Soweto Blues: Facts Behind The South African Classic Song

Soweto blues is an all time classic song by Miriam Makeba. June 16 marked the remembrance of the 40-year old history behind the song; the bloody Soweto Uprising.

“The children got a letter from the master
It said: no more Xhosa, Sotho, no more Zulu.
Refusing to comply they sent an answer
That’s when the policemen came to the rescue
Children were flying bullets dying
The mothers screaming and crying
The fathers were working in the cities
The evening news brought out all the publicity:

Just a little atrocity, deep in the city

Soweto blues…”- Miriam Makeba

These were not just lyrical words used by the late South African music veteran. They were the realities of the people of Soweto during the Apartheid era.

Soweto Uprising

On June 16, 1976, South Africa recorded one of its biggest bloody blows from the apartheid government. The imperialist police opened fire on innocent school children who were having an intended peaceful protest.

The Soweto uprising was caused by a new rule by the apartheid government to use only Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools. In other words, the foreign and oppressive government directly abolished the use of their native languages in schools.

The students could not swallow the blow. Coupled with the accumulation of constrained fury against the government, they threw caution to the wind and dared to reject the rule.

See Also: 20 Years After South Africa’s Truth And Reconciliation Commission


The South African government could not take the insubordination and guts of these brave students. So they unleashed their dogs and bullets on them.

As many as 176 children were killed. However they didn’t go down without a fight. They retaliated with stones and all they could lay their hands on in self-defense.

In subsequent months, an estimated number of about 150 – 700 South Africans were killed.

Survivors of the ordeal, describe the apartheid generation as a generation that “had lost faith in its political leaders, who were mostly in jail or exile.” Thus, Miriam Makeba’s unanswered questions,

“Benikuphi ma madoda (where were the men)
abantwana beshaywa (when the children were throwing stones)
ngezimbokodo Mabedubula abantwana (when the children were being shot)
Benikhupi na (where were you?)”

Soweto Uprising

See Also: Viva! Viva! South Africans! The Day Madiba Made History

South Africa’s tourist spot, Hector Pieterson museum was established in honour of the Soweto Uprising. The museum has about 90,000 visitors a year.

“I’d say out of the 40 or 50 school kids I usually take round the museum in any one group, you’ll have three or four who either know something or engage. “  Liz Block, Lecturer & Volunteer Tour Guide.

A South African national expressed his sadness that after the spilled blood of the past, a significant rate of violence is still seen in squatter camps.

“Was the sacrifice worth it? A lot has been done. I am proud to be a South African. But I am still saddened. There is much that is wrong. People are still being gunned down in squatter camps when they protest. We didn’t fight for that.”– Ntsiki


South Africa Celebrates its Youth Day on June 16, every year. This is to commemorate the bloody sacrifices of innocent South African children during the Soweto Uprising.