Soweto, 1976

South Africa Table of Contents

In 1974 the newly appointed minister of Bantu education, Michael C. Botha, and his deputy, Andries Treurnicht, decided to enforce a previously ignored provision of the Bantu Education Act that required Afrikaans to be used on an equal basis with English as a medium of instruction. A shortage of Afrikaans teachers and a lack of suitable textbooks had resulted in English and African languages being used as the languages of instruction. Because Afrikaans was identified by Africans, especially by the young and by those sympathetic to black consciousness, as the language of the oppressor, opposition to this new policy grew throughout 1975 and into 1976. Some African school boards refused to enforce the policy and saw their members dismissed by the government. Students began to boycott classes.

On June 16, 1976, hundreds of high-school students in Soweto, the African township southwest of Johannesburg, marched in protest against having to use Afrikaans. The police responded with tear gas and then with gunfire that left at least three dead and a dozen injured. The demonstrators, joined by angry crowds of Soweto residents, reacted by attacking and burning down government buildings, including administrative offices and beer halls. The government sent in more police and troops and quelled the violence within a few days but at the cost of several hundred African lives.

Similar outbreaks occurred elsewhere in South Africa, and violence continued throughout the rest of 1976 and into 1977. By February 1977, official figures counted 494 Africans, seventy-five coloureds, one Indian, and five whites killed. In August of that year, Steve Biko, who had been held in indefinite detention, died from massive head injuries sustained during police interrogation. By that time, SASO and the BPC had been banned and open black resistance had been brought to a halt.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress