A Day to Measure South Africa's Progress

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

MARKING the first Soweto Day anniversary under a democratically elected government, President Nelson Mandela yesterday called on the country's youth to help rebuild a culture of learning and play their part in building a new nation.

``I call on all youth to join us in the effort to build peace and reconciliation in our land,'' President Mandela told a crowd of about 4,000 gathered at the Orlando Stadium here.

``We have achieved our freedom. But formal liberation will be an empty shell if we do not immediately start addressing the social conditions bred by apartheid.''

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

June 16, although not a formal holiday, has become one of the most revered anniversaries on the liberation calendar and had acted as a focus for protest and resistance to white rule, and been marked by mass work stay-aways.

On that day in 1976, police opened fire on unarmed black children who were protesting the mandatory use of the Afrikaans language in their schools. About 700 blacks died in the year of rioting that followed.

This year, the African National Congress (ANC), the liberation movement now leading the government of national unity, has dedicated June 16 to a campaign to reestablish a culture of learning and teaching that was shattered - first by decades of apartheid and since 1976 by sustained student boycotts and riots.

The tension of previous June 16 anniversaries gave way this year to a carnival atmosphere, rock music, and vendors selling ANC memorabilia.

Although sparked by the rise of the Black Consciousness Movement and the writings of black-consciousness advocate Steve Biko in the early 1970s, the Soweto uprising revived a moribund ANC in exile and gave new impetus to the anti-apartheid struggle.

After ambiguous messages from the new government, it was announced on Wednesday that June 16 would not be a paid public holiday, despite demands from ANC-aligned trade unions and youth movements.

``It seems that the government we fought to put in power has forgotten about the students of 1976,'' said a man who identified himself only as Jessie. He was a high school pupil when violence erupted in Soweto 18 years ago.

``We were much closer to liberation then than the black people of South Africa are today. How can a government which has to rule with its former opponents [whites] running the civil service claim to be free?'' he asked.

Mandela spoke at a rally jointly coordinated by the United Nations International Children's Education Fund and the National Youth Development Coordinating Committee to pay tribute to the Soweto generation who took to the streets to lead a rebellion against white rule and mark the Day of the African Child.

``As we enter the new and glorious epoch that June 16 helped to usher in, we will do well to emulate that heroism and turn it into an asset for the tasks that lie ahead,'' he said.

Since the country's first all-race elections in April, black school attendance has improved substantially. But the legacy of apartheid - and resistance to it - has left black education in virtual ruin. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of criminal gangs, weapons, and drugs in some black schools.

Mandela announced the establishment of a presidential trust fund to address the problem of street children and child prisoners and detainees - regardless of race or political allegiance - to which he would contribute $45,000 a year to kick off the fund.

Mandela also announced that the government would introduce legislation to scrap remaining discrimination in education and lay the groundwork for a system in which the first 10 years of a child's education would be free.

In Soweto, it was more like a normal working day than in previous years, with taxis and buses running at about 70 percent of capacity and hawkers and most shops open as usual.

But some major companies negotiated stay-away deals with their employees in line with the call by the ANC-aligned Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). On the eve of the anniversary, COSATU said in a statement that it was confident that June 16 would be declared a public holiday and criticized employers and some government officials for expecting employees to go to work on a day of such historical and emotional significance to the anti-apartheid struggle.

Business organizations, still smarting from heavy losses during April due to a record number of non-working days around the first all-race election, criticized the government for contributing to public confusion about the status of June 16.

The government has said that it is reviewing the country's national holidays and it is widely expected that Soweto Day will be a priority.

In what has become an annual ritual, scores of youths yesterday laid a wreath at the monument of Hector Pietersen, the first youth to die in a hail of police bullets on June 16, 1976.

Pieterson's mother, Dorothy Molefi, said improved education for all was the dream she coveted on behalf of her son.

``It's the first time since Hector's death that things feel positive,'' she said.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...