Friday, June 16, 2017

The Soweto Uprising — “And the children shall lead the way to freedom “


"I saw a child fall down. Under a shower of bullets I rushed forward and went for the picture. It had been a peaceful march, the children were told to disperse, they started singing Nkosi Sikelele. The police were ordered to shoot." – Sam Nzima, South African photographer of one of the most iconic photographs in the world.

Hector Pieterson. How many of you know his name?

Today, June 16, is the anniversary of his 1976 murder by South African government in what is now called the Soweto Uprising -- a series of protests led by Black students. Most just children.

But it was young Hector's death, and the famous picture of this 12-year old dying child, that brought worldwide attention to the evil and inhumane system of apartheid.

In 1925, Afrikaans -- a language bastardized from Portuguese, Dutch (with Bantu influences) --  was declared the official language of South Africa. Fifty years later the South African government declared that 50 percent of all lessons (math, science , etc.) in Black schools had to be taught in Afrikaans and the other 50 percent in English. 
This forced Black students to lose opportunity for critical analysis, as they had to focus on understanding the language as opposed to the lesson being taught.
Forced to focus on learning Afrikaans, the language of their oppressors.
White schools were not so restricted, students were largely taught in their own native languages.
Just as infuriating to Black South Africans? It was an insult to be forced to learn Afrikaans -- the language of their oppressor. 
In February 1976, two Soweto teachers quit rather than be forced to teach the lessons in Afrikaans. 
In April of that year, Orlando West Junior School refused to attend classes. 
The protest quickly spread, and soon the majority of students in Soweto schools were refusing to attend. 
By mid-June the students had self-organized (they would later be known as the Soweto Students' Representative Council), and Tsiesti Machinini,  a student and head of the debate team of Morris Isaacson High School, suggested a three-day rally. 
So on June 16, thousands of students headed to the Orlando High School stadium shouting slogans and carrying signs, some of which read: "If we must do Afrikaans, Vorster must do Zulu." (John Vorster was prime minister of South Africa at the time.) as they marched to the demonstration site.
When they were stopped by police-erected road barricades, instead of trying to forcibly removing the barricades they simply took a detour. 
It's estimated they were 20,000 in number, these young students, by the time they reached the school. Waiting for them were met by armed police officers.
The students began singing 'Nkosi Sikelele',  a Black liberation song and the official anthem of the African National Congress. 
When a police dog was released on the crowd it was promptly killed by the students.
It was then that police started shooting.
Some say that it was 15-year old Hastings Ndlovu who was shot first, but it's widely believed that Pieterson was actually the first fatality. 
As he lay dying on the ground his body was scooped by another student, Mbuyisa Makhubo. Photographer Sam Nzima's iconic photograph shows Makhubo carrying young Hector Pieterson as he runs for help, and Pieterson's terrified sister, Antoinette Sithole, crying as she runs alongside of them. 
Twelve-year old Hector was declared dead upon arrival at the hospital. 
Nzima's photograph was published in The World, an Black newspaper out of Johannesburg, and later picked up by media outlets around the world. 
At first the South African government said  the police had not fired directly on the students, but on the ground, and the bullet fatal must have ricocheted off of a stone to hit Pieterson. 
An autopsy later proved that to be false -- the boy was killed by a direct shot.
What started out as a demonstration, soon became an uprising, a rebellion, or a riot -- depending upon your sociopolitical outlook -- that lasted three days. Hundreds of students died as they used stones and bottles as weapons against heavily armed police.
Even tanks were brought in by law enforcement to squelch the rebellion, but still the students fought.
And, to the government's astonishment, there were some right in their own country who sided with the young Sowetans .
At one  point, 400 white students from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg attempted to join the Soweto students, but were stopped and disbanded by police.
The government demanded that hospitals report all people with gunshot wounds so that they could be prosecuted. 
Instead, sympathetic doctors listed bullet wounds as abscesses.
What later became known as the Soweto Students Uprising, motivated students around the country; soon student demonstrations, rallies, and protests we're being held nationwide, and now international media was there to document it all.
And the small number of people who decried apartheid worldwide soon numbered in millions. 
Faced with severe criticism and --  more importantly -- financial sanctions, the South African government had no choice but to abolish the evil system.
Today June 16 is a national holiday in South Africa, called National Youth Day to honor the students of Soweto who fought,  against injustice. 
Personally, I don't think you need to be a South  African or in South Africa to honor them.