Hector Pieterson was a 12-year old schoolboy in Soweto on June 16, 1976. That morning he joined several thousand other youths in a march denouncing apartheid education policies. By the afternoon, the image of Hector’s lifeless body, cradled in the arms of a fellow protester, would spark international outcry and help galvanize South Africa’s Black liberation movement.
Despite protests being effectively outlawed by the apartheid regime, Black South African students mobilized against the 1974 Afrikaans Medium Decree, mandating the use of Afrikaans, the language of the white minority ruling class, on an equal basis with English for instruction in apartheid’s Black schools. The Decree was the latest discriminatory education policy under the 1953 Bantu Education Act.
The police met the march toward Soweto’s Orlando stadium by an estimated 20,000 Black students organized by the South African Students Movement and the Black Consciousness Movement with brutal force, firing teargas and live ammunition.
At least 176 Black students, many of them children, including Hector Pieterson, lost their lives.
Just as students rose up against apartheid’s oppressive racial order, youth are rallying against systemic racism following the killings by police of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless other unarmed Black people. In an inspiring show of solidarity, young people in South Africa, and several other countries in Africa and around the world, have joined protests calling for an end to systemic anti-Black racism and police brutality.
On May 29, Moussa Faki Mahamat, the African Union chairperson, condemned the killing of George Floyd and called on the US to eliminate racial and ethnic discrimination. On June 2, the South African government said that American security forces should “exercise maximum restraint” in responding to the protests.
South African faith leaders, including the South African Council of Churches, led protests denouncing police brutality on June 7. On June 12, 54 African countries submitted a draft resolution to the United Nations Human Rights Council calling for an international inquiry to examine abuses against people of African descent and the impacts of systemic racism.
June 16 is now National Youth Day in South Africa in honor of the youth who lost their lives during the Soweto Uprising. As we honor the Soweto youth, we must ensure that no more Hectors, Georges, Breonnas, or Tonys will have their lives prematurely extinguished by systemic racial injustice, including through abusive policing.