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The History of Youth Day

Youth Day commemorates the Soweto youth uprising of 16 June 1976.

In 1975 protests started in African schools after a directive from the then Bantu Education Department that Afrikaans had to be used on an equal basis with English as a language of instruction in secondary schools.

The June 16 1976 Uprising that began in Soweto and spread countrywide profoundly changed the socio-political landscape in South Africa. Events that triggered the uprising can be traced back to policies of the Apartheid government that resulted in the introduction of the Bantu Education Act in 1953. The rise of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and the formation of South African Students Organisation (SASO) raised the political consciousness of many students while others joined the wave of anti-Apartheid sentiment within the student community. When the language of Afrikaans alongside English was made compulsory as a medium of instruction in schools in 1974, black students began mobilizing themselves. On 16 June 1976 between 3000 and 10 000 students mobilized by the South African Students Movement Action Committee supported by the BCM marched peacefully to demonstrate and protest against the government’s directive. The march was meant to culminate at a rally in Orlando Stadium.


On their pathway they were met by heavily armed police who fired teargas and later live ammunition on demonstrating students. This resulted in a widespread revolt that turned into an uprising against the government. While the uprising began in Soweto, it spread across the country and carried on until the following year.


The aftermath of the events of June 16 1976 had dire consequences for the Apartheid government. Images of the police firing on peacefully demonstrating students led an international revulsion against South Africa as its brutality was exposed. Meanwhile, the weakened and exiled liberation movements received new recruits fleeing political persecution at home giving impetus to the struggle against Apartheid. 

Bantu Education Policy


The word ‘Bantu’ in the term Bantu education is highly charged politically and has derogatory connotations. The Bantu Educational system was designed to ‘train and fit’ Africans for their role in the newly (1948) evolving apartheid society. Education was viewed as a part of the overall apartheid system including ‘homelands’, urban restrictions, pass laws and job reservation. This role was one of labourer, worker, and servant only. As H.F Verwoerd, the architect of the Bantu Education Act (1953), conceived it:

“There is no place for [the African] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour. It is of no avail for him to receive a training which has as its aim, absorption in the European community”

The uprisings tragically ended with hundreds of young people killed by the apartheid government when they protested against the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.

This year we celebrate Youth Day in South Africa against the backdrop of yet another uprising driven by young people. The Black Lives Matter Movement has had a resurgence after the killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, earlier this year during the heat of the Coronavirus pandemic. The response to Floyd’s murder has caused a significant amount of protests and uprisings all around the world, calling an end to discrimination, systemic racism and police brutality.

In 2020, we can celebrate Youth Day by commemorating and honouring those who spoke out and took action against the oppressive Apartheid system. We also honour the lives lost in the face of brutalist political systems and all forms of oppression – then and now. 


Due to COVID-19, there are no events that celebrate Youth Day, but what we can do is educate ourselves and learn from the events that took place on June 16.


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