It is a day violently etched on the South African collective conscience. Commemorated over 30 years later as Youth Day, an official holiday, it is the day that honours the deaths of hundreds of Soweto schoolchildren, a day that changed the course of the country’s history: 16 June 1976.
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16 June 1976
It was cold and overcast as pupils gathered at schools across Soweto on 16 June. At an agreed time, they set off for Orlando West Secondary School in Vilakazi Street, with thousands streaming in from all directions. The planned to march from the school to the Orlando Stadium.”By 10.30am, over 5 000 students had gathered on Vilakazi Street and more were arriving every minute,” say Bonner and Segal. In total, “over 15 000 uniformed students between the ages of 10 and 20 [were] marching that day”.Once at the stadium, the plan was to agree on a list of grievances, and then possibly to march to the offices of the Transvaal department of education in Booysens, in Johannesburg’s southern suburbs.But this didn’t happen. Police formed a wall facing the pupils, warning them to disperse – an order met with resistance. Teargas was fired into the crowd and police dogs released. In the chaos, children ran back and forth, throwing stones at the police – who fired more teargas.Bonner and Segal quote a student leading the march, Jon-Jon Mkhonza: “Students were scattered, running up and down … coming back, running … coming back. It was some kind of game because they were running away, coming back, taking stones, throwing them at the police … It was chaos. Whenever the police shot teargas, we jumped the wall to the churchyard and then came back and started discussing again.”
The first shot
Then came the first shot – straight into the crowd, without warning. Other policemen took up the signal and more shots were fired. Twelve-year-old Hector Pieterson fell to the ground, fatally wounded. He was picked up by Mbuyisa Makhubo, a fellow student, who ran with him towards the Phefeni Clinic, with Pieterson’s crying sister Antoinette running alongside.The World photographer Sam Nzima was there to record Pieterson’s last moments. “I saw a child fall down,” he says. “Under a shower of bullets I rushed forward and went for the picture.”The photo went around the world and Pieterson came to symbolise the uprising, giving the world an in-your-face view of the brutality of apartheid.Then all hell broke loose. Students targeted apartheid symbols: administrative offices, government buses and vehicles and municipal beer halls, which were first looted and then set alight. By the end of the day thick clouds of black smoke hung over the township, and the streets were littered with upturned vehicles, stones and rocks.Anti-riot vehicles poured into Soweto, roadblocks were erected at all entrances, the army was placed on alert and helicopters hovered overhead, dropping teargas canisters and shooting.The injured pupils were taken to Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, some dying in its corridors, some dying at its gates before they could be admitted, according to Bonner and Segal.