A dynamic force that burst into Sowetan homes during the 1970s, a philosophy known as 'Black Consciousness',
successfully mobilised black resistance to apartheid. It was based on the premise* that oppression was
essentially a psychological problem. The new movement's charismatic leader, a young medical student
named Steve Biko, believed blacks needed to shake off the inferiority complex bequeathed* to them by
generations of white masters demanding subservience*. Biko achieved a new mood of militant pride among
Within a few years 'Black Consciousness' was sweeping university campuses throughout the country.
Achieving an unprecedented level of political education, it spread beyond the universities into
thousands of schools, especially those in Soweto.
During the early hours of 16 June 1976, thousands of schoolchildren marched in Soweto in protest
against a government instruction that Afrikaans had to be used as one of the media of tuition in
secondary schools. They were fired on by police. One child was killed and several injured. Enraged
by the use of force to smash a peaceful protest, the students went on the rampage*. Bricks, stones
and bottles flew through the air. Soldiers in helicopters dropped rifles and ammunition. Shots rang
out and more students fell. Wounded teenagers lay bleeding among their classmates; hysterical screams
pierced the roar of indignation* and stampeding feet. But the angry crowd kept advancing towards the
police, hurling abuse and missiles at them. Alarmed white officers retreated to await reinforcements*,
by which time the students were setting cars and buildings alight. Nothing could quell* the anger.
By midday on 16 June the sky over Soweto was filled with dark clouds of smoke and dust. Fifteen people
died in the township that day. By the end of the first week of the uprising, one hundred and fifty lives
had been lost in Soweto alone. By October the following year, seven hundred people had died in
countrywide anti-apartheid protests. Over 90 per cent of the dead were less than twenty-three years
The death of so many young people was a terrible price to pay but South Africa's youth had scored
significant political victories. The protest sparked off repeated boycotts of classes throughout
the country: five hundred secondary school teachers in Soweto resigned their posts, signalling not
only the collapse of high school education in the township but the unprecedented power of the students.
Another campaign led by the students against proposed* rent increases in Soweto was so successful that
it resulted in the collapse of the government-appointed civic administration and the establishment in
its place of the most democratic local authority ever seen in the township, the Committee of Ten.
Furthermore, the courage displayed by the students in confronting white authority on 16 June 1976
inspired thousands of formerly submissive adults to join the ensuing* protests.
The consequences of the students' uprising were to affect the lives of Sowetans for many years
to come. The rebellion succeeded in achieving political solidarity across the generation gap
previously dividing conservative older blacks from their militant children. This was a major political
advantage enabling revolutionary organisations like the banned 'African National Congress' to mobilise
the black masses against the government in later years.
Another outcome of the students' revolt was its long-term effect on parental authority. Part of the
impetus for the uprising had come from the students' rejection of their parents' authority: 'Black
Consciousness' had taught the youth to examine critically all the forces that enabled whites to keep
blacks subjugated, and the students concluded that their parents' generation was culpable* by default.
Believing, for example, that their parents had been lulled* into political passivity in the numerous
beer-halls provided by Soweto's white-run municipality, the students had singled out these drinking
establishments as arson targets*: sixty-seven of them had been burnt to the ground by the end of June
1976. 'It is our parents who have let things go on far too long without doing anything. They have
failed,' was a typical comment from one of the marching students to a reporter in 1976. Not only
did they lose respect for the older generation at a political level, but thousands of students
throughout Soweto rejected their parents' values in a much wider context. In a society which
traditionally venerated* age as the source of communal authority, many parents were no longer
able to control or even influence the behaviour of their children.
Source: Born in Soweto by Heidi Holland, Penguin Books, London 1994, pp. 6-8
*premise - Prämisse, Voraussetzung
*bequeathed - hinterlassen
*subservience - Untertänigkeit, Unterwürfigkeit
*to go on a rampage - randalieren
*indignation - Empörung, Entrüstung
*reinforcement - Verstärkung
*to quell - unterdrücken
*to propose - beabsichtigen, vorschlagen
*to ensue - sich daran anschliessen
*culpable - schuldig, schuldhaft
*to lull - beschwichtigen, einschläfern, einlullen
*arson target - Ziel einer Brandstiftung
*to venerate -achten, ehren
1. Explain in your own words how student leader Steve Biko could encourage so many black pupils and students in South Africa to resist the policy of apartheid.
2. What was it that sparked off violent protests on June 16, 1976 and what were their consequences, particularly on socondary schools?
3. Why did young people blame their parents for the political situation that had developed before the protests began?
4. From what you have learnt in your course, what were the main satges in how the policy of apartheid in S.A. collapsed?