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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 June 2006, 13:20 GMT 14:20 UK
Why the Soweto protests erupted
By Martin Plaut
BBC News

The 30th anniversary of the Soweto uprising in South Africa is on 16 June: the day school pupils took to the streets of a township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, to protest against the standards of their education.

Soweto protesters
The Soweto protesters were angry about plans to teach in Afrikaans
The government had brought in a new regulation insisting that they be taught in Afrikaans - a language few of their teachers spoke.

It was also the language of government, a government that had instituted the hated system of racial segregation known as apartheid.

The issue ignited the protests that soon went way beyond their education, and triggered resistance that finally led to the end of white rule.

What led to apartheid?

In looking for the origins of apartheid we have to peer back more than 100 years, to the Boer War of 1899.

Farmhouse burnt during the Boer War
The roots of apartheid are found in the Boer War
Britain, determined to take control of the rich gold and diamond mines which lay around Kimberley and Johannesburg, sent nearly half a million troops in to crush the Boers, as the white Afrikaans-speaking settlers were then known.

After three years of bloody conflict, the Boers were left broken and destitute.

But in the peace talks that followed they were able to extract certain guarantees from their British rulers.

First, the idea of a vote for South Africa's black majority was rejected, despite strenuous protests from the newly formed African National Congress.

Then, after independence was achieved in 1910, a series of laws were passed ensuring that most of the land, as well as the best jobs, remained in white hands.

Despite this, most Afrikaners (as the Boers became known) remained poor, with the real wealth held by English speaking white South Africans, who dominated mining and industry. The Afrikaners pressed for further racial legislation.

Introducing apartheid

In 1948, an Afrikaner-led South African government was elected, promising a new beginning for the country. This was the policy of apartheid.

Immediately, a series of laws was passed forbidding marriage and sex between the races.

Further legislation introduced racial segregation on buses, in the schools and hospitals, on the beaches people played on.

At the heart of the system was the pass laws.

Without the correct documents, Africans were forbidden to live or work in towns - leaving them to exist in impoverished rural areas until the mines or factories needed them.

The black population was furious, but repeated protests were ignored.

In 1960 protests erupted into violence, as the police opened fire on a crowd at Sharpeville, 50km south of Johannesburg, who had come to burn their pass books.

The African National Congress and other organisations were banned.

During the 1960s and early 1970s whites ruled almost unchallenged.

In June 1976, black anger finally boiled over. It was the pass laws, and the whole system of apartheid, that formed the backdrop to the protests that became known as the Soweto uprising.

The Soweto uprising

Dawn broke over the township of Soweto like any other winter's day. But 16 June 1976, was to be a day like no other.

1976 protester
Some 500 died in three weeks of nationwide protests

School children had been awake for hours, planning a demonstration against enforced teaching in Afrikaans.

Over a dozen assembly points had been planned, where students gathered at 0700.

Singing freedom songs, they carried placards bearing slogans: "Down with Afrikaans" and "Blacks are not dustbins - Afrikaans stinks".

About 50 police arrived, and confronted the demonstrations. At first they used tear gas, but soon shots were fired.

Running clashes with the police erupted, with the children replying to the live rounds with stones.

"All of a sudden about six policemen armed with sten guns and rifles turned onto the crowd and most of them fired shots into the air," Nat Serache, a reporter with the Rand Daily Mail, recalled.

"But unfortunately one of them fired into the crowd and two kids were hit: One a five-year-old girl who was hit in the head and died on the spot, and a nine-year-old boy who was shot through the chest and also died on the spot."

Police and the military were brought into Soweto.

Army helicopters were seen over the township. The rioting spread. Buses were burnt and shops looted. Adults joined in the protests.

Prime Minister John Vorster warned on television that "the police have been instructed, regardless of who is involved, to protect lives and property with every means at their disposal".

"This government will not be intimidated and instructions have been given to maintain law and order at all costs," he said.

For three days the protests spread from one township to another before the authorities regained control.

The government claimed 95 black people had been killed, but unofficial estimates put the number of dead closer to 500.

In the words of Winnie Mandela, the wife of the imprisoned ANC leader Nelson Mandela: "The people are unarmed. They are faced with a heavily-armed government who will succeed in suppressing it now as is always the case. But it is just the beginning."

It was indeed only the beginning. It was to take nearly 20 years, but the flame that was lit in Soweto in June 1976 finally consumed the apartheid government and ended white rule in 1994.


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