South Africans Mark Student Uprising That Galvanized Anti-apartheid Movement

SOWETO, South Africa

South African President Thabo Mbeki led hundreds of South Africans on a march Friday honoring the sacrifice of children whose bloody uprising 30 years ago reshaped the struggle to end apartheid.

The fight then was against a racist regime that confined Black students to inferior schools and forced them to learn in a language they did not understand.

On Friday, Mbeki told tens of thousands of young people gathered in a Soweto soccer stadium that they must rise up against poverty, illiteracy, violence and AIDS.

“We remember the youth of 1976 because they have left us a lesson that it is possible for young people to stand up and confront the challenges facing them,” he said. “May the courage and vision displayed by our youth 30 years ago, on June 16, 1976, serve to inspire and motivate all of us as we strive to bring happiness to our youth and people during this, our age of hope.”

Linking arms, students, government leaders and veterans of the 1976 demonstration marched through Soweta, a Black township. The march paused at 9 a.m., the moment when police bullets felled their first and youngest victim, 13-year-old Hector Pieterson. His death in the arms of another protester, captured in an iconic photograph, rallied generations to the fight for South Africa’s democracy and freedom.

The brutality of the police response to the unarmed students sparked nationwide rioting in which more than 500 more youths are estimated to have been killed. Thousands of others were maimed, disappeared into detention or fled the country to join guerrilla groups.

Mandla Malinga, a 46-year-old builder, was among the student protesters who were on hand that cold winter’s, which is now a public holiday. Malinga was back Friday to pay tribute to those who did not survive.

“I have friends who were hurt, some of them died,” he said. “It was chaos.”

Martin Mhlanga, 51, injured in a car accident a year ago, watched Friday’s march from a wheelchair in front of his home, his pigtailed, 2-year-old niece leaning against his knees. He said he wanted her to know about an important moment in her country’s history.

“On June 16, that day in 1976, I was on this very same road,” he recalled. “There was tear gas, people screaming, running and police chasing everybody.”

What came to be known as the Soweto Uprising started as a student protest against being taught in Afrikaans, the language of the White oppressor. As rioting spread, it drew world attention to the regime’s violence and injected new life into the struggle to topple it.

But the “liberation before education” spirit of future protests was to have lasting consequences, leaving much of a generation of Black South Africans without the skills to take advantage of opportunities brought by the first all-race elections in 1994.Shirley Makutoane, a 58-year-old teacher at Morris Isaacson High School, where the 1976 demonstrations began, remembered how impressed she was to see students marching in their thousands.

“It was so difficult then, one was not treated as a human being,” she said. “I look at our young people today, and I wonder how do we instill that discipline and purpose?”

Friday’s two-hour march began at Morris Isaacson and ended at a memorial to Pieterson, where Mbeki and representatives of government, the youth and families of the slain lay wreaths of colorful flowers.

— Associated Press
 

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