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Opposed to South Africa's strict rules of apartheid, a biracial group of black and white students run from police in Johannesburg, as authorities disperse the crowd which was marching in the downtown area, June 17, 1976.
AP Photo
Citizenship

How South African Students Woke the World to the Brutalities of Apartheid

Apartheid had been going on for decades by the time students in Soweto, South Africa, decided to stage a peaceful protest on June 16, 1976.

Up until that point in their lives, the violence of apartheid had been mostly structural, according to Time. The political system stripped them of their rights and sunk them into poverty, while infecting government institutions with racism.

But in a predominantly black area like Soweto, where racial divisions weren’t necessarily encountered on a daily basis, the brutal beatings, abductions, and racial harassment found in other parts of the country were relatively infrequent, Time notes.

So students thought they could safely lodge a complaint against injustices by taking to the streets with placards and slogans.

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They were angered by a recently decreed federal policy that required schools to use Afrikaans as the language for certain subjects like math and science. Afrikaans was the language spoken by Afrikaners, the descendants of Dutch settlers who engineered apartheid. Many students in Soweto didn’t know the language, and it was often associated with the oppression of apartheid.

Students saw the policy shift as an attempt to both further marginalize them and force them to accept their degraded place in the system, according to Time.

“Obviously physical science on its own is very difficult,” Antoinette Sithole, who took part in the Soweto protests, told Time in 2016. “The very same subject that you are struggling with in English, we are going to do them in Afrikaans? This doesn’t make sense.”

Read More: 7 Ways Nelson Mandela’s Legacy Still Resonates Today

The Photo That Changed Everything

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On the morning of June 16, students gathered in school courtyards to create signs to protest the new policy. Their numbers soon swelled to the tens of thousands, and they generated a buoyant momentum as they made their way down main streets, according to the Guardian.

But the authorities had been notified of the protest, and police were waiting for the students.

When they arrived, police began firing tear gas and live ammunition at the peaceful protesters. By the day’s end, dozens of people were killed and many more were injured.

Hector Pieterson was one of the victims. He had been excited by the fervor of older students and joined the protests that morning, Sithole, his sister, told Time. A bullet pierced his body, killing him almost instantly. He was only 12 years old.

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Nearby, 18-year-old Umbiswa Makhubo saw Pieterson fall. He ran over, picked him up, and rushed to the closest hospital.

That’s when South African photographer Sam Nzima snapped a photograph that would galvanize the world into action.

In the image, Makhubo carries a limp Pieterson, whose mouth is plastered in blood. Makhubo has an agonized look on his face as his hands tightly grip the boy’s body.

Sithole, Pieterson’s sister, runs alongside them, her face contorted by grief and her hand raised in a devastating gesture.

The photo revealed the dehumanizing trauma of apartheid, and set in motion local and global movements that would eventually topple the regime.

But with or without the image, the day’s violence had already radicalized a new generation of activists, and the protest soon turned into months of action.

Read More: Winnie Mandela, Firebrand of Anti-Apartheid Movement, Dies at 81

The Uprising’s Lasting Impact

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Over the ensuing weeks, hundreds of more people were killed by police, according to the Guardian, but the students achieved their initial objective.

The order to use Afrikaans in schools was rescinded in July, Newsweek explains.

It would be another 14 years before the de-facto leader of the anti-apartheid movement, Nelson Mandela, was released from prison, and four more years before apartheid was dismantled. But the Soweto uprising demonstrated the unbreakable will of the South African people.

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