On 16 June Youth Day is celebrated in South Africa in recognition of the role of the student uprising in June 1976 in the demise of apartheid. But 16 June is more than just a day of recognition; it serves as a stark reminder of the brutality of the apartheid regime and the futility of force in the face of social unrest.
On 16 June 1976, students marched to Orlando West Secondary School in Soweto to stage a peaceful protest against Bantu education policies that made Afrikaans a mandatory language of instruction in schools. Accounts of the events of that day estimate that 15 000 to 20 000 students participated in the march. There is no clarity on whether the police fired without provocation or whether stones were thrown at the police creating the response of shooting - in retrospect it is not all that important. The police fired on the students killing at least 20 people (official death toll was 23 but unofficial sources claim that as many as 200 students were killed). The students reacted by turning the march into a hostile uprising overturning cars, burning vehicles and buildings and symbols of the apartheid regime.
The protests spread across the country causing the largest outbreak of violence against the repressive state. The response from the government was to increase the use of force in an attempt to quell the unrest and restore the order of minority rule through violence.
The Soweto protests caught the apartheid security apparatus by surprise. The police were not ready for a march on that scale and the spread of unrest and mass uprising was not an anticipated response to apartheid rule. After having successfully disrupted the ability of the ANC to organise within South Africa in the late 1960s with the arrest and detention of top leadership, the thought of mass opposition to apartheid was not taken very seriously. A cognitive bias on the side of the apartheid intelligence and security structures failed to adequately assess the impact of their policies on the people and resulted in an under-estimation of the level of discontent. Of all the discriminatory policies implemented, it was a policy aimed at reducing the amount of spending on education in the face of national recession that ignited the fury of the people and brought international condemnation and shame. A costly misjudgement for the apartheid state and renewal for the liberation struggle - 16 June 1976 is a watershed moment in South African history.
After the June unrest, the apartheid state turned to increasing harsh policing techniques in an attempt to contain unrest. The state security apparatus and orientation began to shift towards increasingly militarised approaches to counter-insurgency that became the stalwart strategic position during the 1980s. For the opposition, the Soweto riots not only unleashed the anger of decades of repression but also showed that no amount of force or coercion was going to prevent the people from fighting for democracy and freedom. The reaction of the police and military during those fateful winter days spurred hundreds of people to go into exile, undertake military training and become active opponents of the regime.
What do we learn from the student uprisings of 1976 and why is it still such a relevant event today? Firstly, the Soweto protests show that cases of insecurity do not necessarily have their roots in security problems but that social and economic micro-conflicts have the potential to link into full-scale conflict and reignite macro-conflicts. Secondly, we learn that enhancing state security capacity does not necessarily lead to enhanced security. Creating state security agencies and bodies with wide ranging mandates, manpower and financial resources is not necessarily the answer to insecurity - especially if we fail to recognise or understand the roots of that insecurity. Thirdly, force is futile in the face of social unrest. Force and coercion can be successfully deployed for short-term stability gains but long-term sustainable security is dependent on the focused efforts of the whole spectrum of state functions and services.
In South Africa, the soccer World Cup will probably dominate news on June 16 this year. It provides a month of escapism following a year dominated by political scandal, corruption and intrigue all played out against the backdrop of failing local government, increasing poverty and service delivery protests. The ANC should look back to 1976 with new eyes and see that through the failure to provide for the basic needs of the people, a powerful security regime was bought to its knees by students in school uniform. With high levels of inequality and lack of socio-economic development, not only will the government be challenged to meet human security demands, but the very survival of the ruling regime could be at risk.
Written by: Lauren Hutton, Researcher, Security Sector Governance Programme