40th anniversary of Soweto uprising highlights racial divisions in post-apartheid South Africa

Agence France-Presse
An old photograph of crowd running in Soweto, Johannesburg.

An old photograph of crowd running in Soweto, Johannesburg. 

April Killingsworth/Flickr Commons

It was supposed to be day of reconciliation and remembrance on the 40th anniversary of the Soweto uprising, a turning point in South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle that cost the lives of at least 170 people.

But plans for a march on Saturday involving both black former students and white former soldiers have instead exposed unhealed wounds amid frustration at post-apartheid South Africa's failure to deliver jobs and opportunities.

"We will not participate," said Granny Seape, sister of Hastings Ndlovu, a 17-year-old boy who was among the first victims shot.

"We feel as a family that it is insensitive. We can't embrace something where we still have had no closure. We feel very aggrieved," she told AFP.

On June 16, 1976, security forces opened fire on black youngsters protesting in Soweto township against a government order that schools could only teach in the Afrikaans language used by whites.

Over three days, at least 170 people were killed, with some estimates putting the death toll at several hundred over one month, in violence that brought the injustices of the apartheid regime to the world's attention.

As protests spread across South Africa, a new era of black activism emerged that eventually led to the fall of the apartheid regime and Nelson Mandela's election as president in 1994.

Saturday's march at the Orlando Stadium in Soweto is intended to bring together both those who joined the uprising and white army conscripts not deployed in Soweto but who were forced to serve in the military.

The Hector Pieterson Memorial in Vikalazi Street in Soweto is named after the 14-year-old boy who was the first killed by police in the June 16 1976 Soweto student's uprising.

The Hector Pieterson Memorial in Vikalazi Street in Soweto is named after the 14-year-old boy who was the first killed by police in the June 16 1976 Soweto student's uprising. 


Jorge Láscar/Flickr Commons

But despite the organizers efforts, it is not only the families of some of the black youngsters who died who are reluctant.

Police officers from the time have declined to join Saturday's commemoration.

And a group of white former army conscripts, attending to express support for reconciliation, has said it will not issue an apology.

"The (conscript) veterans are mostly grandfathers now," Jan Malan, 59, chairman of the South African Defence Force Association (SADFA), told AFP.

"We see the grandkids and we believe we need to not hate each other but to work together. We are not going there to say we are sorry. We are sad about people who lost loved ones. (But) we were soldiers."

Divisions along racial lines remain strong in South Africa, with most black people enduring worse education, housing and unemployment than white people.

Recent racist internet postings have underlined long-standing frictions worsened by the country's dire economic performance and anger at politicians' failure to meet expectations.

Dee Mashinini, younger brother of the late Tsietsi Mashinini, a student leader of the uprising, warned that anger still boiled in Soweto over the killings.

"If they think they can come to Soweto and pull this off, then they don't understand anything," he told the Business Day newspaper.

"Many people lost brothers and sisters. Many disappeared. Many people are going around in wheelchairs, lost in life and with no compensation."

Despite the disagreements, march organizers still believe the event can be a symbol of hope in the future.

"It is not going to be a black event — it is going to be a white and black event. It is completely new for Soweto," Reverend Frank Chikane, a celebrated anti-apartheid campaigner, told AFP.

Another of the organizers, Dan Montsitsi, who was a marcher in 1976, said it was a time to commemorate the uprising but also acknowledge how much more needed to be done in South Africa.

"June 16 was a watershed in our struggle," he said. "We were able in a very big way to show the world the atrocities and the harshness of apartheid. The problem that we have now is that if I buy a house in the suburbs, next to a white, in three months' time, that white person leaves."