Remembering 1976 Soweto Uprising

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South Africa led Africa in commemorating the weight of the history of the 1976 Soweto Uprising in which thousands of Black students protesting at the forced teaching of Afrikaans, the language of their white oppressors, died when the brutal apartheid security police unleashed maximum firepower.

South African president Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela's former wife, Winnie and other cadres of the struggle led a march of thousands of people last week from Soweto's Morris Isaacson School -one of the boiling points of the 1976 uprising to a memorial of Hector Pieterson, arguably one of the teenage heroes who became the international symbol of the brutality of apartheid.

Hundreds of children, veterans of the “Class of 76,� council workers, civil servants and people from all walks of life took part in the five-kilometer march to the Hector Pieterson Memorial in a fitting tribute to Pieterson and the more than 600 young protesters who were killed by security forces in Soweto in the ensuing months. "It was historic when the youth themselves said ‘This is our country and it is time to take action,’� South Africa's anti-apartheid icon -Mandela said after meeting the relatives of Tsietsi Mashinini, an organizer of the uprising, at the Nelson Mandela Foundation offices in Johannesburg. Mandela, now 87, urged the young South Africans to remember and honor the sacrifices made by previous generations in the anti-apartheid struggle.

Mandela was still a political prisoner when on June 16, 1976, thousands of Black high school students in Soweto launched the historic protests that later became one of the defining battles and symbol of resistance of Black people against the evil apartheid system. The uprisings showed the naked brutality of apartheid to the world which watched in horror as security forces fired teargas and bullets into crowds of innocent children. They killed 23 people in Soweto alone on the first day according conservative and doctored estimates of the time.

The death of Pieterson and the other youth ignited a wave of national protest that received worldwide attention and increased Black opposition to the discredited apartheid system. A photograph showing Pieterson dead in the arms of a friend and Pieterson's sister by his side went around the world and came to symbolize the inhuman and brutal system of apartheid. By 1975 the government was spending 644 rands per year on a white child but a paltry 42 rand on a Black child sparking discontent among Black populations in South Africa.

Many of the June 16 activists fled the country and went into exile to join the then banned African Nation Congress (ANC) and helped to propel the armed struggle further until the downfall of apartheid in 1994. Soweto Uprising veteran Trofomo Sono, now 49, felt great about the achievement 30 years on.  "I am feeling wonderful this morning. To us it is mission accomplished," the former student leader said. "I remember it was a cold morning like today. Things were tense then and we as students were gatvol,â€? he added, jokingly using the Afrikaans word meaning fed up.

In 1976, there were 32 students in Morris Isaacson form 5A class that had militant students but only 23 turned up for the 30th anniversary reunion held recently at Gold Reef City Casino's Convention Centre. Seven are dead. It was a memorable reunion for them as they went down memory lane to the “Class of 76� with pride and with a sense of heroism.

"The struggle for the youth today did not end when democracy came in 1994. We have new struggles like the fight against HIV and Aids and for a better education," Mondli Makhanya, editor of South Africa's Sunday Times weekly wrote in a memorial to one of the student leaders.

Poverty still stalls South Africa's post-apartheid “Rainbow nation� with the majority of Blacks in sprawling townships and the countryside still struggling for water, health and other basic infrastructure and services. White South Africans still own a huge chunk of the economy despite the cosmetic changes characterized by new gleaming shopping malls, luxury hotels and a growing economy.

The 1976 Soweto Uprisings have now been immortalized and memorialized as the Day of the African Child throughout the African continent. Here in Zimbabwe and many other African countries officials marked the occasion by raising awareness about the new challenges of child sexual abuse, exploitation, educational neglect and children’s right to basic things such as food, clothing and shelter.

"It has now been immortalized in many ways and we are very happy for it," Mandela said after receiving a miniature replica of a bronze statue based on the famous Pieterson photo. Winnie Mandela popularly known as the “Mother of the Nation� said the uprisings should be commemorated rather than celebrated today. "We are Africans. We do not celebrate death," she said after greeting and kissing Mandela.

Tsiko is The Black Star News’s Africa correspondent, based in Harare, Zimbabwe.
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