Tribute to the Martyrs of Freedom Africa’s images and voices of hope

Emotionally the images are painful and sad but on an intellectual level and in retrospect, the pictures are an image and voice of hope as well as symbol of a the fight for freedom which we all enjoy today and future generations will also enjoy.


In 1953 the Apartheid Government enacted The Bantu Education Act, which established a Black Education Department in the Department of Native Affairs. The role of this department was to compile a curriculum that suited the "nature and requirements of the black people." The author of the legislation, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd (then Minister of Native Affairs, later Prime Minister), stated: "Natives [blacks] must be taught from an early age that equality with Europeans [whites] is not for them." Black people were not to receive an education that would lead them to aspire to positions they wouldn't be allowed to hold in society. Instead they were to receive education designed to provide them with skills to serve their own people in the homelands or to work in laboring jobs under whites.

Bantu Education did enable more children in Soweto to attend school than the old missionary system of education, but there was a severe lack of facilities. Nationally public to teacher ratios went up from 46:1 in 1955 to 58:1 in 1967. Overcrowded classrooms were used on a rota basis. There was also a lack of teachers, and many of those who did teach were underqualified. In 1961, only 10 per cent of black teachers held a matriculation certificate [last year of high school].

Because of the government's homelands policy, no new high schools were built in Soweto between 1962 and 1971 -- students were meant to move to their relevant homeland to attend the newly built schools there. Then in 1972 the government gave in to pressure from business to improve the Bantu Education system to meet business's need for a better trained black workforce. 40 new schools were built in Soweto. Between 1972 and 1976 the number of pupils at secondary schools increased from 12,656 to 34,656. One in five Soweto children were attending secondary school.

This increase in secondary school attendance had a significant effect on youth culture. Previously, many young people spent the time between leaving primary school and obtaining a job (if they were lucky) in gangs, which generally lacked any political consciousness. But now secondary school students were forming their own, much more politicized identity. Clashes between gangs and students only furthered the sense of student solidarity.

In 1975 South Africa entered a period of economic depression. Schools were starved of funds -- the government spent R644 a year on a white child's education but only R42 on a black child. The Department of Bantu Education then announced it was removing the Standard 6 year from primary schools. Previously, in order to progress to Form 1 of secondary school, a pupil had to obtain a first or second-degree pass in Standard 6. Now the majority of pupils could proceed to secondary school. In 1976, 257,505 pupils enrolled in Form 1, but there

The African Students Movement, founded in 1968 to voice student grievances, changed its name in January 1972 to the South African Students Movement (SASM) and pledged itself to building a national movement of high school students who would work with the Black Consciousness (BC) organization at black universities, the South African Students' Organisation (SASO). This link with BC philosophies is significant as it gave students an appreciation for themselves as black people and helped politicize students.

So when the Department of Education issued its decree that Afrikaans was to become a language of instruction at school, it was into an already volatile situation. Students objected to being taught in the language of the oppressor. Many teachers themselves could not speak Afrikaans, but were now required to teach their subjects in it.

When the 1976 school year started, many teachers refused to teach in Afrikaans. But generally students were disparaging of the attitude of their teachers and parents. One student wrote to The World newspaper: "Our parents are prepared to suffer under the white man's rule. They have been living for years under these laws and they have become immune to them. But we strongly refuse to swallow an education that is designed to make us slaves in the country of our birth."

In June, Form 1 and 2 students from Orlando West Junior Primary School (also known as Phefeni) staged a classroom boycott. They were joined by students from seven other Soweto schools. The Department of Bantu Education sent the police in. At Naledi High School students had demanded to speak to the regional director of education. Instead members of the police Special Branch arrived. This led to the first incidence in which students really felt their power: when the Special Branch members locked themselves in the school principal's office, students overturned the police vehicles.

A students meeting was held in Orlando on Sunday 13 June. About 400 students attended. At the meeting, Tsietsi Mashinini, a 19-year-old-leader of a SASM branch, called for a mass demonstration against the use of Afrikaans was called for the following Wednesday, 16 June. Students made a pact not to get their parents involved, believing they would try to stop it.

On 16 June, students assembled at different points throughout Soweto, then set off to meet at Orlando West Secondary School where the plan was to pledge their solidarity, sing Nkosi Sikeleli 'iAfrika and, having made their point, go back home. Witnesses later said that between 15,000 and 20,000 students school uniform marched.

