Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Events Leading To The Uprisings

In 1974, the Director of Bantu Education in the Southern Transvaal (Mr Ackerman) issued a directive compelling school boards and principals of schools to use Afrikaans as the primary means of instruction. This directive followed an earlier imposition which divided school boards along ethnic lines. This ethnic division ensured that African children from the various ethnic groups would no longer be educated in the same classroom.

Previously, the choice between English and Afrikaans had rested in the hands of the community. With the freedom of choice taken away and with the enforcement of Afrikaans, parents, principals and the tribal school boards were naturally distraught. They saw the injunction as politically motivated and appealed to Ackerman to withdraw his ruling, but he remained unmoved.

The school boards in Soweto combined forces in August 1975 and formed the Federal Council of Transvaal School Boards, in order to deal with the language imposition with one voice. However, resistance to the Afrikaans directive was met with harsh consequences. In February 1976, Ackerman’s board fired members of the Tswana School Board for being too stubborn. Other members of the board resigned and parents of the represented school children supported them in their actions.

A crisis in education had developed. Disillusioned youth had watched their parents and teachers fail in attempts to reverse the Afrikaans instruction directive. On May 17th, students from Phefeni Junior Secondary School refused the imposition of Afrikaans instruction and began a boycott of classes. The students demanded to see the circuit inspector of African schools, M C de Beer. When he refused to meet with them, the students turned to violent action by first damaging the principal’s car and then stoning his office. De Beer reacted by threatening to expel the students but they continued their boycott of classes with the support of four other schools in Soweto.

Students were far more radical than their moderate parents. “Our parents are prepared to suffer under the white man’s rule. They have been living for years under these laws and have become immune to them. But we strongly refuse to swallow an education system that is designed to make us slaves in the country of our birth”, wrote a student in a letter to The World newspaper. (Hopkins and Grange 2001)

On June 9 1976, two policemen drove into Naledi High School to arrest a student for questioning. The principal warned them not to do so in the presence of other students. The policeman were confronted by angry students and needed to lock themselves in the principal’s office in order to escape the angry mob of students. Whilst in the principal’s office, the students set the police car alight.

It was around this period, with the banning of the ANC and the PAC, that a political vacuum was created. Leaders of both organizations were subsequently detained. Any political activity which lingered after the Sharpeville massacre ended with the Rivonia Treason Trail and subsequent life long jailing of Nelson Mandela, the ANC President along with others. Black Consciousness was born out of this political vacuum. The Cillie Commission found that the immediate cause of the riots related to the policy on language instruction at school but this was only one of the causes. Other grounds for dissatisfaction included:
  • The black consciousness movement (Cillie:601);
  • Political and military events in South Africa
  • The homelands policy
  • Influx control
  • Actions of the Administration Boards
  • UBC
  • Lack of citizenship related to the homelands policy


  1. The Cillie Commission, (1980): Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the riots at Soweto and other places in the Republic of South Africa during June 1976. Also: Unpublished minutes of evidence Volumes 1-69.
  2. Mashabela, H. (1987): A People on the Boil, Reflections on Soweto, Skotaville, Publishers, Johannesburg and Cape Town.
  3. Hopkins, P. and Helen G. (2001): The Rocky Rioter Teargas Show: The Inside Story of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, Cape Town, Zebra Publishers.

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