South African Government Suppresses Soweto Student Rebellion Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Soweto riots of 1976 changed the fundamental relationship between the Afrikaner-dominated regime and the African majority. The violent suppression of the rebellion contributed to South Africa’s legacy of racism and oppression in international circles and led to sanctions against the country.

Summary of Event

On June 16, 1976, ten thousand African schoolchildren in the segregated public schools of South Africa openly protested against a new regime policy that required instruction in Afrikaans, the Dutch language of the white minority who controlled government institutions. Afrikaans is the language of Dutch Afrikaners, who along with the British settled the southern tip of Africa and eventually colonized the indigenous African population in what later became known as South Africa. Riots;Soweto student rebellion Soweto student rebellion (1976) Apartheid;resistance and protest South Africa;human rights abuses [kw]South African Government Suppresses Soweto Student Rebellion (June 16, 1976) [kw]Government Suppresses Soweto Student Rebellion, South African (June 16, 1976) [kw]Soweto Student Rebellion, South African Government Suppresses (June 16, 1976) [kw]Student Rebellion, South African Government Suppresses Soweto (June 16, 1976) [kw]Rebellion, South African Government Suppresses Soweto Student (June 16, 1976) Riots;Soweto student rebellion Soweto student rebellion (1976) Apartheid;resistance and protest South Africa;human rights abuses [g]Africa;June 16, 1976: South African Government Suppresses Soweto Student Rebellion[02390] [g]South Africa;June 16, 1976: South African Government Suppresses Soweto Student Rebellion[02390] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;June 16, 1976: South African Government Suppresses Soweto Student Rebellion[02390] [c]Human rights;June 16, 1976: South African Government Suppresses Soweto Student Rebellion[02390] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 16, 1976: South African Government Suppresses Soweto Student Rebellion[02390] Vorster, John Kruger, James T. Tutu, Desmond Montsitsi, Daniel Sechabo Marobe, Mafison

The Soweto protest was, in part, the outgrowth of more than three hundred laws passed by the white regime that subjected black Africans to inferior status in every aspect of life from cradle to grave. The black majority suffered from poverty, unemployment, underemployment, poor health care, segregated housing, and lack of suffrage. White children had eight times as much money spent on their education as did black children and made up only one-third the number of students in a typical classroom. Laws treating the races differently were known by the euphemism “apartheid,” which is a Dutch word meaning “separate development.” The name Soweto is actually an acronym which stands for Southwest Township, a sprawling black ghetto on the outskirts of Johannesburg that housed more than one million poor Africans in 1976.

Soweto leaders, including Desmond Tutu, a national figure, warned political and legal authorities that the township, with a high level of alienation, particularly among its youth, represented a powder keg that could explode at any time. Manie Mulder, chair of the West Rand Bantu Administration Board that governed Soweto, scoffed at the idea, arguing that Soweto’s black citizens were perfectly content. In 1974, use of Afrikaans became a political issue before the board that would further divide people by generation, race, and political ideology.

The protest in Soweto began nonviolently with the carrying of placards protesting the language of Afrikaans in classrooms. Students attempted to march to Soweto’s largest stadium for a rally, singing and chanting black nationalist and liberation songs. Sowetoans already knew two languages, their own ethnic group’s and English. To have Afrikaans, not only a difficult language but also a language associated with oppression, forced on students represented the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Interpretations differ as to whether the police (which ironically were mostly black, with white supervisors) or students initiated hostilities. As the confrontation unfolded, police used tear gas followed by open gunfire. The students responded with rocks and stones. The students, joined by older teens and young adults, attacked, overturned, and burned police cars, trains, and buses, and set fire to government property and buildings. They attacked and killed two whites. South Africa had never witnessed this level of black rage.

On the evening of the first night of the uprising, Minister of Justice James T. Kruger appealed to Sowetoans for calm and asked them to help police do their job. Prime Minister John Vorster was put in an embarrassing position, since the uprising took place on the eve of his meeting with U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Nevertheless, several days after hostilities began, Vorster warned that the state would use whatever force was necessary to put down the rebellion. Vorster, in a special message to the all-white parliament, argued that the violence was not spontaneous and was meant to polarize the races. Kruger made similar arguments before parliament, claiming that police were not using excessive force, and stating that the presence of young Africans in their twenties suggested that the riots were organized. Evidence uncovered later shows that some of the violence may have been organized, since telephone calls to authorities often preceded violence and the same nationalist placards and slogans were seen in different parts of the country.





