On the eve of June 16, 1976, more than 10 000 school children braved the cold weather to make their way to Soweto, in Orlando Stadium for a rally while others spread throughout the country calling for an end to the decolonlized education system. The march was much anticipated and mobilized by the South African Students Movement’s Action Committee supported by the BCM.
The march was later known as Soweto Uprising, it became the second profound demonstration after Sharpville Massacre that occurred in March 21, 1960.
Following the Sharpville Massacre liberation movements such as Pan African Congress (PAC) and the African National Congress (ANC) were banned and their notable leaders were arrested on acts of terrorism and sabotage, while others flee from the country to exile.
While political landscape changed drastically, Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) came into effect to draw back South African black people to fight against the injustice system, racial segregation and inequalities.
The rise of the BCM led to the formation of South African Students Organisation (SASO), and raised the political consciousness of many students while others joined the wave of anti-Apartheid sentiment within the student community. The formation of SASO was against the adoption of Afrikaans language after it was declared as a compulsory medium of instruction for schools in 1974.
The emerging Black Consciousness philosophy was transforming the way young Black people thought, and it boosted their self esteem. The introduction of Afrikaans frustrated this change. According to then leader and founder of BCM Steve Biko, the difficulty of coping with a foreign language in schools caused ‘an inferiority complex.’ He said: “the language problem inculcates in many black students a sense of inadequacy. You tend to think that it is not just a matter of language. You tend to tie it up with intelligence.”
He added: “The kids were failing exams in thousands. This was because for many years Maths, Science and other subjects were taught in English.
“The sudden shift to Afrikaans gave rise to difficulties in the student’s understanding of jargon and technical terms,” Biko said.
According to one of the student leaders, Tsietsi Mashinini mentored by Onkgopotse Tiro who was one of the founding members of BCM, Mashinini highlighted that the inspiration for the youngsters did not come from the ANC and PAC movements in exile. Mashinini, who was the the student revolt, recalled thinking, “We were the real struggle [not the ANC under Oliver Tambo, the real heroes. [Youths] viewed the ANC as old and useless and saw themselves as the new fire.”
It appears that the fire began with Black Consciousness and its leading proponent, Stephen Bantu Biko. Biko had diagnosed why Black South Africans were too weak to free themselves years after most of Africa had become independent of the colonial powers.
On 13 June 1976 the South African Students Movement (SASM) Action Committee resolved to organise a peaceful protest march against the introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.
In June 16, the protest started off peacefully in Soweto but it turned violent when the police opened fire on unarmed students. By the third day the unrest had gained momentum and spread to townships around Soweto and other parts of the country. The class of 1976 bravely took to the streets and overturned the whole notion that workers were the only essential force to challenge the apartheid regime.
Indeed, they succeeded where their parents had failed. They not only occupied city centres but also closed schools and alcohol outlets.
The riots demonstrated the impact of Black Consciousness, and marked its emergence as a revolutionary consciousness which influenced and motivated Black students across the country to challenge oppressive structures and ideas.
On casualties, when protesters rallied, the police shoot directly at the children. Among the first students to be shot dead were 15- year-old Hastings Ndlovu and 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, who were shot at Orlando West High School.
The number of people who died is usually given as 176 with estimates up to 700. The number of wounded was estimated to be over a thousand people.
June 16 was declared a national holiday, and is commemorated as a Youth day, which honors all the young people who lost their lives in the struggle against Apartheid and Bantu Education.
However, there’s confusion of who really championed the June 16 rally, it is not the ANC nor the PAC, the victorious rally that mobilized thousands school students across the country was spearhead by Black Consciousness Movement in alliance with its student movements such as SASO and SASM.