School children riot in Soweto on June 16, 1976. Picture: Alf Kumalo

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children” – Nelson Mandela
The 16th of June and its memories resonates within the psyche of South Africans, even more so within the spirit of South Africa’s millennials.

Or so we’d like to assume…
For the post- Apartheid ‘free-borns’; for generation Y and Z, the day itself doesn’t seem all that different.

It’s a day off right?
Somehow it doesn’t phase millennials as much as it does parents and grandparents and that is the reason why we; millennials of SA need to know the history of this “public holiday” and why it should be as significant and relevant to us in 2017, as it was back in 1976.
On the morning of June 16th in 1976, thousands of non-white students went on a protest rally from their schools to Orlando Stadium. This monumental day has been dubbed, ‘the Student Soweto Uprising’ and it is a glimpse into the fierce spirit of youth.   
These students were protesting against an official order from the National Party which prohibited the use of local languages such as Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho in Bantu schools; this became known as the Bantu Education Act.

This act established that all black township schools in every region, were to be taught in Afrikaans.
The government advocated strongly for the Afrikaans Language policy but the non-Afrikaans schools suffered.

Bantu Education served the interest of white supremacy.

Black students were not allowed the same educational opportunities as white students in South Africa.

While their white counterparts were being taught Science and Mathematics, the black students were being taught subjects such as wood shop to limit their educational potential and for them to remain within the working class structure.

Thus the policy directly affected the caliber of learning and deepened racial inequalities by preventing access to further information.
The government wanted to make sure that this policy was executed everywhere.

This was of course oppressive in so many ways. Not only were these learners limited by the subjects offered but also the language in which they were being forced to communicate in.
Tell me, how does one learn in a language or pass a class when they can’t speak, let alone understand the language that they are taught in?
The rally was intended to be a peaceful protest, simply to request that government not make Afrikaans compulsory in schools as it would have dire consequences on the future of non-white students.

Students gathered in their thousands with posters and plaque cards.

They peacefully demonstrated in the streets.

Some signs read, ‘Down with Afrikaans’ and ‘Bantu Education – to Hell with it’ while others sang freedom songs.

“They used to clap hands. They’d think we made nice music … ‘Oh, these blacks can sing so nice!’ and they’d clap their hands and we’d sing: ‘We will shoot you, we will kill you (laughter) … be careful what you say. … You’re going to die, slowly … (laughter)… be careful what you say, what you do,’” says Sophie Mgcina (a South African vocalist and actress, recalling the irony of singing protest songs in African languages in the face of white troops.

The toyi-toyi also became a popular expression when protesting. This particularly powerful form of revolutionary music was picked up abroad during military training.

It consisted of charging, uptempo rhythms and aggressive sound in unison. It quickly became commonplace in massive street demonstrations.

Chanting together in unison subconsciously brought a sense of camaraderie and unity among the students. Being involved in something together was better than standing alone.

“This country was going somewhere. You didn’t know where, but—damn—this country was going somewhere, and not all of us were convinced that it was toward liberation.

We were like, the whites are going to wake up one day and shoot everyone dead because of what was happening…it was like our young people were running straight into the sea at high speed,” says Duma Ka Ndlovu, from Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony.

The crowd grew to more than 10,000 students but en route to the stadium, approximately fifty policemen stopped the students and tried to turn them back.

Tear gas and warning shots were fired at the unarmed children in order to disperse them but to no avail.

Policemen then fired directly into the crowd of peaceful demonstrators; it was  Sergeant Hattingh that fired the first fatal shot that caused all the chaos.

Many of the protesters ran for shelter but others refused to stand down for what they believed in and went on to pelt the officers with stones.

“Despite the tense atmosphere the students remained calm and well ordered. Suddenly a white policeman lobbed a tear gas canister into the front of the crowd. People ran out of the smoke dazed and coughing. The crowd retreated slightly but remained facing the police, waving placards and singing. A white policeman drew his revolver. Black journalists standing by the police heard a shot: “Look at him. He’s going to shoot at the kids”.