The protests and violence spread to other black townships around the country as well as to mostly white and mostly black colleges and universities, one of the latter on the coast of the Indian Ocean, 350 miles from Johannesburg. White students, in a show of support, fought bloody battles with police on campuses as well as in the streets of Johannesburg and Cape Town. In the end, more than six hundred blacks were shot and killed by the police in the Soweto area alone. In the country as a whole, it is estimated that the number of blacks killed may have reached several thousand and that several thousand more may have fled the country to take up arms with the African National Congress, the outlawed black guerrilla organization fighting to overthrow the apartheid regime. Hundreds more were arrested and detained, including Winnie Mandela, Mandela, Winnie wife of Nelson Mandela, the world-renowned leader of the African National Congress (ANC). It is hard to develop an accurate count of those killed, since the Vorster regime was sensitive to international opinion that could influence foreign capital and investment; thus the government would understate the totals.

The Soweto uprising did not end with the state’s suppression of the Soweto rebellion. A number of blacks were put on trial, with proceedings beginning in July, 1978. The leaders of the uprising who were not killed or who had not fled the country to prevent their prosecution and possible persecution by the state came to be known as the Soweto Eleven. These eleven were made up of one female and ten males: Susan Sibongile Mthembu, Wilson Welile Chief Twala, Daniel Sechabo Montsitsi, Seth Sandile Mazibuko, Mafison Marobe, Jefferson Khotso Wansi Lengane, Ernest Edwin Thabo Ndabeni, Kennedy Kgotsietsile Mogami, Reginald Teboho Mngomezulu, Michael Sello Khiba, and George Nkosinati Yami Twala. These students ranged from sixteen to twenty-one years of age and were charged with sedition.

The state concentrated on two of the eleven defendants, Montsitsi and Marobe. These two were older, more mature, more intellectually sophisticated, and unimpressed by the power of the state regime to determine their fate. In addition, Marobe was known to have connections with the ANC, the organization most hated by the state. Before the trial, Montsitsi was brutally beaten a number of times by state security agents in an attempt to change his attitude. The state set out to prove that the Soweto Eleven were older, organized instigators and that conditions in Soweto really were not that bad for blacks. The Soweto Eleven contended that the rebellion was a spontaneous event provoked by the police and the poverty-stricken conditions of blacks. Ten of the eleven were eventually convicted of various charges emanating from the Soweto uprising. Nine of the eleven drew suspended sentences. Montsitsi and Marobe, the two primary targets of the prosecution, drew four- and three-year prison terms, respectively.


The Soweto rebellion continued for months, and many blacks were killed before it was crushed. This incident contributed to South Africa’s legacy of racism and oppression in international circles. Additional sanctions were instituted by Western countries as a result. In the past, the regime had put down black rebellions almost instantaneously with brutal shows of force. This was the case in the Sharpeville Massacre Sharpeville Massacre (1960) in 1960. More than five thousand unarmed black men, women, and children had gathered in front of a police station to protest the law requiring them to carry passbooks, internal passports that determined where blacks could live and work. The police responded without warning with deadly force, shooting at point-blank range. About sixty-nine blacks were killed, most shot in the back as they attempted to flee from the barrage of gunfire. Hundreds were wounded.

Two Soweto students carry the body of another student who was shot and killed by police during a peaceful protest against the mandatory use of the Afrikaans language in schools.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Soweto is considered a turning point in the black revolution in South Africa to overthrow the system of apartheid and white minority rule. After Soweto, guerrilla and revolutionary activities against the apartheid regime intensified. From the ashes of the Soweto conflict arose the Black Consciousness movement, composed of a number of student organizations committed to self-help and liberation as well as condemnation of the older generation of moderate blacks. By the early 1980’s, the regime had begun to institute a number of political reforms aimed at reducing international criticism, attracting greater foreign investment, and dividing the indigenous Asian and “Coloured” populace from the black majority.

