President Thabo Mbeki led hundreds of South Africans through the streets of this black township on Friday, retracing the steps of student protesters who galvanized the anti-apartheid struggle 30 years ago.
The marchers paused at 9 a.m. for a moment of silence to remember Hector Pieterson, a 13-year-old killed by police who shot at the unarmed demonstrators. His death has come to symbolize the sacrifices of young people in the fight for South Africa’s democracy and freedom.
More than 500 young people were estimated killed in the Soweto Uprising and its bloody aftermath. Thousands of others disappeared into detention or fled the country to join the guerrilla fight, forever changing the face of the anti-apartheid struggle.
The uprising started as a student protest against being taught in Afrikaans, the language of white oppressors, which few among the black majority could understand.
Police responded with brutal force, and news of the killings and the riots they unleashed across the country awakened the world to the government’s violence.
“This day, National Youth Day, is a moment of thanksgiving dedicated to the young people of our country for the contribution they made to free South Africa from the tyranny of apartheid,” Mbeki told a crowd of tens of thousands gathered at a Soweto soccer stadium after the march.
“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. “We remember them because we would like the youth gathered here today and their comrades throughout our country to follow their example of unwavering commitment as they confront the modern challenges of poverty and unemployment, alcohol and drug abuse, AIDS and other diseases, illiteracy, women and child abuse.”
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 on his knees. He said he brought her because 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 said as Friday’s marchers passed, chanting slogans and singing songs from the fight against apartheid. “There was tear gas, people screaming, running, and police chasing everybody.”
The courage of the students drew other South Africans into the struggle. But the “Liberation before Education” spirit of the protest had lasting, destructive consequences, leaving much of a generation of black South Africans without the skills to fully participate in the inclusive society that emerged after the first all-race elections in 1994. Today, poverty, AIDS and the consequences of decades of racist policies threaten young blacks.
Shirley Makutoane, 58, a teacher at Morris Isaacson High School, where the first demonstration began in 1976, remembered how impressed she was to see students marching with discipline and determination to submit their demands at a Soweto police station.
“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.”
Mandla Malinga, 46, was among the students who converged from schools around Soweto with so much optimism in 1976, never anticipating the violent response they would get from police. He joined Friday’s march to pay tribute to those who did not survive.
“I have friends who were hurt, some of them died,” he recalled sadly. “It was chaos.”
Friday’s six-mile march ended at a memorial to Pieterson, where Mbeki, and representatives of government, the youth and the families of those who were slain lay wreaths of colorful flowers.
As a choir led the crowd in singing a well-loved song of the struggle — “Senzeni’na,” Zulu for “We are crying,” — eyes of some relatives misted up.
“I am so happy he did not die for nothing,” Isabel Boto, 70, said of her young nephew Tsietsi Mashinini, one of the youthful leaders of 1976 who died in exile in Guinea 14 years later, either of AIDS or assassination according to conflicting accounts.
“I have seen his ghost now, enjoying that we can get any place we like and our voice is heard,” Boto said of the hard-won rights to vote, live where one chooses, and go to schools, restaurants, movie houses, hospitals and other places previously reserved for the white minority.
The day culminated with a rally at a Soweto soccer stadium attended by some 40,000 people — many of them too young to remember the 1976 uprising.
The crowd waved flags and cheered as Mbeki arrived to a 21-gun salute and military helicopter display.
Other commemorations were held across the country to honor those killed and mobilize the nation to face new challenges. Since the racist system ended in 1994, June 16 has been marked as a public holiday.