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40 Years After Students Sparked Apartheid’s End, a New Anger

JOHANNESBURG ― The day was a key moment in the long campaign to end South Africa’s harsh apartheid system of White-minority rule. Forty years ago, black students in Johannesburg’s Soweto township marched in protest and some were gunned down by police, appalling the world.

South Africa has changed dramatically since June 16, 1976 , when the high school students defied being forced to study in Afrikaans, the language of their White rulers, and hundreds were killed as the protests spread across the country. In 1990, Nelson Mandela was freed from prison, later winning the Nobel Peace Prize and becoming the country’s first Black president. In 1994, blacks got the right to vote. “Whites only” barriers fell.

A new wave of student protests, over fees charged for higher education, show the country remains starkly divided between the haves and have-nots, as demonstrated by last year’s #Feesmustfall protests by university students. Although living conditions have improved, many Blacks are still in poor neighborhoods without electricity or running water in their homes and concerns grow that a new Black elite is plundering the country’s wealth.

“What has changed? Nothing has changed,” said Seth Mazibuko, one of the organizers of the 1976 Soweto protest who is today the head of the June 16 Youth Development Foundation. “When we were fighting, we were saying doors must be opened to all. Now these doors, when they open, they’re closed for those who do not have money.”

Economic stress is widespread. In a country where the well-off, including most whites, live behind high walls and enjoy sleek malls and international chains including the newly arrived Starbucks, more than a quarter of the 55 million people are unemployed, official statistics say. Unofficially, it’s higher. Government management of the economy is a concern, South Africa’s credit rating is near junk status.

Many of those who supported the Soweto uprising 40 years ago are troubled by the protests of today, in which students or others have burned schools and other community structures. Student protests since October have caused property damage of more than $30 million, the country’s minister for higher education said last week.

“You can fight whatever you want to fight, but don’t burn down what belongs to you,” said Peter Magubane, whose photographs of the students’ clash with police in 1976 helped rivet the world’s attention on the apartheid regime.

At the nearby Apartheid Museum, where visitors receive tickets that randomly designate them as White or Black and enter through corresponding doors, archivist Jacqui Masiza says she gets emotional putting together the narrative of the 1976 uprising. She was a 10-year-old student in Soweto at the time.

Economic equality is not yet where South Africa’s people want it to be, she said. She understands why this generation of students is angry and says that promises made have not yet been fulfilled.

But 40 years ago, the student protest leaders were more disciplined, Masiza said. “If you can find leaders like that among our youth right now, that would be so greatly appreciated.”

To today’s generation of students, that sounds like a challenge.

Students once again marched through Soweto last week, following one of the routes used by the protesters in 1976. This time the students, as well as church leaders and survivors, were protected by police, both Black and White.

Sizwe Makhubo, 17, expressed optimism for South Africa, mixed with frustration.

A high school like his in Soweto can have about 1,000 students, and yet the government offers it just three scholarships, he said. “So only the top three students get to go to university, and what does that say about the rest?”

Such competition for a decent future can breed hatred, he said. Undaunted, the slightly built Makhubo said he hopes to become a lawyer, a politician, and make South Africa a better place.

“Let’s show this old generation we’re not as lost as they think we are,” he said.

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