7 Historic & Ongoing Fights for Human Rights in South Africa You Should Know

7 Historic & Ongoing Fights for Human Rights in South Africa You Should Know

As South Africa celebrates Human Rights Day, the country reflects on a day defined by the horrific Sharpeville massacre.

That day, March 21, 1960, began with demonstrations in the township of Sharpeville against the apartheid government’s pass laws, which restricted the rights of the Black people in the country. It ended with the deaths of 69 unarmed civilians at the hands of 300 police who fired into the protesting crowd. 

Today, we not only honour the lives that were lost in the protest for basic human rights, but we salute activists and coalitions dedicated to righting the wrongs of the past, and making sure the country’s most vulnerable and marginalised people are not left behind. Their voices and their advocacy are crucial to building a country that is fair and just, and they must be protected and empowered. 

The United Nations has also named March 21 the International Day of the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, also in recognition of the Sharpeville massacre, to motivate the entire world to eradicate racism.

The Sharpeville massacre occurred over 30 years before apartheid was abolished. Within those years and through to today, there have been warriors who stand for the rights of many, calling out ongoing violations to human rights and lifting the voices of those who need to be heard most. 

Without strong advocacy for the defence of human rights, South Africa would not be the rainbow nation it is today. This same advocacy from the country’s activists and leaders on the front lines must continue to be protected as they call for the rights of all people, and as newer movements continue the work. 

From marching to parliament to cement the rights of all women, to tearing down a statue symbolic of South Africa’s colonial past, these protest and social movements are just some of the many that have stood for the human rights of every person — across education, racial and gender equality, water and sanitation access, and more. 

Black Consciousness Movement

The Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) began in the late 1960s, in the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre, and started as a student movement that sought to uplift people of colour.  

It was established when Black students walked out of the National Union of South African Students, which was white-dominated, and founded their own union, the South African Students Organization (SASO), that was open exclusively to non-white people. 

The movement gradually grew to include adults, and was led by anti-apartheid activist, Steve Biko. The young leader promoted a philosophy of Black Consciousness, which encouraged Black people to free themselves from the chains of oppression, take responsibility for their lives, and take pride in being Black. This thinking empowered young Black South Africans at the time, and was important for them to understand and fight for their rights and freedom. 

South Africa’s BCM coincided with the Black Power Movement in the United States, and as such, Biko gained international notoriety.

Biko’s ideologies and the BCM are credited for the Soweto Uprising of 1976, after which apartheid authorities made sure that the movement was dissipated and its leader arrested. Biko died in police custody one year later. 

The Soweto Uprising

Mbuyisa Makhubo carries young Hector Pieterson in the aftermath of the Soweto Uprising. Hector’s sister, Antoinette, is runs beside them, 1976.
Mbuyisa Makhubo carries young Hector Pieterson in the aftermath of the Soweto Uprising. Hector’s sister, Antoinette, is runs beside them, 1976.
Image: Flickr/Sam Nzima/Robert Cutts

The Soweto Uprising was a protest movement led by Black South African school children. It took place on the morning of June 16, 1976, in the township of Soweto. School children took to the streets in response to the Afrikaans language being introduced as the main medium of instruction.

Afrikaans was to be used as the main language of instruction for mathematics and social studies from the seventh grade. The riots were triggered by the Bantu education system, which was created to deprive Black people of jobs that offered growth. 

The Bantu education system was meant to ensure that Black people only hold roles such as labourers, workers, and servants. This led to students taking to the streets to demand better education. 

The protest began in 1975 through to April 30, 1976, when children from Orlando West Junior School went on strike. Tsietsi Mashinini, a student from Morris Isaacson High School, proposed a meeting on June 13, 1976, to discuss what could be done. All students agreed to start a peaceful protest.

Many people, including parents, joined the protests and it was estimated that 250,000 people were involved

The students marched from their schools to Soweto’s Orlando Stadium on the morning of June 16, but were met by the police on their way. Police opened fire on the protestors, killing at least 176 people

Women’s Rights March

The month of August is now recognised as Women’s Month in South Africa, and it is predominantly thanks to the over 20,000 women who took to the streets of Pretoria in 1956 and demanded equal rights for all women. 

This protest movement was in response to apartheid’s pass laws that were introduced in 1952 and specifically restricted Black women and women of colour. On Aug. 9, 1956, thousands of women of different races and classes came together in protest of the government’s decision and marched to present a petition against pass books to then Prime Minister J.G Strijdom. 

