Dr. Brian Pillay Speaks on the Significance of Soweto Day

Dr. Brian Pillay, Professor of Engineering and native of South Africa, discussed June 16 Soweto Day and its significance on its 40th anniversary at an organizational meeting of the UAB Pan African Student Coalition.
Dr. Brian Pillay, Professor of Engineering and native of South Africa, discussed June 16 Soweto Day and its significance on its 40th anniversary at an organizational meeting of the UAB Pan African Student Coalition. 

Dr. Brian PillayAccording to Dr. Pillay, in 1976, the South African government mandated that all Black schools use the Afrikaans language for instruction. The entire school curriculum was to be taught in Afrikaans and English. Students and parents viewed Afrikaans as the language of the oppressor and protested the governmental decree.

Student protests defying the order and the struggle against South African apartheid reached a pivotal point on June 16, 1976. Many students left schools to demonstrate in the streets and rally at a local stadium. 

Armed police and military, ordered to deal with the youth protesters, killed many of the children. One victim of the police action that day was 12-year-old student Hector Pieterson, who was shot and killed by police. A black South African reporter took a picture of a dying Pieterson being carried by another 18-year-old protestor. This picture shared around the world became a rallying symbol for protestors and showed the rest of the world the brutality of the time. Although brutality against protestors intensified, the “eyes of the world” were now watching, Pillay said.

Dr. Pillay indicated that this event helped to pivot the struggle against apartheid, brought attention to the injustices in South Africa, and changed the dynamics of the country. In 1992, Nelson Mandela was released from prison followed by a negotiated settlement from minority to majority rule. As a part of the negotiations, South African whites asked that June 16 would be recognized as Youth Day rather than Soweto Day.

The lifeless body of Hector Pieterson being carried by 18-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubo and running alongside is Antoinette Pieterson. (Photo by Sam Nzima)The lifeless body of Hector Pieterson being carried by 18-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubo and running alongside is Antoinette Pieterson. (Photo by Sam Nzima)