The Bureau of State Security (BOSS), which was in charge of South Africa's internal security, were caught unaware. A police squad was sent in to form a line in front of the marchers. They ordered the crowd to disperse. When they refused, police dogs were released, then teargas was fired. Students responded by throwing stones and bottles at the police. Journalists later reported seeing a policeman draw his revolver and shoot without warning into the crowd. Other policemen also started shooting.

Students started setting fire to symbols of apartheid, such as government buildings, municipal beerhalls and liquor stores, Putco buses, and vehicles belonging to white businesses. Anti-riot vehicles and members of the Anti-Urban Terrorism Unit arrived. Army helicopters dropped teargas on gatherings of students. Roadblocks were set up at all entrances to Soweto. The battle between students and police continued into the night.

Probably the most famous photograph of the uprising is the photo by Samuel Nzima of Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying the body of 13-year-old Hector Petersen, who had been shot, with Hector's sister running next to him. Samuel Nzima has described what he saw: "The first shot was fired before children started throwing stones. Then absolute chaos broke out. The children ran all over the place and stoned the police." A postmortem revealed that Hector had been killed by a shot fired directly into him, not a bullet ricocheting off the ground as the police later stated.

The dawn of 17 June revealed burnt-out cars and trucks blocking the roads, virtually every liquor store, beerhall, and community center burnt to the ground. And dead bodies lying in the streets. The official death toll was 23; others put it as high as 200. Many hundreds of people were injured.
Students again poured into the streets. Parents stayed away from work to watch over their families. Police patrolled the streets. By the end of the third day of rioting, the Minister of Bantu Education had closed all schools in Soweto.

The rioting soon spread from Soweto to other towns on the Witwatersrand, Pretoria, to Durban and Cape Town, and developed into the largest outbreak of violence South Africa had experienced. Coloured and Indian students joined their black comrades. And unlike the riots of 1952 and the Sharpeville riots of 1961, the police were unable to quell the rioters, even with force. Students showed reckless disregard for their own safety to vent their frustrations. As soon as the upheavals were suppressed in one area than they flared up elsewhere. And so it continued for the rest of 1976.

Did you Know?

Mbuyisa Makhubo is the 18-year old South African school boy seen carrying Hector Pieterson in a famous photograph taken after the latter was shot during the Soweto Uprising in 1976.  After the photograph was released, he was harassed by the security services, and was forced to flee South Africa. His mother, Nombulelo Makhubo, told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that she received a letter from him from Nigeria in 1978, but that she had not heard from him since. While there he became ill with malaria and may have died.


A new generation opposed to apartheid had made their voice of opposition heard and were determined to be listed to. Many left South Africa to join the armies of the exiled political movements. Those who stayed behind ensured the exiled organizations could count on support from within the townships.  

June the 16th would never be forgotten.


•    We can have a moment of grace and gratitude and a tribute for the fallen heroes and their martyrdom

•    Inspire and enthuse the youth to take the baton and move forward

•    Engage the youth on their understanding and interpretation of the event

•    Have conversations and moments of reflection with the 34 year olds who were born in that year and beyond on what happened and also about their personal journeys

•    Inform and educate the public about this monumental day in history in Africa and the world

•    A moment of silence on our platforms for the fallen to show respect and for the blood of the innocent that were shed in order to set us free

•    Celebration of all the milestones we have reached because of the foundation set by this event

•    Encourage people to express, write, debate, talk, phone in and talk about their feelings, dreams, aspirations for the future, hopes triggered by the 1976 uprising

•    All channels and radio stations can reflect what is in our archives.  There are great moments that were shown in 2006 during the 30th anniversary

•    To have conversations with the survivors who faced death about where they were, feelings, journeys, dreams



•    Would today’s youth fight as righteously for their freedom as the 1976 youth did?

•    Who are the current images and voices of hope for our youth?

•    What are the day to day experiences, positive things and challenges of children at school today?

•    What is the role and involvement of the youth in politics today?

•    How patriotic are our youth?

•    How far have we come with regards to human rights?

•    What is our youths understanding and application of our constitution?

•    Our constitution reiterates human rights, human dignity, equality and freedom.  Where do we stand with living these words?

•    How do our youth today live and understand their African identity?

•    How many of our young brothers and sisters would carry the dead body of a comrade in the way that Mbuyisa Makhubo carried Hector Pieterson?

•    How many of our people know about Tsietsi Mashinini?

•    Do they know who the pioneers of this fight were and what happened to them after 1976?

•    What do our young people need / want to know?

•    Does the way we live our lives now, show that the 1076 was a worthy cause.  What should we change or stop doing??

•    What are the values we would like to live as a legacy left behind my the 1976 heroes?

We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.

Franklin D. Roosevelt