The day that changed South Africa for ever
Thirty years ago today, when I was at boarding school in my last year of school, the Soweto Riots started. The riots that were begun by black school kids protesting against the apartheid regime. Although I was at school in a rural, relatively remote part of South Africa, unlike the BBC correspondent at boarding school in Grahamstown, I didn't think that the blacks were about to embark on an orgy of white-killing. Perhaps as a result of living in Marxist Mocambique and my Marxist beliefs, I viewed the riots as the long-awaited revolt against racism and capitalism. My Marxism didn't last long but my belief in the justice of the unrest that arose from the day remains undiminished.
I've always believed that the riots started as a protest against the compulsory use of Afrikaans as the main teaching language in black schools. It certainly was a very inflammatory issue, but this article, '16 things about June 16', says:
According to the final report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the imposition of Afrikaans was not what had sparked the insurrection: rather, it was "primarily" caused by rates and service charge increases by the West Rand Administration Board (WRAB), which had just been cut off from the R2-million subsidy it had received from the Johannesburg City Council.
Although that picture of the dying Hector Pieterson seems to have been with me ever since the start of the riots, I don't remember when I actually first saw it. It may have been a day or two later if it appeared in 'The Star' that I read in the school library or it may have been months later in some other publication. The picture shocked the world and remains the most identifiable image of the Soweto Riots. Even though the circumstances were so different, it has always reminded me of the picture of the nine-year-old Kim Phuc, fleeing her village after a napalm attack during the Vietnam war.
It's the obvious picture to use to remember 16 June 1976 but I feel slightly uneasy about using it. I know that it's copyrighted but regular readers will know that I've tended to ignore the restrictions imposed by copyright laws on this blog. The unease comes from the fact that some members of the family of Mbuyisa Makhubu, the boy carrying the dying Hector, have called for a ban on the use of the picture, as Makhubu was never seen again. Also, it destroyed the career of photographer Sam Nzima, who took the photograph.
Lots of South Africans will observe today, a public holiday called National Youth Day, as a day to loaf off work, go shopping or go to the beach. I would do the same if in Cape Town. But, it's important not to forget that 16 June 1976 led to 27 April 1994, Freedom Day.
UPDATE: Read this article on what June 16 means to today's South African youth.