Friday, June 16, 2006

The day that changed South Africa for ever

hector pieterson
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.


Blogger nyasha said...

one always remembers what one was doing when something of this magnitude happens. you remember the date, the place, the hour even, what you were doing, who you were with.
Change is good. Change for the better is better.

1:03 pm  
Blogger nyasha said...

it is also amazing how an image can represent a whole concept, a whole movement, a whole transformation, a whole new era. Indeed, the picture of Kim Phuc has been engraved in my mind since the first day i saw it.

1:07 pm  
Blogger Reluctant Nomad said...

You are right there but the odd thing is I don't remember the actual event apart from knowing I was at boarding school. However, there had been unrest for months previously and it escalated terribly after the start of the riots and I'm very aware of the whole period.

Just not of the particular day.

As for the napalm pic, one that some people have said stopped the Vietnam war, it's interesting reading this article about the pic and the surrounding circumstances. While it appears to be written by a 'right-winger', for want of a better term, it makes interesting reading about the 'myths' that have arisen from that pic.

2:04 pm  
Anonymous xmichra said...

Pictures are worth a 1000 words.. and you can feel the pain in the photo you selected and the one in that article. You do not look at a photo like those and simply not think.

2:19 pm  
Blogger nyasha said...

i thought we hated "right-wingers"! :D so sometimes they actually have something interesting to say...

2:19 pm  
Blogger Reluctant Nomad said...

xmichra: Too right! Both of them capture the pain and anguish perfectly. If you saw a pic like that and didn't know its history, you'd want to know.

nyasha: Indeed they do. Some of my best friends are.....yadda yadda :-)

2:36 pm  
Blogger DougZAR said...

I was attending lectures at Cape Technikon in June 1976, when the unrest finally reached Cape Town. The police fired tear-gas at the crowds in the streets around the campus (Caledon Square was just up the road). The tear-gas drifted into every lecture room and lectures were suspended. Often we got caught in street-battles between students and police. It was the singular event that opened my eyes to the great injustices of the apartheid regime.

Oh, and I'm only a year older than you? I always thought you were much younger. Or a least not as old.

6:22 pm  
Blogger Reluctant Nomad said...

tiggerzar: I moved to CT in 1977 to go to varsity and then got quite caught up in the politics of the time, especially since that was the year that Biko was murdered. I saw no sign of the unrest of 1976 because Barberton was very shielded from all that sort of stuff despite having one of the biggest political prisons there.

You always thought I was much younger? Well, well, what are you trying to do, get into my pants? :-) Nice compliment, thanks.

4:40 pm  
Blogger Steve Hayes said...

I did not know that Mbuyisa Makhubu was never seen again, and i wonder how many others who see that photo know that.

One of my first thoughts, on hearing of the death of Hector Pieterson, was that one day there would be more schools named after him than after Dirkie Uys -- but are there any name after Mbuyisa Makhubu? If not, there ought to be.

I've been looking at what various blogs have to say about Youth Day, and have put links to them in my blog, as a sort of collage. And all that I've seen so far have been quite inspiring.

3:26 pm  
Blogger Reluctant Nomad said...

steve: Thanks for popping by. You're quite right about the way in which Mbuyisa Makhubu seems to have been forgotten. Apparently there was a SABC documentary on him and his disappearance last year. I didn't see it so don't know what it had to say.

8:11 am  
Blogger Guyana-Gyal said...

Riots terrify me. We live under the shadow of riots here.

Here, ordinary folks can be used by politicians to do their deed.

11:26 pm  
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