Wednesday 16 June 2010

This Day in History: 16 June 1976

Hector Pieterson and Mbuyisa Makhubo

On 16 June 1976, thousands of black South African students staged a protest and walked from their schools to Orlando Stadium in Soweto.  They were protesting against the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974 which forced tuition to be given in a 50/50 split between English and Afrikaans in schools.  Not only was Afrikaans the language of their oppressors, it was also a language that many black South Africans did not understand as they primarily spoke one of the black African languages such as Zulu, Northern or Southern Sotho or Xhosa.  Part of the Apartheid policy was to allocate fewer resources to black schools as well and to make them purchase their own textbooks and exercise books whereas these were freely distributed in white schools.  The effects of teaching in Afrikaans in already disadvantaged and inferior schools was devastating.

On the morning of 16 June 1976, protesting children found that their route to the stadium was blocked by a police barricade.  There are conflicting reports as to how the first shot was fired and whether it was provoked.  Some say that the children began throwing stones, other simply say that the policemen got spooked.  Once that first shot had been fired though, children ran screaming in different directions, terrified and panicked.  More shots were fired and by the end of the day, 23 people were dead (two of them were white people).

Soweto uprising - Hector Pieterson Hector Pieterson is the little boy being carried in the photograph above.  He was one of the first children to be killed that day.  Perhaps even more heartbreaking is that the boy carrying him was 18-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubo.  He was harassed so much by the police that he went into hiding after the event and his mother has not heard from him since 1978.   I imagine he is but one of the thousands of victims that “disappeared” in the Apartheid years.

The resulting violence after the shootings that day became known as The Soweto Uprising or Soweto Riots.  Between 200 and 600 people died in the violence and thousands were injured.  June 16 is commemorated each year as Youth Day and services and events are held across South Africa to honour their youth and to remember all that was lost during the Apartheid struggle.

Images © Sam Nzima



  1. Thank you, Emm, for this wonderful and poignant post. It is important to remember the struggles in South Africa and pray such violence has seen it worst days. The Apartheid Struggle was one we must never forget.

  2. It is incredible how things have changed in South Africa since that time - and that the transition has been so peaceful.

  3. @ Cher: Thank you for your comment. The scary thing is that so many people went through so much trauma and yet there is still oppression in other countries across the globe and we turn a blind eye to it.

    @ Paul: It was relatively peaceful, yes, although some argue that the continuing crime wave is evidence of a not so peaceful outcome.

  4. Yes looking back at what our elders went through for our freedom I have come to have a new appreciation for these guys who saw something wrong & Knew they had to do something coz if they didnt it would never end... They chose NOT to take a bad seat & Hope for better days...
    With much love & respect A Free young South African woman ;-)

  5. @ Anonymous: it is true. If they hadn't taken a stand, we would never have seen our country be free.

  6. hector was not a first person to be killed

  7. Hi Jethro, thank you for your comment. It does say above that Hector was "one of the first children to be killed that day" and this is true. Children were killed when the police opened fire but there were also deaths in the subsequent violence both that day and in the following days. Ultimately, in cases like this, it is difficult to know exactly what happened and in what sequence but it is true that the events of this day most likely changed the course of South African history.


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