As he stood at the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum in Soweto, South Africa, PETER FROST recalled the struggle that marked the beginning of the end for apartheid.
As I stood in Soweto’s Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum I had to wipe away a tear. I wept at the horrendous events that had taken place on this very spot back in 1976.
But they were also tears of joy. Joy that the obscenity of apartheid has been consigned to the dustbin of history.
Alongside my tears there was also a small glow of pride. Pride in the tiny part I and other British anti-apartheid campaigners played in the battle to end this most cruel racist regime.
One of the largest exhibits in the museum is a huge blown-up photograph of an anti-apartheid march in London. One of the smallest was a tiny sticker demanding the release of Nelson Mandela. I could hardly believe my eyes because I had designed that sticker back in London in the late 1960s.
Here is another bit of my design work from the same period and on a similar theme.
Forty years ago on June 16 1976, Soweto high school students took to the streets in a peaceful protest against the mandatory use of Afrikaans as the main teaching language in black secondary schools. The students planned to march to the regional offices of the Department of Bantu Education to raise their grievances with the authorities.
They carried placards that demanded: “Away with Afrikaans,” “Amandla awethu” (Power to the people) and “Free Azania” — “Free South Africa.”
As they marched they sang protest songs including the hymn Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika — God Bless Africa. Today that song is the basis for the national anthem of democratic South Africa.
As they made their peaceful protest they were met by armed police who ordered them to end the march and disperse.
When they refused the police sprayed tear gas and opened fire. One of the first to be killed by a police bullet was 12-year-old Hector Pieterson, after who the museum and memorial are named.
The iconic image of young Hector’s body being carried by secondary school student Mbuyisa Makhubo with his sister, Antoinette Sithole, running alongside was flashed around the world. It became a graphic symbol of repression and state murder under the apartheid regime.
Last week in South Africa June 16 was a public holiday — they call it Youth Day. It commemorates those tragic events of 1976 that became a watershed in the battle for a non-racist South Africa.
Afrikaans was the language of apartheid — black South Africans tended to prefer to use and be taught in English and indigenous African languages. English was also becoming the language most often used in commerce and industry.
The 1974 decree was intended to forcibly reverse the decline of Afrikaans among black Africans. This new language policy was resented deeply by blacks, because Afrikaans was widely viewed, in the words of Desmond Tutu (below), as “the language of the oppressor.”
Teacher’s organisations such as the African Teachers Association of South Africa also objected to the decree.
The resentment grew until April 30 1976 when students at Orlando West Junior School in Soweto, a black township outside Johannesburg, went on strike, refusing to go to school. Their rebellion quickly spread to many other schools in Soweto and would later spread all across South Africa.
Students formed an action committee that would become known as the Soweto Students’ Representative Council, which organised a mass rally for June 16, to make themselves heard.
On the morning of June 16 1976, up to 20,000 black students walked from their schools towards Orlando stadium for a rally to protest. Teachers in Soweto also supported the march after the action committee emphasised good discipline and peaceful action.
As the students began the march they discovered that police had barricaded the road along their intended route.
The leader of the committee asked the crowd not to provoke the police and the march continued on another route, eventually ending up near Orlando High School. This was where the armed police confronted the marchers. Unprovoked the police sprayed tear gas and opened fire on the students — 23 demonstrators were shot dead and hundreds injured on that first day.
Over the next few days students and others joined protests all over the country. Wherever they did they met with heavily armed police officers. Police weapons included automatic rifles, stun guns and carbines.
The police also had armoured vehicles and helicopters monitoring protests from the sky. The South African army was also placed on standby.
Official reports claimed the police killed 176 protesters over those few days but in fact as the protests spread all across the country the total death toll grew to nearer 700.
The aftermath of the uprising established the leading role of the African National Congress in the anti-apartheid struggle.
It would be a further 14 years before Nelson Mandela was released but once the flame had been lit on the streets of Soweto nothing could stop the growing struggle for a free South Africa.
The huge international feeling against the savage way the apartheid authorities had dealt with the peaceful demonstrators, many of them young children, led to a huge swing of world opinion against the South African government.
It also led to public protests worldwide.
Trade and sporting boycotts and economic sanctions were put in place. The United Nations passed a resolution condemning the events.
There were just a few reactionary individuals in countries such as Britain who continued to support the vile apartheid state. To try to bolster it support trips were organised to South Africa by organisations keen to support the racist state and defeat the sanctions.
One notable young researcher for the British Tory Party was more than happy to accept an all expenses paid trip to show his support for the continuance of the apartheid state. His name? David Cameron.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star weekend edition 18 June 2016.