A single shot ran out. There was a split second’s silence and pandemonium broke out. Children screamed. More shots were fired. At least four students fell and others ran screaming in all directions.”

Brooks & Brickhill Whirlwind before the storm, 1980 (Sourced from SA History).

Many of the students were severely injured and a few of them were killed as well during the protest and the few days that followed;  some of the students who died at the hands of police brutality were Baby Dladla, Leonard Melville Edelstein, Enoch Follie, Jeffery Godwe, Marshall Keokame, Ariel Kgongoana, Daniel Kumalo, Hilton Khobeka, Edward Kunene, Normal Kunene, Gregory Kwinana, John Leburu and the list goes on and on…all of them young students.

We  also remember those first killed in the midst of the protest…15 year old Hastings Ndlovu and 12-year-old Hector Pieterson. And we should commemorate Tsietsi Mashinini, who lead the students in protest at just 16 years old.

Hector Pieterson was killed by a shot fired directly at him…

Pieterson was rushed to a nearby clinic where he was announced dead.

He was just 12 at the time of his death yet the famous picture captured of him by Sam Nzima being carried away lives on.

Hastings Ndlovu was the first child to be shot according to police records but  Ndlovu’s death did not become as iconic as Hector Pieterson’s because no photographer was present to record it and his name was not immediately known but now he is remembered as one of the young students who bravely stood his ground for what he believed in.

We asked our Mzansi100 leaders to share their thoughts about the legacy of Youth Day:

Innovator, Mabutho Mthembu who founded Youth Managers Foundation, (an organisation that develops young leaders through mentor-ship and career guidance) had this to say:

In the context of the rising unemployment rate of 27.7%, affecting 58% of the youth; regression in education in both quality and output; reduction in access to higher education; escalating social ills in townships and rural areas which mostly affect the youth, it is Youth Managers Foundation view that this can therefore not be a period of celebration, but presents, a period of contemplation of the challenges ravaging our youth.

A reflection on the potential that we are failing to translate into human capital and pondering about strategies needed to be executed into turning this opportunity cost into the dividend that will contribute profoundly in the social and economic development of Africa.

Trailblazer, Kabelo Ncholo (founder and CEO of Yourself Management) had this to say:

Youth Day is important for young South Africans because it reminds us of the huge sacrifices made by young people in creating the freedom we enjoy today.

It is a day that should motivate us to address challenges that are affecting us, such as high unemployment and lack of support by both the public and private sector in our profession or entrepreneurship journey with the same courage and vigour as the youth of ’76.

Innovator, Bheki Kunene (founder of Mind Trix Media) had this to say:

Youth Day is an important day for young South Africans to celebrate and understand the context of it.

If we as the youth of SA can understand how life in the country was prior to the Soweto uprising, I feel we can learn to appreciate the vast amount of opportunities and freedom we have in this day and age.

Other than that I think we need to learn to creatively find solutions to our own challenges and become self reliant as the youth.

So what does this mean to the millennial in 2017?

The one who does not know what Apartheid felt like or does not know what it’s like to struggle in class with a language that they’re not familiar with?

The youth of the 1976 uprising played a major role in fighting and overcoming the inequality and oppression cited by the apartheid government.

Without their brave actions who knows what our education system would be like today.

We have the right to study that of which we please regardless of our race. We sit in classes and have the privilege to learn about one another’s cultures and history.

Therefore we should remember and honour the actions of those that fought 41 years ago for us to have the freedom we have today.

We may not have experienced all the struggles that they have faced so many decades ago but there are other issues that greatly affect South African millennials and we can make a difference.

Imagine a digitized world where we all stood up for one another, especially on social media and united against serious youth related issues, we’d halve the amount of problems youth face immediately.

Stand up for one another, say no racism by standing up for someone when you see that they are being bullied or taunted about their race or culture.

Don’t just sit back.

Protect one another; it’s about time we fight for what’s right in order to end the wrong.

Identify an issue that’s close to your heart and that’s deeply affecting our youth and do something about it.

As Ghandi said, “be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Don’t let the efforts of those brave young leaders of yesteryear go to waste.