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The iconic images that came to define the Soweto Uprising of June 16th, 1976.

This series of images depict scenes of a tragic moment that has come to symbolize this day in South African history.

As planned on June 16th, 1976, students from schools around Soweto began to gather and protest against a policy by the South African government that, through a system they called ‘Bantu Education’, that forced black students from the 7th grade onwards to be taught lessons in Afrikaans. Not only was this policy impractical as many students had little to no knowledge in Afrikaans which made learning subjects in high school difficult, Afrikaans was a language that symbolized oppression and the racist authority of the apartheid government.

Armed mostly with their new found confidence and attitudes of defiance cultivated by the Black Consciousness rhetoric sweeping the country, the students had planned that these protests would be a peaceful demonstration. The mass rally had been planned in secret by the Students formed an Action Committee (later known as the Soweto Students’ Representative Council) on June 13th, 1976, with student Teboho “Tsietsi” Mashinini as the main leader of the protests.

On the day, between 10, 000 - 50, 000 students began to make their way, as planned, to the Orlando Stadium in Soweto. Many of the participants were only notified of the rally on the day of the event. According to his sister, Antoinette Sithole, 13-year-old Hector Pieterson found himself there more out of curiosity out of anything else. Unfortunately, it was at this time that things began to take a violent turn. Police, who were heavily armed, began releasing their dogs on the crowds. But the crowd was large and many protestors overpowered the animals. After this, the police began to shoot into the crowd of unarmed students. One of the first causalities recorded on that day was the young Hector Pieterson.  

More and more victims were killed on that day, and one such individual was Dr. Melville Edelstein, a white social worker in Soweto who had devoted his life to providing healthcare to many in the area. Unfortunately, Dr. Edelstein was the “victim of the consequences of the apartheid system – a racist system which socialized South Africans to impulsively judge and respond to one another not as individuals with individual qualities, but according to a stereotypical image based solely on skin colour.”

Taken by South African photographer Sam Nzima, the first image was published in newspapers around the world the following day and has become one of the most iconic images of South African history.

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