On student uprisings: From Soweto to the movement for Palestine

Photo: A Gaza Solidarity Encampment at Northeastern University. Credit: Liberation photo

June 16 marks the 48th anniversary of the 1976 Soweto Uprising in South Africa that led to the state-sponsored murder of over 176 students. These student uprisings were sparked in contesting the obligation of their schools to use Afrikaans in the classroom, which was not commonly spoken and is a language rooted in the European apartheid state. 

The youth uprising was decades in the making. The Bantu Education Act of 1953 was a racist compartmentalization of education for Black South Africans by eliminating nearly all schools available to Black children and linking finance of education for Africans directly to taxes paid by poor Africans themselves. Ultimately, this resulted in the separation of White, Black, Coloured, and Indian people into parallel institutions as such universities and administrative bodies. Between 1954-1960, teachers protested the racist segregation and degradation of their education through the African Education Movement while students protested against the shift towards removing Black South Africans from white universities in places like Cape Town.

After English and Afrikaans were required by law to be used in the schools in 1974, the Black Consciousness Movement and the South African Student Organization led by Steve Biko, were both raising the political consciousness of students across schools. BCM and SASO expanded beyond the student movement quickly embedding themselves in communities such as Soweto, Kings Williams and other areas to create “Black Community Programmes” which provided development programs and political education to poor Black South Africans. BCM was a clear presence in media, schools and tertiary institutions. The growing anti-apartheid sentiment and growth of the movement through these organizations were met with a crackdown from the apartheid state. 

On June 16, 1976,  students organized a peaceful demonstration, and thousands marched to form a rally at Soweto’s Orlando Stadium. On the way, they were met with large military vehicles with teargas and later live ammunition. The news of what happened was soon spread throughout the country and uprisings carried on for over a year. For many organizing against the apartheid government, the Soweto Uprising was a shift towards the beginning of the end. The aftermath of the country-wide student uprisings heavily impacted the apartheid government and exposed the brutality of the state and inspired many to join the then-exiled liberation movements. The liberation movement continued to grow and, eventually, the South African apartheid government fell. 

The student movement today for Palestine

Student movements have a powerful impact on building the consciousness of the people and mobilizing the masses. Just as the Soweto Uprising exposed higher institutions’ roles in maintaining apartheid South Africa, today we see students across the globe standing up against their universities’ complicity in upholding apartheid Israel. Columbia University students sparked a nationwide encampment movement when they launched their encampment in May, demanding the school divest from all Israeli-related investments from its $13.6 billion endowment. The student demands were met with brutal repression by Columbia administration and NYPD, inspiring students across the United States — and later all over the world — to start their own encampments. The violence that students were immediately met with for simply protesting genocide exposed the truth behind universities’ roles in serving ruling class interests: administration demonized the encampment movement, these lies were picked up by the corporate media to prime the public and pave the way for police to terrorize the students and sweep the encampments.

But these repressive measures backfired. Community members and even university faculty mobilized to support the student encampments. And they too were met with violent assaults from Zionists and police. Faculty were subject to arrests, firings, harassment and expulsions barring them from ever entering campus again. 

Just like with the Soweto Uprising, these repressive tactics did not stop the international movement for Palestine, but instead lit a fire for more activity and emboldened calls for disclosure of investment funds and divestment from Israel and companies complicit in Israel’s genocide against Palestinians. 

This moment is creating important momentum and precedents. Immense pressure from students, alumni, faculty and community continues to grow as faculty from across the University of California school system have taken to going on strike to protest the university’s violence against student activists and organizers. Against mounting repression from both campus administration and police forces, students are showing their tactical creativity and steadfastness in calling for the end to the funding of the U.S.-Israeli genocide. The facade of the United States as a beacon of free speech and human rights is exposed as a lie, as universities — with Biden’s backing — call violent murderous police forces for back up and even threaten to deploy the National Guard on their own students. None of this is insignificant — it generates political crisis for U.S. imperialism, and eventually that political crisis will make the backing of Israel untenable.

Apartheid will fall

The political crisis that has been heightened by student struggle is not new in history. In the United States, May 4 marks the anniversary of the 1970 Kent State massacre, in which the National Guard shot four students and injured nine others for protesting the Vietnam War. The similarities of state oppression from that of the South African apartheid government and the imperialist U.S. government of today are clear — when ruling class interests are threatened, police repression and violence will always be their answer. This tactic does not work in their favor, because while the ruling class may assume oppression will scare the masses into hiding, it only draws the contradictions sharper for many. The people begin to see the ways in which they lack actual democratic say over their government and how their tax dollars are spent. They also begin to realize just how far the capitalists will go to protect their interests.

Today we commemorate the spark of the Soweto Uprising which drew out thousands across South Africa. History shows us that, through resistance movements and growing international pressure, apartheid regimes can fall. The Soweto Uprising was an advance in the South Africa anti-apartheid movement, just as the student encampments represent a qualitative shift in the Palestinian struggle for liberation within the United States. The youth of Soweto in South Africa and the youth within the movement for Palestinian liberation show us that wherever there is repression, resistance in the struggle continues, and victory will be certain! 

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