Youth Day in South Africa and the Songs Written About It – Soweto Uprising

Youth Day in South Africa, observed on June 16, commemorates the Soweto Uprising of 1976, a pivotal event in South Africa’s history. This day marks the struggle of black students against the apartheid regime’s oppressive policies, particularly the imposition of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in schools.

The decision to enforce Afrikaans alongside English as the compulsory language for teaching in black schools was seen as a direct attempt to further suppress the black population and reinforce the apartheid system, characterised by severe racial segregation and discrimination.

What happened on June 16, 1976?

Thousands of black students from various schools in Soweto, a township near Johannesburg, organised a peaceful protest to voice their opposition to the new language policy. The protest, spearheaded by the South African Students Movement’s Action Committee, later known as the Soweto Students’ Representative Council (SSRC), aimed to march from their schools to Orlando Stadium to hold a rally. However, they were met with violent resistance from the police.

The police response to the peaceful march was brutal and unprovoked, with officers opening fire on the unarmed students, leading to widespread chaos and violence, resulting in the deaths of many young protesters.

One of the most iconic and tragic images from the uprising is the photograph of Hector Pieterson, a 13-year-old boy who was shot and killed by the police. The photograph, taken by journalist Sam Nzima, shows Hector’s lifeless body being carried by fellow student Mbuyisa Makhubo, with Hector’s sister, Antoinette Sithole, running alongside them. This powerful image became a symbol of the brutality of the apartheid regime and drew international attention to the plight of black South Africans.

16 June 1976, Soweto: Against the backdrop of buildings and other students, Nzima had captured the picture of Hector Pieterson, his sister, Antoinette Pieterson, and the fellow student, Mbuyisa Makhubo, who was carrying Pieterson.

Sam Nzima, born on August 8, 1934, in Lilydale, South Africa, was the photographer behind this iconic image. Nzima’s interest in photography began in his youth, leading him to work as a freelance photographer before joining The World newspaper in Johannesburg. His photograph of Hector Pieterson had a profound impact on the global perception of apartheid, highlighting the extreme measures the South African government was willing to take to suppress dissent. Despite the significance of his work, Nzima faced severe repercussions for capturing and publishing the image, including harassment and threats from the apartheid authorities, which forced him to leave his job and retreat to his hometown for safety.

Nzima continued to receive recognition for his work later in life, including being awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in Bronze by the South African government in 1998 for his contribution to photojournalism and for documenting a crucial moment in the country’s history. He passed away on May 12, 2018, but his legacy endures through his work, particularly the photograph that captured the world’s attention and became an enduring symbol of the fight for freedom and justice in South Africa.

The initial protest and the subsequent police crackdown sparked further unrest and demonstrations across the country, leading to months of violent clashes between students and authorities. The Soweto uprising marked a turning point in the anti-apartheid struggle, galvanizing both domestic and international support for the movement to end apartheid. The bravery and sacrifices of the students who participated in the uprising are remembered as a catalyst for change, contributing to the eventual dismantling of the apartheid system.

A Day With a Far-Reaching Affect

Today, Youth Day serves as a reminder of the resilience and determination of the young people who fought for their rights and the future of their country. It is a day to reflect on the progress made since the end of apartheid and to recognize the ongoing challenges faced by the youth in South Africa. The holiday is marked by various activities, including educational programs, cultural events, and commemorations that honor the legacy of the young heroes of 1976. These events aim to inspire the current generation to continue the struggle for equality, justice, and opportunities for all South Africans, ensuring that the sacrifices of the past are not forgotten.

The Music Around the Soweto 1976 Uprising

In the years following the uprising, several South African musicians wrote songs to honour the memory of the students and the significance of their struggle. Some of these songs include:

1. “Soweto Blues” by Miriam Makeba

This powerful song, written by Hugh Masekela, describes the events of the Soweto Uprising and the pain experienced by the families of the victims. We sing this song in our show.

We sing this song in our show. The chorus goes:
Benikuphi ma madoda (where were the men?)
Abantwana beshaywa (when the children were throwing stones)
Ngezimbokodo Mabedubula abantwana (when the children were being shot)
Benikhupi na (where were you?)

2. “June 16” by Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim)

A reflective piece by the renowned jazz pianist and composer captures the solemn mood and the enduring impact of the uprising.

No reference found on on the internet. More about the iconic Abdullah Ibrahan.

3. “Soweto” by Hugh Masekela

An instrumental track that pays homage to the township and its significance in the anti-apartheid struggle.

4. “Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)” by Hugh Masekela

While primarily a song calling for the release of Nelson Mandela, it also reflects the broader context of the anti-apartheid movement, including the Soweto Uprising.

5. “Soweto” by The Mahotella Queens

A song that captures the spirit and resilience of the people of Soweto in the face of adversity.

We could not find a video on the internet. More about the Mahotella Queens.

7. Biko” by Peter Gabriel

Although focused on Steve Biko, another anti-apartheid activist, this song references the broader struggle against apartheid, including the Soweto Uprising. Steve Biko died and a police custody. Our favourite is the version by Playing for Change, featuring Peter Gabriel himself and a choir ensemble from Gugulethu, a township in Cape Town where we rehearse.

Shows and Musicals

  1. “Sarafina!”
    • A musical and later a film that dramatizes the Soweto Uprising. It follows the story of a young student, Sarafina, who becomes actively involved in the protests. The show features numerous songs reflecting the spirit and struggles of the time.
  2. “Cry Freedom”
    • Although primarily about Steve Biko and Donald Woods, the film touches on various aspects of the anti-apartheid struggle, including the impact of the Soweto Uprising.
  3. “Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony”
    • A documentary that explores the role of music in the anti-apartheid movement, including songs inspired by the Soweto Uprising.
  4. “Long Road to Freedom”

Profile Photo William Gets Halala Africa“These songs, shows, concerts and movies not only commemorate the bravery of the students but also serve as enduring reminders of the ongoing fight for freedom and equality in South Africa,” says William Gets, producer, Halala Africa. “Our show has many struggle songs from apartheid but also has a broader focus on other cultures and genres; it’s a fantastic compilation of all the greatest music and cuisine to come out of South Africa!”

At the moment, we are offering our show as a private dinner and show. We will come to your holiday accommodation, set up, do our show and serve you traditional South African food just for you! Book now!

“What a superb show! ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️”
~ Paula, USA


A documentary on Youth Day from Historyville