South Africa ranks as one of the countries with the most public holidays in the world, and while everyone enjoys an extra day off from work or school, it is important that we don’t forget the significance and meaning behind these special days.
On June 16, South Africa celebrates Youth Day, which honours and pays tribute to the memory of the brave school children who lost their lives in the fight for human rights. Of course, it isn’t just a time for reflection; the day presents the opportunity to focus on the issues that affect our youth today and implement long-lasting initiatives to empower them.
On 16 June 1976, black students walked out of classrooms into the streets of Soweto to protest against the racist laws that stood in the way of their education. They were protesting against laws that made Afrikaans compulsory in black township schools throughout the country. The use of local languages was prohibited whereas the constitution supported that Afrikaans and English be made the official languages of the country. What started out as a peaceful rally turned into a violent confrontation with the SAPS.
We reflect on this day in history with popular quotes that reflect of how the racist apartheid government sought to oppress students and how people fought for freedom:
Official declarations from the apartheid government:
“Natives must be taught that equality with Europeans is not for them.” Hendrik Verwoerd
“An African might find that that “the big boss” only spoke Afrikaans or English. It would be to his advantage to know both languages. I have not consulted the African people on the language issue and I’m not going to.” Punt Jansen, Deputy Minister of Bantu Education
“The police have been instructed, regardless of who is involved, to protect lives and property with every means at their disposal. This government will not be intimidated and instructions have been given to maintain law and order at all costs.” John Vorster, Prime Minister
How the people and students stood up for their rights and dignity:
“They would be sitting in my car, telling me what it is like to be a student in South Africa, to be taught history and mathematics in Afrikaans by a Black teacher who did not know Afrikaans himself and who had to consult a textbook to find out what a triangle or an angle was all about.” Dr Nthatho Motlana, an activist
“If we must do Afrikaans, Vorster must do Zulu” Protest placards
“Our original plan was just to get to Orlando West, pledge our solidarity and sing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. Then we thought we would have made our point and we would go back home. No one envisaged a process that would go beyond June 16th. Little did we expect the kind of reaction that we got from the police on that day.” Murphy Morobe, an organiser of the march
Democratic leaders and struggle icons honouring the legacy of the protests and Youth Day as we know it now:
“…let me say this and say this with the utmost conviction: the nation owes you a clear policy and practical measures to ensure that the youth contributes to, and benefits from, our new democracy.” Nelson Mandela, former President of the Republic of South Africa
“You are fantastic; do you know that? Our freedom, in a very large measure was due to what young people such as yourselves did 40 years ago not very far from where we lived in Soweto where Hector Pieterson was shot and killed. But you are fantastic. Reach for your stars, because now you can be anything and everything you want to be.” Archbischop Desmond Tutu
No matter how we choose to spend this public holiday as South Africans, remember to take the time to reflect on the incredible sacrifices of the students who fought for equal rights and think of ways in which you can help to empower and uplift the future generations of our country. Happy Youth Day!