Going back in time: Recalling the 1976 Soweto Uprising

On 16 June, Youth Day, we pay tribute to fallen heroes of the 1976 Soweto Uprising who fought for freedom and equal education.

The 1976 Soweto Uprising is a day in South African history that will forever be engraved into our minds. It is a day, now 44 years ago, where the youth in our country stood bravely against armed forces in the fight for equal education and freedom in general under Apartheid rule.

Every year on 16 June — Youth Day — we salute those students, who fought against sole learning in Afrikaans, some of them losing their lives in the process.

Hector Pieterson — a name most of us know — was one of the first children to be killed by police on 16 June. While many of us, in previous years, held gatherings and events to commemorate Youth Day, this year will be a little different. Due to the ongoing pandemic, many commemorations will be held virtually to contain the spread of the virus.


When high school students in Soweto started protesting against the sole use of Afrikaans as a means of instruction in schools on 16 June 1976, police responded with teargas and live bullets.

The day is commemorated today by 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.

A recollection on SA History Online makes the following observance about the Soweto Uprising on the morning of 16 June around 9:00.

“Despite the tense atmosphere, the students remained calm and well ordered. Suddenly a white policeman lobbed a teargas canister into the front of the crowd. People ran out of the smoke dazed and coughing. The crowd retreated slightly but remained facing the police, waving placards and singing.”

“A white policeman drew his revolver. Black journalists standing by the police heard a shot: ‘Look at him. He’s going to shoot at the kids’. A single shot ran out. There were a split-seconds silence and pandemonium broke out. Children screamed. More shots were fired. At least four students fell and others ran screaming in all directions.” Brooks & Brickhill Whirlwind before the storm, 1980.


Hector Pieterson, just 12-years-old at the time, was one of the first children to die during the student protest.

According to SA History Online, a postmortem revealed that Pieterson was killed by a shot fired directly at him and not by a bullet “ricocheting off the ground” as police claimed.

An image, taken of Pieterson’s lifeless body being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubu with his sister Antoinette Sithole nearby, became the iconic image of the 1976 Soweto Uprising — one that made its way around the world.

According to BrandSouthAfrica.com, Sithole conducts tours at the Hector Pieterson Museum in Orlando West in Soweto, built just a few blocks from where her brother was shot.

Curro Roodeplaat Independent School pupils take a selfie with Hector Pietersen’s sister Antoinette Sithole on June 16, 2016 in Pretoria, South Africa. Image via: Gallo Images / Thapelo Maphakela


23 August 2006. South Africa. U.S Senator Barack Obama, pictured with Antoinette Sithole, Hector Pieterson’s sister, at the Sam Nzima photograph of Hector Pieterson. Image via: Halden Krog

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