40 Years After Protests, Soweto Students Still Push for Change

(Photo: SA History)

(Photo: SA History)

Forty years ago, thousands of Soweto, South Africa schoolchildren protested in the streets over issues of racism and inadequacy in Bantu education, which included the apartheid government’s use of Afrikaans as the language of instruction.  The violent police response took the world by surprise, with estimates of those killed by police ranging from 175 to 700.

The Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974 required that black schools in South Africa must use Afrikaans as much as English in order to teach non-language subjects such as math and social sciences.  However, both students and teachers had a difficult time learning and using the language because they were not properly trained to do so, nor did they have the proper textbooks or other materials.

“You’ve never heard what is Biology in Afrikaans, what is arithmetic in Afrikaans, what is biblical studies in Afrikaans, you’ve never heard of those words and now suddenly you must pass… so that big barrier arrives so sudden that going to school is becoming a big problem again,” said Dee, the brother of Tsietsi Mashinini, a student activist from Morris Isaacson High School responsible for the march held in 1976.

According to historian Helena Pohlandt-McCormick, the policy “embodied everything that was wrong with Bantu Education.”  She added that it not only ignored sound pedagogy, but also the voices of those it affected, including students, teachers, and parents.

As a result, students began to organize themselves into individual protests.  While many focused on the use of Afrikaans in the classrooms, others argued over issues including student-teacher relations and the use of corporal punishment.

Teachers such as Ongkopotse Tiro pushed children to focus on the injustices that personally affected them, causing students in the Soweto Students Representative Council to push their parents to stay home from work and boycott any shops or products owned by white people.

Student protests are beginning again in the country over a number of issues including fees, education access, and curriculum reform, among other social injustices.  While South Africa has changed since democracy took over, many believe it has not changed enough, writes Anne Heffernan for Quartz.

Although it is forty years later, today’s students have much in common with the students of 1976.  They have been effective in changing the tenor and shape of the political discussion surrounding education in the country.

Despite an improvement in living conditions, many black people are still living in neighborhoods without electricity or running water in their homes, causing protests to begin once again as concerns grow over the idea that a new Black elite is using up the wealth in the country, writes Cara Anna for The Philadelphia Tribune.

“What has changed? Nothing has changed,” said Seth Mazibuko, one of the organizers of the 1976 Soweto protest who is today the head of the June 16 Youth Development Foundation. “When we were fighting, we were saying doors must be opened to all. Now these doors, when they open, they’re closed for those who do not have money.”

Students marched through Soweto again last week, this time with police protection.  According to 17-year-old Sizwe Makhubo, the march stood for optimism for the country in addition to frustration.  He said that while there are 1,000 students in his high school, the government only supplies three scholarships.  “So only the top three students get to go to university, and what does that say about the rest?”