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1976: Soweto protest turns violent

VIDEO : Demonstrations and interviews following the violence in Soweto

At least 12 people are reported to have been killed in a series of violent clashes between black demonstrators and police in several South African townships.

Angry youths threw stones and beer bottles at police, as a protest against the compulsory use of Afrikaans as the main teaching language in black schools turned violent.

The violence spread from one end of the city to the other, with fires in Soweto reaching Alexandra, a township in the northern outskirts close to some of the rich white suburbs.

The Times newspaper called it the worst outbreak of racial violence seen in South Africa since the Sharpeville massacre 16 years ago.

There are known to be at least two black children among the dead and two white men.

The final number of dead may be much higher. Ambulance drivers say they were unable to get through the crowds to reach the injured.

Police squads patrolled the streets in an attempt to prevent shops and public buildings from being damaged. As the situation worsened more police were drafted in.

Two men were reportedly shot dead after a car sped down a street and tried to run down police at an intersection.


"This government will not be intimidated"

Prime Minister Vorster

The day began with a march by 10,000 students carrying banners and slogans, saying "Down with Afrikaans" and "Viva Azania" (the name given to South Africa by black nationalists).

Armed police tried to surround the pupils as they reached Phefeni School, on a small hill surrounded by the homes of more than a million black South Africans.

Police say the students began throwing stones and other missiles. They responded by firing live rounds into the crowd.

Another reporter said she saw police throw a tear gas grenade into the crowd without warning. When demonstrators responded with stones, the officers opened fire.

A senior officer in charge of the operation, Brigadier R Le Roux, described the situation as "very bad" and later refused to give any comment to journalists and ordered them to leave the area.

In Natalspruit, a township East of Johannesburg, buses were used as battering rams to destroy official buildings, while others were set on fire.

Six other African townships around the nation's biggest city were affected by the violence, but police roadblocks prevented journalists from entering the townships to find out what was happening for themselves.

Prime Minister Vorster demanded an immediate end to the disturbances.

He said: "We are dealing here not with a spontaneous outburst but with a deliberate attempt to bring about polarisation between whites and blacks.

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

The schools boycott began in mid-May with pupils refusing to attend school in protest at what they saw as a discriminatory ruling which meant they had to learn lessons in English and Afrikaans, whereas white pupils could choose which language to learn. This is how the Soweto riots were first reported by the British media. See In Context below.

In Context
An investigation by US newspaper Newsday in December 1976 concluded that 332 had died in Soweto, and more than 435 nationally.

The Times later estimated more than 700 had died in the chain reaction of violence over the year.

The uprising triggered a long and often-violent confrontation between black protesters and the white South African government.

It had a lasting impact and arguably played a significant role in sowing the seeds of democracy in South Africa.

International sympathy strengthened the anti-apartheid campaign, and attempts by white minority rulers to clamp down on the protest movement were met with increasing resistance.

In 1990 Nelson Mandela and other political detainees were released from prison and in 1994 South Africa's first democratic elections saw Mandela elected the country's first black president.


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