Thursday, June 17, 2004

Fighting in the street 

Yesterday was youth day in South Africa. June 16th is the anniversary of the 1976 Soweto uprisings- the point at which the camel's back finally broke for black students. The straw was the proposal from the apartheid government to force Afrikaans as the required language in schools. This would mean that even those for whom Afrikaans was not even a second language (i.e. the vast majority of the black population) would be taught in this bastardised version of ancient Dutch – the language of the oppressor.

On June 16th 1976, students in Soweto staged a protest march to a police station that ended in a confrontation with the police. As tensions rose, the police opened fire, and their first victim was 13 year old schoolboy Hector Peterson. There is a famous photo of a young man - Mbuyisa Makhubo - carrying Peterson’s body. The victim’s sister is running next to them, her face locked in a scream of anguish. In style and impact, the picture is reminiscent of the Pulitzer prize winning photo of a young Vietnamese girl fleeing a Napalm – drenched village. She survived, and is now a US citizen. (Who says Americans don’t do irony?)

The picture of Hector Peterson became one of the defining images of apartheid, and is sometimes credited with bringing home some of the horrors of pre-democratic life in South Africa to a worldwide audience.

I remember the June of 1976. I was 6 years old, and loving the unusually long hot summer in the UK. The days were filled with swings and sun and the smell of cut grass. Sometimes I really feel like a foreigner in this country.

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