Pupils from numerous Soweto schools are reported to have had a peaceful protest in the streets of the township in response to the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction at their schools.
The protest turned violent when police opened fire on unarmed pupils. By the third day the unrest had gained momentum and spread to townships around Soweto and other parts of the country.
The class of 1976 bravely took to the streets and overturned the whole notion that workers were the only essential force to challenge the apartheid regime.
The estimated number of pupils who took part in the protest is 20 000. There are conflicting reports on the number of people who died.
The number of fatalities is usually given as 176, but there are estimates of up to 700.
Teachers also raised objections to the government announcement. Some black teachers, who were members of the African Teachers Association of South Africa, complained that they were not fluent in Afrikaans.
The pupils initially organised themselves into local cultural groups and youth clubs.
At schools, there was a significant number of branches of the Students Christian Movements (SCMs), which were largely apolitical in character. The uprising took place at a time when liberation movements were banned throughout the country and South Africa was in the grip of apartheid.
South African citizens were outraged at the government’s actions in Soweto, and about 300 white students from the University of the Witwatersrand marched through Johannesburg’s city centre in protest of the killing of children.
Black workers went on strike as well and joined them as the campaign progressed.
Hector Pieterson became the subject of an iconic image of the 1976 Soweto uprising in South Africa when a news photograph by Sam Nzima of the dying Pieterson, being carried by another pupil while his sister ran next to them, was published around the world.
He was killed at the age of 12 when the police opened fire on protesting students. For years, 16 June has stood as a symbol of resistance to the brutality of the apartheid government.
Youth Day was initially known as Soweto Day but was officially made a public holiday after Nelson Mandela became president in 1994. The new government chose to call it Youth Day, to commemorate the role all youths played in overcoming the previous regime.