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South Africa Marks 30th Anniversary of Anti-Apartheid Struggle


Roughly 30 years ago, young black South Africans took to the streets of Soweto in a mass protest against the government's plan to make Afrikaans the teaching language in schools across the country. The event that became known as the Soweto Uprising, was a pivotal moment in the eventual downfall of the white minority government.

On the morning of June 16, 1976, 13-year-old Hector Petersen joined his sister and close to 20,000 other school students in a march through Soweto to protest the introduction of Afrikaans as the main medium of teaching, a language the black majority refused to learn.

After three months of passive resistance by parents and teachers, the students took matters into their own hands, as Petersen's sister Antoinette Sithole explains.

"My principal was much older and he said, 'my children are not going anywhere this is my school and no one can tell me what to do,'" said Ms. Sithole. "And the students replied 'No, time or no time, I say old man this is our time you had your chance this is our chance.' So we just took out our placards and followed the march, then we sang in the streets of Soweto with pride holding our placards very high, you know so everybody who was there knew what he was doing or she was doing, because we felt this was right; yes we knew we were oppressed but coming to education no, that's enough, that's enough. Here we are going to put things right."

But when the students were confronted by police, the peaceful demonstration turned ugly.

"There was a shot," she recalled. "We were not used to shots unless you see them or hear them in the movies, so we just run amok in confusion hiding ourselves in the nearby houses and police cars were riding in high speed and dogs were barking. You know it was such confusion and as soon as we hear it is calm now we emerge from our hiding places."

When she emerged, Antoinette Sithole found Mbuyisa Makhubo carrying her young brother. Within hours the image of the dying boy's body being carried through the streets, and his 17-year-old sister running, hysterically, alongside had been wired around the world. Hector Peterson was the first child officially killed in the struggle against apartheid and he came to represent what is now simply known in South Africa as June 16.

Protests over the education system spread and soon there were hundreds of thousands of school students protesting and rioting against the police. In the end the government was forced to withdraw its decision to enforce Afrikaans language instruction in black schools, but not before more than 100 children had been killed and thousands more injured.

Morris Isaacson high school in Soweto, which was one of the hotbeds of the protest, lost a number of students in the riots. Current Principal Elias Mashile, says the effects of those protests are still evident in today's school system.

"We have got one educational system in South Africa. We know before that we had different I think four types of educational system, so it's because of that," he said.

This was the first time the Apartheid government had bowed to mass protest and it provided inspiration for black South Africans, particularly the youth, at a time when the struggle was at a low ebb.

Rose Madela from Soweto was one of the school students who joined the protests after June 16. She says the success of the campaign against Afrikaans inspired her and her friends to rise up against other government restrictions.

"It make more people understand what is the struggle, so we must fight for our rights in South Africa," she said.

Xolani Meyer a current student at Morris Isaacson says the sacrifices of the youth of 1976 and those that followed inspire him and his friends to make the most of their opportunities.

"We have to open doors which they did open for us into learning, then achieving dreams which they never achieved and a good eyesight of saying thanks guys," he said.

And while Friday will be the anniversary of her brother's death, Antoinette Sithole says she will not mourn. Rather, she says, she will celebrate the achievements brought by the struggle in which he died.

"I don't regret it, instead today it motivates me. Obviously we know people die in any form but usually we don't stay at the corner want people to feel sorry or sympathize with us. We are looking forward; yes it happened, we won't forget, but I think forgiving is that great phase of healing because you are able to move on," she added.

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