Forty years ago this month the South African township of Soweto, near Johannesburg, exploded in revolt. School students, many of them only in their early teens, defied the might of the apartheid state on 16 June 1976.
They were fighting against a system that denied black people all political and most economic rights. It classified them through humiliating racial tests, told them where they could live, and beat, jailed or killed them if they resisted.
Whites, one in seven of the population, ruled the country.
The spark for the 1976 uprising was Afrikaans, the language of the oppressor, being imposed as the official language in schools.
On 17 May 1,700 students at Orlando West Junior Secondary School walked out demanding Afrikaans was withdrawn. Then Naledi High School struck on 8 June—and marching students were met by tear gas.
Students from several areas came together to form the Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC), which called a demonstration for 16 June.
Some 15,000 students had gathered by 7am on the day of the demonstration—and were attacked by the police with tear gas and bullets.
But instead of retreating, the students kept fighting and hurled rocks at the cops. Police and soldiers killed dozens of young people, but the protests kept going.
They quickly spread to other areas around Johannesburg, such as Alexandra, and then across the country.
It took months to end the rebellion. The security forces murdered up to 700 people, but the revolt left a legacy of pride, anger and fierce debate about how to make the next one successful.
The 1976 explosion was partly about the unbearable weight of oppression, but it was also the beginning of a sense that apartheid could be beaten.
The expansion of South African industry in the 1960s and 1970s was hugely profitable. But it also produced a large black working class, which had begun to flex its muscles.
In 1973 some 100,000 workers in Durban struck. The bosses retreated and granted most of the strikers’ demands. Other strikes followed.
In 1974 the Portuguese regime collapsed and the southern African states of Angola and Mozambique threw off its white colonial rule. South African soldiers were sent to back up its allies in Angola—but were defeated.
The historian Bernard Magubane wrote, “Young white recruits manacled together in African hands reversed the traditional image of the whites as captors and blacks as prisoners”.
In the course of the Soweto rebellion, the argument that the working class had power to tear down apartheid came to the fore. Workers were involved from the beginning as parents, brothers and sisters of the students.
Sometimes the scale of the fighting made it impossible for them to go to work, but there was also a conscious element involved.
Tsietsi Mashinini, the leader of the SSRC, said that the students had gone as far as they could so they turned to the workers in August.
The students set out to organise a strike. From 23 August around 80 percent of Soweto’s workers struck for three days.
One firms’ personnel officer said, “The biggest percentage of absentees has been among manual labourers. I can’t help wondering if this is some show of strength, rather than the result of intimidation.”
The workers’ movement did not flower fully for several years, but 1976 gave a glimpse of its importance. It was the mass strikes of the 1980s and the militant trade unions—allied to township uprisings—that killed off apartheid.
When apartheid fell in 1994, millions of black people who’d been oppressed for decades queued to elect Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first black president.
But the African National Congresses’ (ANC) promise of “peace, jobs and freedom” did not materialise as white rule ended, but capitalism continued in a new form.
South Africa’s present rulers celebrate the Soweto rebellion. But they preside over a system where black people still suffer unemployment, low wages and racism.
The Marikana massacre in 2012, where police murdered 34 striking miners, showed that repression continues even after the end of white rule.
But 40 years on, university campuses have been burning in revolt and workers are beginning to fight back.
The memory of 1976 is a precious reminder of the heroism of the students.
It showed that even the most ruthless regime can be challenged—and the need for the working class to use its power.
‘Soweto was not just a student thing. It was national’
Jacob Kganedi was a young man in Soweto in 1976.
“Sixteen June was a day when everything changed.
The authorities’ decision to make schools teach in Afrikaans was not good for education.
And it was the language associated with the apartheid system’s rulers.
School children marched out, and were met by terrible police violence.
The children had stones to defend themselves. The police and soldiers used live ammunition.
Everything that was connected with the government was attacked and burnt—municipal offices, government-run beerhalls and so on.
Everyone who was part of the system was attacked, including black police officers.
It quickly spread to the whole of Soweto. There were meetings everywhere, demonstrations everywhere.
Soweto in 1976 was the culmination of a history of revolt against apartheid.
In 1960 police killed 69 people at Sharpeville and there were demonstrations and strikes.
In 1972 there were student protests at universities.
Resentment had been building up, and now it burst through.
Soweto was not just a student thing, it became a national thing and it put South Africa into global view.
Suddenly everyone knew what was happening.
There was this feeling that we were not going to take it anymore. We were going to fight this animal of apartheid—and kill it.
Forty years on I am the chairperson of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee.
We have won political freedom that we did not have in 1976—and for which so many people fought and so many people died.
But we are not economically free.
We must still fight the animal of economic oppression and kill it.”
‘It was important girls were involved. We were part of it too’
Thabisa was a school student in 1976.
“In the morning of 16 June I was a child of 13, in the evening I was an adult. By the end of the month, I was an activist and a comrade.
I’m in this picture (see main photograph), but I won’t say which one I am. I have learnt in South Africa not to stand out. It is still a dangerous time.
We poured out of school from a feeling of revolt. We marched from Naledi on the edge of Soweto to Orlando East.
I’m not saying we knew fully what it was all about. We were children, children who had no future in the society we were born into.
It was joyous. I look at this picture and I think we were fresh to it all—and confident. I love it that we look confident.
My mother would step into the road if a white person was walking towards her on the pavement. We weren’t going to be like that.
Within a few minutes the police were shooting. I saw people die in front of me. It changed us all.
I spoke to people about politics. I am not unusual. We learnt politics in weeks.
I hated school, but I loved learning in that month when we didn’t go to school.
The students’ revolt was also about saying we would not keep silent. We were going to fight.
Looking back, it was also very important that there were girls involved.
We were part of the struggle too. When I left school I became a domestic worker in a rich white man’s house.
I got out eventually, became a nurse in Soweto’s main hospital Baragwanath. That was hard too and I became a teacher.
But I’m still fighting. I support the Economic Freedom Fighters of Julius Malema.
Nelson Mandela was a hero, but South Africa is still waiting for the changes we fought for 40 years ago.”
Blood on Britain’s hands too
In 1976 Britain was South Africa’s largest trading partner.
Almost a quarter of its exports came from Britain.
Half of all foreign investment in South Africa was British. Six out of the top ten South African companies were either controlled or substantially owned by British companies.
Most of the teargas used against black protesters in 1976 was manufactured by African Explosives and Chemical Industries Ltd.
It was 40 percent owned by British firm ICI.
The British Labour government of the time was more interested in the profits of these firms than in supporting democracy.
US president Carter made noises about action against South Africa.
But British ministers said sanctions were “impossible because of our economic interests there”.
Shadow chancellor Denis Healey told the Cabinet 18 months after Soweto, “We must be ready to veto any United Nations move to push us towards mandatory sanctions.
“The question is how far we can drag our feet.
“I want to be carried kicking and screaming every millimetre of the way towards any interruption of our trade with South Africa.”
Mbuyisa hunted by the cops
The most iconic photograph (right) from Soweto in 1976 shows 13 year old Hector Pieterson.
He was one of the first people the police killed on 16 June.
Hector’s sister Antoinette runs beside him.
Mbuyisa Makhubo, the 18 year old seen carrying Hector, was hunted by police after the photo was released and was forced to flee South Africa.
After the end of apartheid his mother, Nombulelo Makhubo, testified to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
She said that she received a letter from him from Nigeria in 1978, but had not heard from him since.