Today is the anniversary of the Soweto uprisings, also known as June 16 (1976), the turning point for apartheid in South Africa. Starting as a peaceful protest by students against the enforced use of the Afrikaans language in the schools (Bantu Education Act 1953), 10,000 to 20,000 students took to the streets. The police opened fire against the peacefully protesting students “officially” killing 176 but in fact the death toll was closer to 700. One thousand were wounded. The images of unarmed students being killed and wounded pushed international opinion increasingly to the side of the blacks, exposing the literal brutality of the apartheid regime to the world. The United Nations passed Security Council Resolution 392 condemning the response of the apartheid regime and reaffirming the right of self-determination for South African people. Even Henry Kissinger commented on the negativity that this incident cast upon the entire country. The protest spread across South Africa. Though it took another 14 years for Mandella to be released from prison, there never again was peace in South Africa until apartheid was dismantled. The Soweto uprisings unleashed a flood of political protest that would never be suppressed.
One of the first students killed in the Soweto uprisings was Hector Pieterson, 12 years old. His picture (shown above), taken by the photographer Sam Nzima, has become the iconic symbol and rallying cry for freedom and the end of apartheid. (Hector is carried by 18 year old Mbuyisa Makhubo, with Hector’s sister to his right.)
The fact that this turning point was driven by the youth of the country is not insignificant. In fact, this day is a public holiday known as National Youth Day in South Africa and is a demonstration of the power of young people in forging political change and in transforming their world.