 Soweto students met at the Orlando Donaldson Community Hall to discuss ways and means of confronting and challenging the Department of Bantu Education.

At the time that the peaceful march was agreed upon, Mashinini was the president of Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC).

The horrific events of 16 June resulted in Mashinini becoming the most wanted man in the country. The police offered a R500 reward for anyone with information that would lead to his arrest. In August 1976, Mashinini left South Africa for Botswana and later proceeded to the West Coast of Africa. He finally settled in Liberia, where he passed away in 1990.

16 June after a democratic South Africa

Although the protests of 16 June 1976 resulted in a number of casualties, the youth of 1976 played a role in fighting and overcoming the inequality and oppression caused by apartheid.

Following the 1976 uprisings, many young people left South Africa, crossing the border into the frontline states to join the liberation movement in exile.

Today, 16 June is a South African public holiday. There are Youth Day celebrations that are held country-wide in order to empower all South Africans and to remember those who lost their lives.

This article first appeared on CapeTalk : Youth Day: Understanding the history behind 16 June