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South Africa marks Soweto Uprising anniversary

June 17, 2021

The anniversary of the student uprising that left a huge mark on the anti-apartheid movement is now a public holiday named Youth Day. Young people still face hardships in modern South Africa, particularly seeking work.

Südafrika l Soweto,  Marsch gegen Kriminalität und undokumentierte Einwanderer
Image: Siphiwe Sibeko/REUTERS

South Africa on Wednesday marked the 45th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising, a student revolt that led to a brutal police response under the apartheid regime that is seen as a key chapter in the country's path away from racially segregated government.

June 16 is now a national holiday known as Youth Day in South Africa and people were in the street protesting about their own needs.

President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed a virtual event on Wednesday, trying to praise the progress made since the end of apartheid while also reassuring younger South Africans struggling with youth unemployment rates of around 64%. 

Protests mark the Soweto Uprising in South Africa
Protests mark the Soweto Uprising in South AfricaImage: Guillem Sartorio/AFP

What is Soweto like today?

"South Africa is an infinitely better place than it was in 1976. Young people have opportunities that were denied to their parents and grandparents,” said Ramaphosa.

But the president said he is aware that the opportunities for young people are very limited, with 64% of them currently unemployed.

Mothibedi Mohoje, a 35-year-old entrepreneur in Soweto, feels that more training programs and government support are needed to help young people into stable employment.

A march was held in Soweto to demand more employment opportunities and a greater effort to fight crime.

"Many of us have never got jobs and we decided to start our own businesses, but we hardly get any support from the government,” Mohoje told AP news agency.

The result, he explained, is that youth turn to crime or xenophobic attitudes that blame foreigners for their problems, further increasing violence in South African townships.

"On any random day, I can count 25 to 30 young people in my street who are just loitering around because they have nothing else to do," he said.

South Africa's struggle against Xenophobia

What circumstances led to the Soweto Uprising?

English and Afrikaans were the two official languages at the time, although subjects were taught by teachers in the indigenous languages of each area.

The decline of Afrikaans led the white minority, apartheid government to pressure schools to use the language as the medium of instruction.

Tensions escalated with the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974, which forced all black schools to use Afrikaans and English in equal measure for teaching purposes.

Afrikaans would have to be used for mathematics, arithmetic and social studies from the seventh grade.

This move was fiercely resisted by the black population, that used English and indigenous African languages as a way to disassociate from the apartheid regime.

Resistance from teachers and community leaders led to Orlando West Junior School going on strike, quickly followed on by other schools in the area.

The iconic photo of the Soweto uprising
Sam Nzima poses with the iconic photo he took of the Soweto UprisingImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/D. Farrell

What happened exactly 45 years ago?

On the morning of June 16, 1976, an estimated 20,000 students from schools in the Johannesburg township of Soweto took to the streets to protest against the decree.

The protesters tried to march along their planned route but when they saw it was barricaded instead proceeded to Orlando High School.

It was then that the police struck, firing indiscriminately at the children and killing more than 100, although estimates put that number up to 700.

More police and army units, heavily armed with automatic rifles and armored personnel carriers continued the carnage into the night.

The massacre led to the rise of the African National Congress (ANC) and finally the end of apartheid.

Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and became the first black president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999.

jc/sms (AP, Reuters)

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