Amid World Cup fervor, South Africa observed a bittersweet holiday Wednesday with a cleansing ritual and other remembrances of Soweto students whose 1976 protest ignited a bloody and pivotal phase of the anti-apartheid struggle.
"We're celebrating what the youth of '76 was fighting for — and grieving for the loss of life," said 19-year-old Mbali Malinga, summing up the mixed emotions as she waited with her youth choir to sing at a wreath-laying ceremony.
Known as Youth Day, the holiday had an extra electricity this year because of the World Cup — and because South Africa's national team, Bafana Bafana, was playing on the same day.
For many South Africans, it was a day of relaxation and barbecues while waiting eagerly for kickoff. But in Soweto, scores of people gathered at sunrise, in below-freezing temperatures, for a first-of-its-kind ritual to commemorate those killed in the June 16 uprising 34 years earlier.
Colorfully dressed traditional healers knelt in a small cluster, then paraded up Vilakazi Street — Soweto's most famous road — holding candles, burning herbs, chanting and scattering potions on the pavement to the beat of a single drum. Clergymen who accompanied them raised their hands and, in unison, gave a blessing.
Among those on hand was 57-year-old Hlengiwe Mkhize, a Parliament member and deputy corrections minister who served on South Africa's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
"The ritual of cleansing is very important when you need to move away from a terrible experience," she explained. "It's part of the healing process, to reclaim our spirituality without bitterness."
The cleansing procession was followed by the wreath-laying ceremony at the nearby Hector Pieterson Museum, dedicated to the 13-year-old boy who was the first to die from police gunfire after the Soweto students were ordered to disperse. They were protesting an edict ordering black students to be taught in Afrikaans, the language of the white-minority rulers.
Hundreds of blacks, many of them young people, were killed in ensuing clashes nationwide — a prelude to the conflict that escalated in the 1980s and finally led to apartheid's demise in the early 1990s.
Among the speakers at the commemorations was Fanyana Mazibuko, a science teacher at Morris Isaacson High School when the students there decided to stage the now-legendary protest.
"We salute those who survived — we say thanks to those who laid down their lives," Mazibuko said.
He gently scolded South Africans who now treat the holiday as an excuse to party — or, this year, to focus single-mindedly on Bafana Bafana.
"We shouldn't let the euphoria of the World Cup cloud our minds," he said.
The Sowetan, a daily paper serving the vast township of more than 1 million residents, made a similar plea.
"Booze, bashes and other unmentionables now characterize how both young and old celebrate this day", it said an editorial on the eve of the holiday. "We are in danger of forgetting our history. ... We let our memories scatter in the wind."
Soweto now is vastly different than in 1976 — with a five-star hotel, an upscale shopping mall, many handsome, suburban-style homes. Yet many problems remain — including scattered pockets of shantytowns and local schools considered to be woefully below par.
Sibongile Mkhabela, who as a high school student was a leader of the 1976 protest and spent three years in jail, is now chief executive officer of the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund and keenly aware of the educational challenges that remain.
"Part of fighting Afrikaans was it was limiting our ability to be part of the global community," she said, referring to the demand to be taught in English.
"It's disappointing that even now so many children in Soweto have never had access to global village," she said. "Very few homes are online."
By midday Wednesday, with the commemoration services over and the chill abating, hundreds of local residents and foreign tourists flooded Vilakazi Street — now a hub of Soweto with restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, and the homes of anti-apartheid heroes and Nobel Peace laureates Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Mandela, South Africa's first anti-apartheid president, is in frail health as he nears his 92nd birthday, and had no public appearances scheduled Wednesday.
"This month and this day belong to the youth of this country," Zuma said. "It is the month in which our youth put down an ineradicable stamp in the history of this country, braving all odds to fight for equal education for all."
Yet he took a moment to play World Cup cheerleader.
"Quite fittingly, with Bafana Bafana making us proud ... this is indeed a good day and a wonderful period in our country," he said. "Please continue to cheer up our national team."