In South Africa June is celebrated as ‘Youth Month’, in memory of the events of June 16th 1976, when school students in Soweto – and many other places around the country – rose up against the apartheid government. They were met with brute force, and many young unarmed protestors were shot by police.

One of the students who died that day was 12-year-old Hector Pieterson. Photographer, Sam Nzima took a photograph of the dying Hector Pieterson being carried in the arms of a fellow student through the streets of Soweto, as Hector’s sister ran beside them. The photo was published around the world and became an iconic image and Hector became an icon of the struggle against apartheid. (Click here to read more about Hector Pieterson).

The immediate cause of the protests was the apartheid government’s decision to make African students write their matric in Afrikaans. But the young people were also protesting against the apartheid laws which stopped black people from voting, only allowed them to live in particular places, provided inferior education and services, suppressed any opposition such as the ANC, and many other injustices.

So when the decree about Afrikaans was announced, school students decided that enough was enough. Between 3,000 and 10,000 students boycotted school and marched in the streets of Soweto to demand change. They were met by armed police who fired teargas and then live ammunition on the students. By official reports 23 people had been killed, but some reports estimate that at least 200 people were killed. According to SA History it is hard to know the real number of deaths because the police and the government of the time tried to cover it up.

The events of 16 June shocked the world. In many ways it was a turning point in South African history as the apartheid government cracked down on opposition, and many young people went into exile to join the ANC and the armed struggle. (Click here to read the SA History article about it.)

It is now 2019 – 43 years since the 1976 uprising, and 25 years since South Africa ushered in a democratic government. We now have the democracy that these young people fought for and for which some died. And, we have one of the most famous and progressive constitutions in the world. Everyone in the country can vote, we have freedom of speech, and we are free to live and work where we choose. Our rights are protected by law. That is certainly something to celebrate.

However, for many of today’s young people, life remains challenging in different ways.

South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world – the gap between rich and poor people is huge. According to the World Bank, in 2015 the richest 10% of the population hold 71% of net wealth while the bottom 60% of the population held only 7% of the country’s wealth. The report notes that it is hard for those who are born into poor households and communities to change their circumstances. (Read this report here.)

South Africa also has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world, according to Stats SA, which found that youth aged 15-24 years were the most likely to be unemployed, with a 55.2% unemployment rate in the first three months of 2019. (Read this report here.)

We used to be famous for our ‘rainbow nation’, the way that our democracy was born not out of bloodshed, but out of negotiation and agreements. Now we are infamous for corruption, as many politicians and businesspeople chose to enrich themselves rather than working for a fairer South Africa. We are also a violent society with a high crime rate, and much domestic violence against women. So it is difficult for many young people to find their way through these challenges.

However, South Africa also has many amazing people and organisations who are working to make South Africa a better place. There is hope, and there is opportunity, but it is not always easy to find. This youth month, let us remember the spirit of the bravery of the young people who sacrificed their lives for a free South Africa, and work towards making a South Africa that they would be proud of today.


Note: this article forms the first text for the #YouthPower online course competition. After answering the questions on this article (click on the link to the comprehension questions below), you will read and answer questions on a poem about challenges young people face today, and then an article and poem about hopes for future generations. Remember to successfully enter the competition you must complete all the readings, answer all the questions and get an average of 70% to be entered into the lucky draw. Enjoy!


Tell us: What are the biggest challenges you feel are facing the youth in your community?