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Coming to Terms With the Past: Soweto June 16th, 1976

Gary Baines explains that the ANC government has institutionalized memories of the Soweto uprising in its efforts to build a new national identity in South Africa.

On June 16th, 1976, the South African police opened fire on a mass march of school students from Soweto, a township southwest of Johannesburg, killing at least twenty-three. What had begun as a peaceful demonstration quickly escalated into a revolt characterized by attacks on symbols of state power in black townships. The Soweto uprising proved to be a watershed in the demise of the apartheid regime.

The Bantu Education Act of 1953 had given responsibility for the education of all school-going blacks to the Bantu Education Department, part of the Department of Native Affairs, then headed by the white supremacist Hendrick Verwoerd. Conditions in the department’s schools were appalling. There was a chronic lack of educational materials, student-teacher ratios were as high as 56:1 and only one in ten teachers had matriculation certificates. In 1976, following the restructuring of the curriculum, Standard 6 students were reassigned from primary to secondary schools, resulting in the enrolment of 257,505 pupils, while classrooms across the country had space for only 38,000. The introduction of ‘double sessions’ did little to alleviate the massive overcrowding.

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