On June 16 each year, South Africans celebrate Youth Day. Youth Day commemorates the Soweto Uprising, which took place on 16 June 1976, where thousands of students were ambushed by the apartheid regime.

On Youth Day, South Africans pay tribute to the lives of these students and recognises the role of the youth in the liberation of South Africa from the apartheid regime.

The Bantu Education Act and the Soweto Uprising

Let’s rewind a little further to January of 1954, when the Bantu Education Act came into effect, making it compulsory for black children to attend government schools and learn specific subjects in English and Afrikaans. Prior to this, most black children only had access to schools run by missions that were understaffed and poorly attended. The Bantu education system wasn’t much better and featured separate schools and universities, poor facilities, overcrowded classrooms and inadequately trained teachers, resulting in a lack of quality education for black children.

In January of 1976, the government mandated that all school subjects be taught in Afrikaans. This decision caused an uproar amongst parents, teachers and students, so later that year, on 16 June, 16-year-old Antoinette Sithole and an estimated 20,000 students from Soweto and the surrounding secondary and high schools, planned to peacefully protest Afrikaans as the primary teaching language in schools.

Thousands of students gathered to protest from their schools to Orlando Stadium in Soweto. Little did they know it would go on to become one of the most tragic, yet pivotal, protests in all of South Africa’s history.

Singing ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, which means ‘God Bless Africa’ – a song banned by the apartheid regime, the students made their way through the streets of Soweto when police randomly opened fire on them. In the confusion and chaos, Sithole’s 13-year-old brother, Hector Pieterson was fatally shot.

Photojournalist, the late Sam Nzima, was covering the protest for The World, a Johannesburg newspaper, when he captured the iconic image of Pieterson’s lifeless body being carried through the streets with Sithole crying hysterically by his side. The photograph was published across the globe and Pieterson came to symbolise the uprising, giving the world a shocking glimpse into the sheer brutality of apartheid.

The students’ brave efforts resulted in international pressure and sanctions against the South African government to make changes to its educational policies, and in 1995, the newly-elected democratic government declared that the 16th of June would be Youth Day – to serve as a reminder of the progress our country has made regarding equality and equal opportunity for all youth.

Soweto has come a long way since the uprising of 1976. The name Soweto is an abbreviation for South Western Townships. The township itself was built around the informal settlements of the first mine workers who came to the area during the gold rush of the late-1800s.

Cooling Towers of Soweto in Johannesburg

It has become popular with travellers from around the world who come to visit Vilakazi Street, which is one of the stops on the Johannesburg Political and Historical Tour. This famous street was home to two Nobel peace prize winners; Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the late former president Nelson Mandela.

Not far from here is the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, which you can visit on the Soweto and Apartheid Museum Tour. It was established in the early 1990s and commemorates the role of the students who took part in the protest of 1976 and the people who died in the aftermath, fighting for freedom, democracy and peace.

Celebrate Youth Day 2019

There are a number of activities taking place throughout the country that aim to address socio-economic issues such as youth unemployment and preserving the legacy of the country’s struggle heroes.

If you’re in Cape Town and looking for ideas to celebrate Youth Day, check out the annual Youth Day Miles for Smiles fun run. The proceeds from the run go towards paying for surgical care to children with cleft lips

If you’re in Durban, visit the Old Court Museum which has several historical collections including decor and art nouveau pieces, a miniature car display and interactive exhibition.

If you’re in Johannesburg, head to Soweto and visit the Hector Pieterson Memorial in Orlando West between 10 AM and 5 PM to pay tribute to the fallen heroes and heroines who lost their lives in the Soweto Uprising. The Apartheid Museum, which also features on the Johannesburg Political and Historical Tour, paints a telling picture of South Africa’s turbulent history with 22 exhibitions by historians, filmmakers and designers detailing the gut-wrenching stories and events of the Apartheid era.

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