WASHINGTON — During his tour of Africa, President Barack Obama plans to address students in the South African suburb of Soweto, the birthplace of the struggle against racial segregation, or apartheid.
The images from a 1976 student uprising in the township of Soweto remain searing to this day: apartheid police firing at, and beating back, black students rebelling against a deliberately racist educational system, imposed by the powerful apartheid government.
South African Ambassador to the U.S. Ebrahim Rasool said this is when Soweto rose to the global stage and gave birth to a long and difficult - but ultimately successful - struggle to end government-mandated racial segregation.
“In a way, it has come to embody the symbol of resistance, that you do not have to accept injustice and wrong," said Rasool.
It is much like the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960’s.
“Civil rights leaders said we must be free at home. But we also must defend the right of those abroad to be free as well, especially those in southern Africa,” said Johnnie Carson, former U.S. diplomat for foreign affairs.
Carson said a visit to Soweto by the first black U.S. president sends an especially powerful message to all those who struggled against racial discrimination.
“It is a tribute to all of those who lived there and who fought against apartheid, sacrificed their lives, sacrificed their community, sacrificed their development in order to change the system,” said Carson.
Soweto is no longer the collection of shantytowns it was when South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, took office in 1994.
It is now a center for tourism, culture, and a growing middle-class.
“There is this creativity, there is this dynamism, there is this growth that is taking place," said South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool.
Rasool acknowledged there still are many challenges, including poverty, unemployment and housing problems in Soweto. He noted there is a renewed hope, though, especially among young people who are pushing ahead with astounding speed.
“Soweto has almost moved directly from the drum to the cell phone without too many fixed lines in between. In much the same way it is going from counting on our fingers in Soweto to using the tablets and iPads and all of those kinds of modern technologies. No personal computers in between. I think that this is the energy that you must see,” he said.
Rasool said that Soweto today offers a window to a new Africa - and symbolizes not only resistance, but resilience.