Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Ten thousand schoolchildren protest against segregated education: 

The Soweto uprising

On June 16 of 1976, more than 10,000 schoolchildren went to the streets in Soweto (a poor South African township close to Johannesburg) to protest educational apartheid.  As they were walking and singing peacefully for a planned rally at a stadium, a white policeman threw a tear-gas canister without any warning, and then the rest of the riot police fired their automatic weapons on the students, killing at least four people. This ignited what is known as the Soweto Uprising, the bloodiest episode of riots between protestors and police since the early sixties. By the end of 1977, the violence had resulted in  more than thousand people dead and many more injured (Thinkquest, 1999).

The township of Soweto grew out of the economic and political reality of Southern Africa. During the early part of the 20th century, many rural Africans moved to Johannesburg to gain employment in the mines, and have access to better economic opportunities.  The South African government came up with the following solution to this movement of people:

"In part due to white fears of black self-rule in the squatters' camps, the South African government in 1948 set aside 65 square kilometres (25 square miles) of land to accommodate the workers. They built thousands of two-room houses and named the new township Soweto, an abbreviation of the words "South-Western Townships." Its population grew quickly as the result of continued voluntary migration and the new policies of the Afrikaner-dominated National Party government, which forcibly resettled blacks into townships. (This led to the situation where) poverty, overcrowding, and oppression characterized life in Soweto under apartheid" (Tuttle, 1999)

As with all institutional systems under apartheid, the school that a person could attend was determined by his or her skin colour.  This began in 1950, when "South Africa had set up its segregated Bantu Education system, forcing blacks to pay to attend decrepit schools with over-crowded classrooms, under-qualified teachers and shoddy curricula. Meanwhile, public education for whites was free" (Thinkquest, 1999).   In 1975, the government ruled that Afrikaans was to be the language of instruction for all academic classes, where practical and technical classes would continue to be taught in English. This created great amounts of discontent as Afrikaans was considered to be the language of the oppressor, and severely limited opportunities for black students as they now had to be proficient in both English and Afrikaans in order to succeed. In fact, this policy ensured  the academic failure of black students (Thinkquest, 1999). This situation, added to many years of accumulated unjustices, led the Soweto students to organize that protest rally in June of 1976.

The Soweto uprising constituted a turning point in the Anti-Apartheid movement.   After the killings of the high school students, the Anti-Apartheid movement gained internal strength and international attention. Within South Africa, a large number of youth left the country to join the African National Congress (ANC) armed wing. At the same time, members of the government and civil society groups began to realize the necessity for fundamental change.  At the international level, there was an increase of economic and political pressures on South Africa,  severing its relationships and trade with other industrialized countries (Aaldijk et al 1998).

Since that tragic day of 1976, many significant improvements have taken place in South Africa . The government now represents all South African people, and the extremely repressive and divisive apartheid system has been dismantled.  All South African citizens have the right to vote. The apartheid system has been dismantled.  In order to right past wrongs, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu was set up. The right to education for all is also enshrined in the Constitution. Regarding language, the constitution states that "each person has the right to instruction in the language of his or her choice where this is reasonably practicable" (University of Cape Town).  

On June 16, 1994, on the anniversary of the Soweto uprising, Nelson Mandela addressed government and youth leaders regarding the South African achievements since 1976.  In his speech, he remarked that "the brave young people of that generation are today eminent premiers, ministers and members of national and provincial parliament". He noted that finally the people of South Africa were free to elect the government of their choice. Mandela also talked about challenges to be faced in the future. For instance, he spoke about social conditions, street children, the creation of a culture of learning and teaching, the elimination of school fees and school crime. His speech led to  the establishment of a National Youth Commission, a youth parliament, and a Cabinet Committee on Youth.

In retrospect, the South African anti-apartheid movement was one of the most successful social movements of the 20th century.  Whereas the Soweto uprising sparked a movement that led to the dismantling of apartheid, it is extremely tragic that so many young people were killed on the road to justice and democracy. Those schoolchildren who were murdered on June 16, 1976 will always be remembered by new generations of students in South Africa and everywhere in the world.


1. Aaldjik, A., Antilla, H., Park, H. & Minh, P. (1998) Cultural Aspects of Doing Business in South Africa (online). Available: (April 7, 2001)

2. Mandela, N. (1994). Address by President Nelson Mandela on the Anniversary of the Soweto Uprising on 16 June 1976 (online). Available: (April 7, 2001)

3. Team 27629, Thinkquest (1999). 1976: The Soweto Uprising (online). Available: (April 7, 2001)

4. Tuttle, K. (1999). Soweto, South Africa  (online). Available: (April 7, 2001)

5. University of Capetown (2000) Presentation: Language and Intergroup Relations (online). Available: (April 7, 2001).

For further information:

Prepared by Maureen Anglin and Daniel Schugurensky (OISE/UT)

April 2001

DS Home Page     Back to Index     Suggest or Submit a Moment

© 1996-2001 Daniel Schugurensky. All Rights Reserved. Design and maintenance by LMS.
Last updated on July 07, 2002.