Soweto: Protesting a Language

Afrikaans, the language of South Africa’s Dutch-descended whites.

The apartheid government’s security apparatus often dealt brutally with subversive political opponents. Therefore, during the apartheid era, it could be dangerous to engage in political protests. However, brave protests against the regime were sometimes carried out, with one such display of discontent taking place in the black township of Soweto in Johannesburg in 1976.

Refusing Afrikaans

The reason that protests broke out in Soweto was the introduction of a new government policy pertaining to education. The new educational policy required that high school students partly be instructed in Afrikaans — a language useful in communication with white employers and the government — and not solely in English and local African languages, as had been the case before. Unwilling to start learning and using Afrikaans, which the black Soweto students perceived as the preferred language of the people oppressing them, the high school students now organized protest marches.

The beginnings of a bloodbath

The marches got underway, and as they did so, enthusiastic and angry chanting could be heard from the large number of teenagers who participated. As so often happens when anger and tensions run high though, before long, stones also started to fly in the direction of the police who had come to keep order. In response to the stone-throwing, or perhaps triggered by something else, around the same time, the police started to fire tear gas and live ammunition at the young crowd. The protest area, as a result, erupted in uncontrolled mass violence, with thousands of desperately fleeing students confusing the situation. As explained in the next chapter, this commotion was to be the start of one of the deadliest and most tragic moments in modern South African history.