Soweto builds on 30 years of hurt

16th June 2006 at 01:00
It is three decades since the student uprising that helped to put an end to apartheid. Karen MacGregor reports


It was 8am on June 16, 1976 - a bitterly cold mid-winter morning - when the children of Soweto poured out of schools across the bleak, sprawling township south of Johannesburg and began protesting against the imposition of Afrikaans as their language of instruction in maths, social sciences, geography and history.

"The pupils were excited, happy, singing and waving posters saying 'Away with Afrikaans'.

"There was a lot of energy," said Oupa Moloto, then a young activist in a 700-strong column of pupils from Morris Isaacson high and another school.

Pupils marched from a dozen schools to Orlando West secondary, from where they planned to move to a nearby soccer stadium for a day of protests. They began to converge in their thousands 45 minutes later. It was an unprecedented opposition to apartheid.

"I was towards the back of the big gathering group," said Mr Moloto. "Word came about a police presence. A helicopter was hovering overhead. A police dog was released and attacked students, and they began throwing stones.

There was tear-gas everywhere. Soon the police were shooting.

"We panicked and ran in all directions. Police were arriving in force. We couldn't walk in groups so we broke up and ran, through houses and over fences, back to Morris Isaacson. The police were there and wouldn't let us inside, so we went home.

"We were very, very angry - Jwe didn't believe the police would shoot children," says Mr Moloto, now 50 and co-ordinator of the June 16 Foundation, based at Soweto's Hector Petersen museum, commemorating the 13-year-old boy who was one of the first to be shot by police that day.

The Soweto uprising had begun. Within hours, Soweto was burning as activists of the banned African National Congress set government and business buildings - symbols of apartheid - alight. For three days, black people in townships across South Africa rioted in solidarity with the students, and in anger against a merciless apartheid regime. Officially, 23 people died on June 16, but unofficial estimates were as high as 200.

The events were well planned. Mr Moloto, an activist for the South African students' movement, helped to spread the word to schools that there would be protests that day in solidarity with pupils at Orlando West secondary, who were already boycotting classes and burning books in protest against the imposition of Afrikaans.

But the pupils had no way of knowing that they would ignite a mass resistance campaign which, 14 years later, would help to bring down the powerful apartheid regime. The picture of Hector's body being carried by a teenager became an icon of that struggle.

They had no idea either that many of them would join the "lost generation"

who put "liberation before education" in an anti-apartheid campaign that turned schools into ungovernable sites of struggle, eroding the already appalling education of black people who, apartheid's architect Hendrik Verwoerd had infamously declared, should be no more than "hewers of wood and drawers of water".

Nor did they realise that, 30 years on and a dozen years after liberation, the education of most black children in poor township and rural schools would still be sub-standard and beset by a lack of basic resources in dilapidated buildings with smashed windows, demotivated teachers and violence.

South Africa will celebrate the anniversary today with, among other things, a march from Morris Isaacson secondary, a wreath-laying at the Hector Petersen memorial and a mass rally at what is now Soccer City, where President Thabo Mbeki will speak. The department of education is mounting a year-long programme of celebration.

There is no doubt in Oupa Moloto's mind that the outcome of June 16 was positive. He completed his school-leaving exams - called matric - that year and stayed in South Africa, working for the ANC's underground armed force, Umkhonto we Sizwe (spear of the nation).

To earn money, he started a taxi company in his father's name because he was "wanted", and he still runs taxis today. For the past five years, he has also co-ordinated the June 16 Foundation.

"There remains much to be done in education, especially in black schools, and especially in maths and science and the training of teachers," Mr Moloto says.

"But our liberation dream has been achieved. Children can learn in the language of their choice. There are feeding schemes and poverty-alleviation projects in schools, and the education minister has just announced that the poorest schools will no longer charge fees."

Under apartheid, more than 15 times as much was spent per pupil on "white"

compared with "black" schooling. Funding is now equal for all. The poorest schools now get more support than those that were formerly privileged.

There is a new curriculum, and since 1999 the matric pass rate has risen from 49 per cent to 68 per cent.

But much more can be done in a country where schools cannot survive without charging fees. Naledi Pandor, minister of education, dedicated her budget vote speech in parliament last month to June 16, and announced a range of actions aimed at improving education.

One is a pound;1 billion project to provide libraries, laboratories and teaching materials, more teachers, staff development programmes and science, maths and technology initiatives to 5,000 of the country's low-performing schools in deprived districts.

Others are better pay for high-performing teachers, greater district support for schools, and new laws introducing fee-free schools at 40 per cent of poor schools - more than 9,000 schools with 3 million pupils will get extra state funding to make up the difference.

Ms Pandor said South Africa would honour the young people of June 16 "by taking action to meet the demands they put before us in 1976. We owe it to their courage to assure them things are different in education and they will get better."

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