Soweto Uprising, the catalyst tragedy that led to the pursuance of a multilingual society

The year 2020 marks the 44th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising protest where learners in South Africa took to the streets on 16 June 1976 to protest against the implementation of the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974, which sought to forcibly make Afrikaans the medium of instruction in black schools. The decree was instituted under the fascist Bantu Education system that was deliberately designed to provide blacks with inferior education. Of the decision to enforce the decree, Punt Janson, the then Deputy Minister of Bantu Education, is quoted to have declared “I have not consulted the African people on the language issue and I’m not going to. An African might find that ‘the big boss’ spoke only Afrikaans or spoke only English. It would be to his advantage to know both languages.”

The use of language as a tool of oppression is a practice that predates the apartheid era and can be traced back to the colonisation of many African countries. Colonialists and the apartheid regime understood that language was a powerful tool that could be used to conquer and strip people of their dignity through the denigration of their own languages. The protest of 1976, therefore, was an act against the systematic racism that was ebbed so deep within the apartheid government that it permeated through all its policies which also included the linguistic oppression of black people.

The Soweto uprising is a critical point in the South African linguistic landscape and can be viewed as the catalyst to the multilingual society that democratic South Africa is presently in constant pursuit of. I use the term ‘in pursuit’ because the path to linguistic freedom is a long and arduous road; it is not yet uhuru for many indigenous languages in the country. Notwithstanding the fact that the use of English was, in itself, of colonial construct, however, it had, up to that point, been ‘accepted’ as the medium of instruction in many black schools. Although Afrikaans was also declared an official language in 1925 by the apartheid government, for many black South Africans it was a ‘language of their oppressor’, one they learnt at school as a subject but not a language they were familiar with nor taught their subjects in. Officially, South Africa was a bilingual country, albeit with many languages spoken in the country that were not recognised by the apartheid government. What the Afrikaans Decree sought to do was to force black schools to teach Mathematics, Arithmetic and Social Studies in Afrikaans.

Therefore, the Soweto Uprising can be historically traced as the tipping point of the politics of language in the country that would, decades later with its democratisation, influence the trajectory of the country’s linguistic landscape.

The path to liberation can be a long and winding road, sometimes the actions of a single individual can inspire a movement, like that of Ms Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger on December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama. Perhaps it was the actions of protesting young school children with tattered cardboard placards in the dusty streets of Soweto defiantly declaring ‘If we must do Afrikaans, Vorster must do Zulu’, that lit the spark that inspired a nation to declare in its Constitution the recognition of 11 official languages and make provisions for the promotion of multilingualism and fostering respect for all languages commonly spoken in South African communities.

The Soweto Uprising was a symbol of national refusal to bend to the systematic endeavours of the apartheid state to reinvent the African identity by imposing Afrikaans as a vehicle for the acquisition of knowledge. It was the breaking point to how much the economically disenfranchised and linguistically oppressed blacks could take. It was a ‘no more!’ cry, if you will. So, in as much as total emancipation of indigenous languages was not achieved at the time and even though the protestors (who were young people) may not have been able to fully articulate the linguistic freedom they sought at the time because of their lived experiences; their fight ultimately had a direct impact on the recognition of indigenous languages in democratic South Africa. Their peaceful protest for the autonomy of language that was met with live ammunition resulting in the massacre of black children, led to the recognition that language had been used as a tool of oppression in the country, which the democratic government sought to redress through the establishment of the Pan South African Language Board Act of 1995 to ensure that no language can ever be touted as more important than others again. The actions of the Youth of ‘76 created an opportunity for the development of African languages and serve as a pivotal point in South African politics through which the language question for the country emanates. It awakened thought leaders who recognised the linguistic injustices of apartheid policies and ignited a fire that contributed immensely to shaping the future of our country.

Therefore, when the question is asked; why we call them African Language Liberators, we say; because the price for the right to language was paid for with the lives of the Youth of 1976. We commemorate June 16 to remind ourselves that in South Africa, the right to language came at a sacrifice. It serves as a reminder of the enormity of the mandate the Pan South African Language Board has been entrusted with. We honour the youth of 1976 in remembrance of their bravery to protest the oppressive apartheid laws which sought to elevate one language to perpetuate the idea that one language was more important than all others.



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