One of these reforms was the creation of a tricameral legislature. Whites, Asians, and Coloureds would have their own chambers, but with the white chamber having veto power over all legislation approved by the other houses. Under this reform, the black majority, 68 percent of the total population in South Africa, still would not have national representation. Lacking representation, blacks had no mechanism to voice their grievances. Black protests against the so-called reforms were the spark for President Pieter W. Botha Botha, Pieter W. to declare a state of emergency in 1985, in which the military and police killed and wounded thousands of protesters and imprisoned thousands more with neither charge nor trial. A second state of emergency was declared as antiapartheid protests, many nonviolent, continued. Thousands were killed or imprisoned.

By 1986, the U.S. Congress had responded by passing the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (1986)[Comprehensive Antiapartheid Act] imposing severe sanctions for the racial atrocities and human rights violations against the black majority. The European Commonwealth and the European Economic Community each also imposed a variety of economic sanctions in the aftermath of the violent suppression.

South Africa continued to undergo reform, including removal of most of the apartheid laws that ensured cruel and unusual treatment of blacks. These reforms were widely attributed to sanctions by other countries, which had a devastating effect on the South African economy. Reforms were also attributed to the sweeping changes in world politics, including the collapse of Communism, and to the international support for a peaceful and negotiated end to white majority rule in South Africa. This goal was achieved with the democratic election in 1994 of Nelson Mandela Mandela, Nelson as the president of the first black majority government in South Africa, an event that signaled the final demise of the apartheid system. Riots;Soweto student rebellion Soweto student rebellion (1976) Apartheid;resistance and protest South Africa;human rights abuses

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brink, Elsabe. Soweto, 16 June 1976: It All Started with a Dog. Cape Town: Kwela Books, 2001. Commemorates the twenty-fifth anniversary of the uprising with interviews with twenty-five individuals who were at school in Soweto on that day. Brief introduction provides context for the events. Includes maps and bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carroll, Raymond, Peter Younghusband, and Scott Sullivan. “From Sharpeville to Soweto.” Newsweek, June 28, 1976, 32-34. Discusses the issues, personalities, and events related to the Soweto rebellion and focuses on South Africa’s relations with the United States in the aftermath of the uprising.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Glaser, Clive. Bo-Tsotsi: The Youth Gangs of Soweto, 1935-1976. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2000. Includes a chapter on Soweto gangs and the rise of student politics in Soweto. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Paul. “The Race for South Africa.” In At Issue: Politics in the World Arena, edited by Steven L. Spiegel. 5th ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Analyzes the debate regarding sanctions against South Africa in light of apartheid policies. Concludes by arguing that it would be best for the United States to impose sanctions before a black government takes over and develops a hostile attitude toward the West.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rubin, Leslie, and Brian Weinstein. Introduction to African Politics: A Continental Approach. 2d ed. New York: Praeger, 1977. Chapter 6 focuses on Southern Africa, the roots of apartheid, African resistance to it, and the regime’s reaction to the resistance. Presents several major conclusions based on increasing resistance to apartheid and economic pressures by foreign governments for societal change and equality in South Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Seegers, Annette M. “South African Liberation: Touchstone of African Solidarity.” In African Security Issues: Sovereignty, Stability, and Solidarity, edited by Bruce E. Arlinghaus. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1984. Examines the history of the armed struggle against South Africa by other black African nations and explains the impact of this struggle on the regime’s changing domestic and foreign policies against the African neighbors. Focuses on organized efforts against apartheid.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“The Soweto Uprising: A Soul-Cry of Rage.” Time, June 28, 1976, 29-34. Examines the origins, issues, and events associated with the Soweto rebellion and discusses the international ramifications of the domestic turmoil, particularly concerning the United States and the former British colony known as Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zartman, William I. Ripe for Resolution: Conflict and Intervention in Africa. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Divided into six major chapters on war and prospects for peace in the major regions of Africa. Chapter 5 focuses on the prospects for independence for Namibia, a colony of South Africa in 1989, and the weaknesses and strengths in the negotiation process between the United States and South Africa.

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Categories: History