Remembering Soweto 39 years on

UPDATE: This is a post I wrote a few years ago. I am reposting it, with a few changes, to remember the Soweto Uprising today.
This is a day that will never be forgotten in South Africa: the police shooting of student protesters in the black townships 39 years ago that eventually brought down the apartheid government.
“Soweto” is a term the South African government gave to the 26 “Southwestern townships” of Johannesburg in 1963 — 26 square miles of squalor which erupted into violence on June 16, 1976 – thirty-nine years ago today. It started that morning with 20 thousand Soweto students marching in peaceful protests against the government’s order that Afrikaans, the language of the oppressor, had to be used in secondary schools. But the police reacted as only South African security forces could, ripping up placards and trying to stop the march. The students threw stones, the police used teargas, then opened fire with guns. One of the first to die from a police bullet was a 13-year-old schoolboy, Hector Pieterson.
It was a shot that was heard around the world. I was the foreign editor of The Australian that day, and helped prepare the front page with Mike Jenkinson, a former Wallaby, who played for Australia in South Africa in 1963 and saw apartheid first-hand. Mike was no fan of the South African government or its racist policies.
I still have a mat mold of the front page of The Australian from June 16, 1976 with the headline: Rioting spreads in South Africa. It was before Twitter and Facebook and satellite television, and we got the story via telex and phone calls to contacts in South Africa, including one of Mike’s rugby mates on The Star in Johannesburg. From that day forward, the apartheid government never stood a chance of survival, though it wasn’t until April 27, 1994, that black South Africans celebrated their freedom by voting in the first all-race elections in the country’s history. The headline in The Star that Wednesday was: Vote, the Beloved Country – a paraphrase of the famous novel by Alan Paton, Cry the Beloved Country. The queues of voters snaked around the nation, and such was the turnout, the polling booths had to be opened the next day.
I was lucky enough to be in South Africa that week, helping to produce the Channel Nine Sunday program. But I’ll never forget the role those brave students played that day in Soweto, with unrest continuing on and off for years. The photograph of Hector Pieterson being carried by a fellow student through the dusty streets of Soweto, with his anguished sister beside them, became the symbol of the resistance movement, much like another innocent 13-year-old boy, Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, who’s sparked national protests in Syria after images of his badly beaten body were widely circulated. His crime was to have attended a pro-democracy demonstration in his small home town. The picture that accompanies this blog captures a dying Hector Pieterson and the brutality of apartheid, taken by the South African photographer, Sam Nzima. Nzima received national honours for his image on April 27, 2011, Freedom Day, the anniversary of the elections that brought black and white together – at the polls at least.
A year after the Soweto uprising, I travelled around South Africa on a Pretoria-sponsored trip and wrote a series of articles for The Australian. The highlights of the visit included an interview with Alan Paton in his beautiful home in the hills outside Durban, and being smuggled into a migrant workers’ dormitory, a dark and dingy slab of concrete in the black township of Guguletu outside Cape Town, where one of the workers told me he was forced to live in these horrible conditions as a single man, even though he was married. The evils of apartheid were hammered home to me on that trip. As you can imagine, the South African embassy was not happy with my reports.
Seventeen years later, I produced a cover story on South Africa two months before the elections, with author Bryce Courtenay as our reporter, and we wound up in Morris Isaacson High, one of the schools involved in the Soweto protests. He was addressing a class of bright, optimistic teenagers when a disturbance erupted outside. A group of students had discovered a suspected rapist on the school grounds and were chasing him. Suddenly, the police arrived and as I came from behind a school building, a policeman pointed his AK-47 directly at my testicles. Fortunately, my cameraman, Les Seymour, and his long lens that resembled a rifle was not at my side, and I said: “I am a journalist.” I felt more like a student about to get his testicles shot off.
We also talked to a leader of one of the Cape Coloured gangs in Cape Town, where young men made a slitting gesture to their throats as we passed by in our van. The townships still had a long way to go in 1994 … and still have a way to go in 2015.
Police are still not trusted in South Africa, with the rich resorting to private security companies, and the poor turning to vigilante violence. The chief executive of the respected South African Institute of Race Relations, John Kane-Berman, told the Associated Press a few years ago: “I think people have come to be very cynical about police. Because they’ve seen corruption. Because they’ve seen
incompetence. There are repeated reports of police violence, brutality.”
Kane-Berman has some advice for the citizens of South Africa, rich and poor, about how to make the police more accountable, and townships more liveable: “The accountability comes from the politicians, who must hold the police accountable. And the citizens must hold the politicians accountable. If the citizens want to take active steps, they have to use their votes.” Kane-Berman’s book on the Soweto uprising, South Africa: The Method in the Madness, was one of the best accounts of the student protests written in the late seventies. It’s still worth reading 39 years later if you can get a copy. Mine is well-thumbed.

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