In a crucial anti-apartheid event, thousands of schoolchildren took to the street on June 16, 1976 to protest against a government reform forcing schools to partly teach in Afrikaans, which was widely seen by the Black community as the language of the white oppressor.
Up to 20,000 children organized under the Soweto Students’ Representative Council’s Action Committee in Johannesburg marched from their schools to the Orlando Stadium, joined by many teachers. They were confronted to police blockades en route, and although the march was diverted, a police officer fired at the crowd, causing chaos and panic.
Unarmed students were shot at, including 13-year-old Hector Pieterson who became the symbol of the uprising.
This is the haunting photograph I took of an unarmed teenager shot by the police. #IAm76 http://t.co/kIrdrNQ8YX— Sam Nzima (@khayadlanga) June 16, 2015
South Africans are tweeting on the uprising’s 39th anniversary to remember the bloody protest, using the hashtag #Iam76. Sam Nzima, who took the photograph of 18-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubo carrying shot Pieterson (pictured alongside his sister) published other pictures from the day.
Kliengeld is firing into the air. 1,2,3,4,… 5!!! #Iam76 pic.twitter.com/aq7ra4FkEH— Lebo #IAm76 (@lebolukewarm) June 16, 2015
Thousands of students took part in the historical protests. The Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974 was forcing all Black schools to use both Afrikaans and English as languages of instruction. Afrikaans, a West-Germanic language, was deeply rooted in apartheid and associated with white oppression, and Black South Africans preferred learning in English. It was recognized as an official language in 1925 and the Afrikaner-dominated government used that as a pretext to make schools use Afrikaans in some subjects.
Resentment among Black pupils grew until April 1976 with students refusing to go to school, and rebellion spread throughout Soweto. The student council was formed as a result of the growing discontent to represent the schoolchildren’s voices. The mass rally organized on June 16 gathered thousands of pupils.
Thousands are gathered around a hill by Orlando West High. #IAm76 pic.twitter.com/Cq6R9Slykx— Lebo #IAm76 (@lebolukewarm) June 16, 2015
Students marched from Mofolo Park to the Hector Pieterson Museum.
The youth of 2015 marching to celebrate the #SeventySix youth. They demand a better life. pic.twitter.com/LKKYWkjPvg— #YouthOf76 (@Youthof76) June 15, 2015
This Twitter user has been giving a real-time account of the events of June 16, 1976.
The march halted & some people helped Tsietsi Mashinini climb up onto a tractor so that everyone could see him and hear him address. #IAm76— #YouthOf76 (@Youthof76) June 16, 2015
“Brothers & sisters, I appeal to you to keep calm & cool. We just received a report that the police are coming, do not provoke them.“ #IAm76— #YouthOf76 (@Youthof76) June 16, 2015
A single shot ran out, there is a split second of silence then pandemonium breaks out, children scream and run,four students fall. #IAm76— #YouthOf76 (@Youthof76) June 16, 2015
President Jacob Zuma and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela joined in the celebrations of Youth Day. Zuma praised the courage of the 1976 schoolchildren and said more universities and professional opportunities were needed for young people today.