The significance of Youth Day
(16 Jun 2020)

Youth Day 16 June on Expresso

The significance of Youth Day


We take a look at the events that took place 44 years ago on 16 June 1976, and how they helped change the socio-political landscape in South Africa. 


On the morning of Wednesday 16 June 1976, thousands of black students went on a protest rally from their schools to Orlando Stadium. They had gathered to protest an official order which made Afrikaans compulsory in black township schools throughout the country. The use of local languages was prohibited in these schools, whilst the constitution supported that Afrikaans and English be made the official languages of the country.

What was meant to be a peaceful procession quickly went out of control, when the police were called to disperse the crowds and riots broke out. In total, an estimated 700 people lost their lives with thousands injured. One of the first children to die from the shootings was 12-year-old Hector Pieterson, and it is believed that 15-year-old Hastings Ndlovu was also among the first to be shot.


The famous picture of an injured Hector Pieterson being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo, and flanked by his sister Antoinette Sithole, was published around the world, and came to represent the anger and tragedy of a day that changed the course of South African history, sparking months of clashes between police, schoolchildren and protesters in the Soweto Uprisings.

Hector Pieterson
Hector Pieterson being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo. His sister, Antoinette Sithole, runs beside them. Image by Sam Nzima

When he speaks of the occasion, the photographer who captured the shot, the late Sam Nzima says: “I saw a child fall down. Under a shower of bullets, I rushed forward and went for the picture. It had been a peaceful march, the children were told to disperse, they started singing Nkosi Sikelele. The police were ordered to shoot.”


Every year since, rallies were held on 16 June in order to remember the lives lost on this historic day; And since democracy in 1994, the day has been used to commemorate and reflect upon this, hence the public holiday known as Youth Day. Remembering the injustices and struggles of the past is never easy, but this is precisely why it’s important for us to never forget where we have come from, to get where to we are now.


Our youth are still an incredibly vocal and strong mobilising force who keep our moral compasses in check. Invoking the spirit of those brave fighters who stood up for what was right 44 years ago, will benefit us as we find our voices today.

In remembering the Youth of 1976, it is important to celebrate how far we have come as a country, but also to recognise that the gulf between the have and have nots still exists. Let’s continue to empower the youth and create the change we want to see.


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