Uprising shook SA landscape

2016-06-22 06:00

THE 16 June 1976 uprising that began in Soweto and spread throughout the country profoundly changed the socio-political landscape in South Africa.

Events that triggered the uprising can be traced back to the policies of the apartheid government that resulted in the introduction of the Bantu Education Act in 1953. The rise of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and the formation of the South African Students Organisation (SASO) raised the political consciousness of many students while others joined the wave of anti-apartheid sentiment within the student community.

When the language of Afrikaans alongside English was made compulsory as a medium of instruction in schools in 1974, black students began mobilising themselves. On 16 June 1976, between 3 000 and 10 000 students mobilised by the South African Student Movement’s Action Committee supported by the BCM marched peacefully to demonstrate and protest against the government’s directive. The march was meant to culminate at a rally in the Orlando Stadium.

On their way, they were met by heavily- armed police who fired teargas and later live ammunition at demonstrating students. This resulted in a widespread revolt that turned into an uprising against the government. While the uprising began in Soweto, it spread across the country and carried on until the following year.

The aftermath of the events of 16 June 1976 had dire consequences for the apartheid government. Images of the police firing on peacefully demonstrating students caused international revulsion against South Africa, as its brutality was exposed.

Meanwhile, the weakened and exiled liberation movements received new recruits fleeing political persecution at home, giving impetus to the struggle against apartheid.

Bantu Education Policy

The word “Bantu” in the term Bantu education is highly charged politically and has derogatory connotations. The Bantu Education System was designed to “train and fit” Africans for their role in the newly- (1948) evolving apartheid society. Education was viewed as a part of the overall apartheid system, including “homelands”, urban restrictions, pass laws and job reservation. This role was one of labourer, worker and servant only. As H.F Verwoerd, the architect of the Bantu Education Act (1953), conceived it:

“There is no place for (the African) in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour. It is of no avail for him to receive a training which has as its aim, absorption in the European community.”


Pre-Apartheid education of Africans

It is mistaken, however, to understand that there was no pre-apartheid educational marginalisation of black South Africans. Long before the historic 1948 white elections that gave the Nationalist Party power, there was a system of segregated and unequal education in the country.

While white schooling was free, compulsory and expanding, black education was sorely neglected. Financial underprovision and an urban influx led to gravely insufficient schooling facilities, teachers and educational materials, as well as student absenteeism or non-enrolment. A 1936 inquiry identified problems, only to have almost nothing done about these needs.

Racist compartmentalising

In 1949, the government appointed the Eiselen Commission with the task of considering African education provision. The commission recommended “resorting to radical measures” for the “effective reform of the Bantu school system”.

In 1953, prior to the apartheid government’s Bantu Education Act, 90% of black South African schools were state-aided mission schools. The act demanded that all such schools register with the state and removed control of African education from the churches and provincial authorities. This control was centralised in the Bantu Education Department, a body dedicated to keeping it separate and inferior.

Almost all the mission schools closed down. The Roman Catholic Church was largely alone in its attempt to keep its schools going without state aid. The 1953 Act also separated the financing of education for Africans from general state spending and linked it to direct tax paid by Africans themselves, with the result that far less was spent on black children than on white children.

In 1954 to 1955, black teachers and students protested against Bantu education. The African Education Movement was formed to provide alternative education. For a few years, cultural clubs operated as informal schools, but by 1960 they had closed down.

The Extension of the University Education Act, Act 45 of 1959, put an end to black students attending white universities (mainly the universities of Cape Town and Witwaters­rand). Separating tertiary institutions according to race, this act set up separate “tribal colleges” for black university students. The so-called “bush universities” such as Fort Hare, Vista, Venda and Western Cape, were formed. Blacks could no longer freely attend white universities. Again, there were strong protests.

Expenditure on Bantu education increased from the late 1960s, once the apartheid nationalist government saw the need for a trained African labour force. Through this, more African children attended school than under the old missionary system of education, albeit grossly deprived of facilities in comparison with the education of other races, especially whites.

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. Soweto received 40 new schools. Between 1972 and 1976, the number of pupils in secondary schools increased from 12 656 to 34 656. One in five Sowetan children were attending secondary school.

The 1976 Soweto uprising

An 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 developing their own. In 1969, the black South African Student Organisation (SASO) was formed.

Though Bantu education was designed to deprive Africans and isolate them from “subversive” ideas, indignation at being given such “gutter” education became a major focus for resistance, most notably in the 1976 Soweto uprising. In the wake of this effective and clear protest, some reform attempts were made, but it was a case of too little, too late. Major disparities in racially-separate education provision continued into the 1990s.

When high school students in Soweto started protesting for better education on 16 June 1976, the police responded with teargas and live bullets. It is commemorated today through a South African national holiday, Youth Day, which honours all the young people who lost their lives in the struggle against apartheid and Bantu education.

– sahistory.org.za

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