Leading the march, among other incredible women, were anti-apartheid activists Albertina Sisulu, Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, and Sophia Williams-De Bruyn, who have become the faces of the collective movement. 

From the march came the now-famous protest chant: “Wathint’abafazi, Wathint’imbokoto” meaning, “You strike a woman, you strike a rock.” 

While the apartheid government declined the appeal to abolish pass laws for African women, the protest itself made history for its statement and for bringing together thousands of women from all walks of South African society for the first time. 


On May 30, 2016, footage of eNCA reporter Nontobeko Sibisi was removed from television by her line editor for wearing a doek (head scarf) on coverage of Africa Day. In a leaked email, Sibisi defended her actions for wearing a doek during the taping of Africa Day celebrations in Africa Month.

After the unconstitutional actions by the line editor, women from different races wore doeks in support of Sibisi and posted pictures to social media using the hashtag #RespekTheDoek. While no apology was received, the former eNCA editor-in-chief said that the footage had since been aired repeatedly.

A doek is normally worn for traditional and religious reasons by African women as a symbol of respect. In recent times, they have been worn as a fashion statement or worn as a form of protest to indicate support for issues that affect women in the country. After the death of apartheid activist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela women adorned themselves with doeks to celebrate her life.

Social Justice Coalition Movement

The Social Justice Coalition is a democratic, mass-based social movement that campaigns for the advancement of the constitutional rights of those living in informal settlements across South Africa. 

The Social Justice Coalition was founded on June 16, 2008 and is a membership-based movement with branches across the Western Cape. Their campaigns are based on research, education, and advocacy and the movement consists of over 2,500 members. 

Khayelitsha Township, near Cape Town, was established in 1983 to accommodate new residents that were overcrowding the Crossroads area. Khayelitsha became overcrowded and crime rates began to increase, becoming one of the most unsafe townships in South Africa. Residents also saw that police were conducting fewer investigations for crimes committed.

In 2017, at the beginning of Cape Town’s water crisis, one-third of the residents of Khayelitsha had no access to water, a quarter had no access to flushing toilets, and hundreds of thousands people had no access to sanitation facilities. The Social Justice Coalition worked to provide justice for those without water and to educate people about the city’s budgeting process for sanitation, policing, and safety.

Rhodes Must Fall 

Students gather on University of Cape Town’s main campus on the day the Cecil John Rhodes memorial statue was removed in 2015.
Students gather on University of Cape Town’s main campus on the day the Cecil John Rhodes memorial statue was removed in 2015.
Image: Flickr/Desmond Bowles

The Rhodes Must Fall protest movement started on March 9, 2015. At first, the aim of the protest was against the statue of colonial leader Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town (UCT), which students felt was a symbol of oppression. As the protest gained momentum, it grew to include lack of racial transformation within UCT, access to education, and student accommodation.

It was a movement by students with the support of employees at UCT that fought against the institutional racism that was happening at the university.

The protests peaked when Chumani Maxwele, a student activist, threw a bucket filled with human excrement at the statue alongside protesters. Three days later students and the university had an open dialogue about students’ grievances but a week later, students participated in a march where they demanded an official date for the removal of the statue. 

On March 29, 2015, the senate at UCT voted in favour of the removal of the statue and it was officially removed from the campus on April 9, 2015.

Within a year, the movement spread to other universities in South Africa and even to the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.  

Students at the University of Pretoria protested for the removal of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in 2016, but were met with fury from the white students who wanted Afrikaans to remain as the primary medium of instruction. Finally, in 2019, the university has proposed to phase out Afrikaans as its language of instruction and use English as the primary language for instruction.

Fees Must Fall

Students from the University of the Witwatersrand protest in surrounding streets outside the campus in Johannesburg, March 10, 2021.
Students from the University of the Witwatersrand protest in surrounding streets outside the campus in Johannesburg, March 10, 2021.
Image: AP Photo

There has been an ongoing struggle in the tertiary education space in South Africa, one that has led to countless protests in the last decade. This struggle amounts to the rising cost of university fees and the lack of funding to support students who wish to attend school. 

The Fees Must Fall Movement was founded in 2015 after students at the University of the Witwatersrand launched a protest demanding the university scrap fees for students from poor families. 

South Africa was soon brought to a stand-still as students across the country heard the call and protested at their own universities in different regions. Years later, the protests have lived on in the wake of universities refusing to accept students with historical debt and the government decreasing essential funding for poorer students.

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