The Soweto Riots of June 16, 1976, is a milestone in the struggle against racism in South Africa.
On this day, 32 years ago, Tsietsi Mashininini led high school students and others on a march to protest the 'Afrikaans medium only' policy of the apartheid regime in Black schools.
Several thousand students took to the street and the apartheid regime responded with unbridled violence.
Police and other armed 'official' murderers opened fire on children killing more than 500 according to Reuters news.
Hector Pietersen (12) was among the first to be killed. This famous picture by Sam Nzima captures Hector in the arms of Mbuyisa Makhubo. Hector's sister, Antoinette Pieterson (17), is the young woman alongside Mbuyisa (see very last picture below).
The 1976 Soweto Riots conceal many a story of death and brutality at the hands of white racism. But it also tells a grander story of the will to defeat domination and the power of political consciousness.
Black Consciousness leader Steve Bantu Biko inspired the students to take to the streets. It is with his words that I remember the brave school children who fought for our freedom in Soweto, and elsewhere in South Africa:
"The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed."
Quote taken from Biko's
"I Write What I Like."
This day, memorialized as Youth Day by the ANC-led government, comes at a time when our post-apartheid nation is facing its most serious challenges.
In the past month our streets have seen South African Black folk declare war on Black folk from elsewhere on the continent. When the violence subsided more than 70 innocent people had lost their lives.
Of those killed more than a third were South Africans who were mistaken for migrants.
Inside of this xenephobic violence we had to stare ourselves down and admit that the dream country of 1994 hardly arrived.
We have a long way to go. And it is not a way that can be entrusted to the leaders who hold power now.
If you don't believe me, look closer at the party of Nelson Mandela (ANC), it is falling apart.
If Biko was alive today he would most likely say: I told you not to trust liberals no matter the colour of their skin.
Onward to Azania!
Comment: I wrote this post three years ago. It is one of the most read posts on the blog. Not a day goes by without several hits (Google stats says it has over 2 100 hits in total).
I would not change a thing except to say that the the "falling apart" of the ANC is an ideological crisis. Few serious thinkers will expect the ANC to survive in its current form.
Nonetheless, the young people of 1976 rejected apartheid and the language of Afrikaans as the primary medium of education.
I was not even a teenager in 1976 but drew inspiration from the Black Consciousnesses Movement (BCM) and just a few years later I joined so called coloured and Indian school kids in a national boycott of classes for months.
I never returned to formal schooling and completed my high school diploma (matric) through correspondence (Damelin) and then left South Africa.
The youth of South Africa were in crisis in those troubling days. But the enemy was clear cut. White domination was challenged and a revolution was fought in school yards and the streets.
The youth of South Africa are similarly in crisis today. But the enemy is not so clear cut. White domination has not disappeared but rather morphed into a confluence of old and new elites (some drawn from the youth leaders of then) and all encompassing neo-liberal market forces.
The revolution we dreamed of under trees has stalled. If Biko was here today he would not be sitting among the pot-bellied pointy shoe brigade. He would be among the people on the ground. For that is where revolutions are envisioned and fought. And the youth of this country would have hope for another chapter toward liberation.
It is, therefore, fitting to remember that time in terms that make it relevant today.
And we are not free.