June 16th, 1976

On June 16, 1976, thousands of students from across Soweto walked out of their classes to peacefully protest the Afrikaans Medium Decree, which forced all township schools to teach mathematics, arithmetic and social studies in Afrikaans.  While walking to the Orlando Stadium where a rally was to be held, the student protesters were provoked by police who fired shots to disperse the crowd.  In the ensuing panic more shots were fired resulting in 23 deaths.  Over the following twenty-four hours 1500 heavily armed police officers entered Soweto in armoured vehicles using gunfire to control and disperse the largely unarmed group.  What began as a peaceful protest ended with over 500 fatalities and over 1000 wounded men, women, and children.

“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” (Nzima)

These are the words of photographer Sam Nzima, as he recounts a moment that would undoubtedly shape the remaining 18 years of collective resistance against an oppressive Apartheid Regime: June 16th, 1976 -The Soweto Uprising.  Nzima’s photograph of a dying 12 year old Hector Pieterson being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo was one of the first images to permeate mainstream media in South Africa and internationally.  It paints a horrifying picture of the tremendous injustice and cruelty of the Apartheid regime and of the unyielding human toll of a racist ideology that South African president H.F. Verwoerd once described as “a policy of good neighborliness”.

While Nzima’s paper, The Johannesburg ‘World’, was forced to shut down shortly after publishing the photograph, enough time elapsed for the story to be picked up by international media outlets, and, as a result, it is rightfully accredited with having played an essential role in helping build a transnational movement against apartheid.  While it would take another 18 years to bring an end to the violence and oppression of Apartheid, the events of June 16th 1976 would remain in hearts and minds of all those, both young and old, who fought for freedom.

Today, the Soweto Uprising is commemorated by the celebration of Youth Day in South Africa, recognizing the invaluable contribution of students and young people in actively and peacefully resisting Apartheid.  I would also suggest, however, that Youth Day is not simply about remembering the past as is so often evoked.  Today in South Africa, while legalized apartheid has ended, racism, xenophobia, and racial inequality are still extremely prevalent.  And, while some young people remain active in opposing these contemporary manifestations, it seems that, unlike during apartheid, too many people (whether they’re white, black, brown, red, purple, or green) seem complacent in accepting its existence.

Today, on June 16th, 2010, lets take time to reflect not only on the past 34 years and progress made, but on the future as well.  I’ve been here for one month and the number of subtle jabs I have heard thrown about, poking fun, or harshly criticizing, black South Africans, white South Africans, and all sorts of African, Middle Eastern, and Asian ethnic/cultural groups, is unbelieveable. I am not writing this as a condemnation, but as a call to action.  It is time all of us sat down and reflected on how we can better hold each other more accountable for our words and actions.  Further, while unbelievable progress has been made, one must ask, to what extent has the South African government delivered on 15 years of promises?

While the World Cup seems to have ushered in a revitalized sense of unity and solidarity, this Youth Day could perhaps be best used to reflect on how we can all adopt an honest and legitimate ‘policy of good neighborlinesses’ in South Africa and abroad.

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.

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