Johannesburg, South Africa
16 June 2011
June 16th is Youth Day, a South African national holiday to remember the young South Africans who took to the streets in 1976 to protest new educational requirements. A recent law required some levels of studies to be completed only in Afrikaans and the teachers and students were not prepared to do it. Students organized a march to the local stadium from all the schools in the Soweto area and enroute they were met by the police who opened fire. One of the first killed was Hector Pieterson who is now honored by a museum located near where he fell. The student march and violent response by the police set off years of bloody resistance that contributed to the fall of Apartheid.
I was fortunate to be in Johannesburg for this holiday and arranged for a local tour guide to take me around to several of the significant sites. We started at the Apartheid Museum where I was randomly selected to tour the museum as a Colored Non-White and entered a display that discussed the classification system that separated the population as White, Colored, and Black and attributed certain rights, privileges, and restrictions to each group. The museum then exposes the brutality of the Apartheid system with personal accounts, historical documentation, movies, newspapers, photographs, signs and whatnot that were used to separate the people. Whites were treated the best and had all rights and privileges, colors (usually of Asian or Indian descent), had some privileges but were still treated as a subclass, and the blacks (95% of the population) were severely restricted and had few rights. Those who protested were threatened, beaten, killed, or imprisoned. A large part of the museum was dedicated to political prisoners and anti-Apartheid leaders with Nelson Mandela featured prominently. The films of the white police clashing with protesters, shooting and beating them were difficult to watch. It's hard to believe that all this took place during my life and even while I was in college in the US blacks in South Africa were still being violently oppressed and beaten by the Apartheid regime. What's even more incredible to me is that the US Government supported the Government of South Africa and considered Nelson Mandela as a terrorists (was on our No-Fly list). No wonder why South Africans are suspicious of Americans and have a different understanding of "terrorism" as it was only through terrorism or acts of terror against the government in the struggle against Apartheid that brought the former government to negotiate with the people and release political prisoners.
The next stop on my tour was the Mandela House in Soweto, which is now a swank neighborhood full of expensive BMWs and Mini Coopers. One the corner, near the top of the hill is a small red brick house where Nelson Mandela lived with his family. There isn't much to the site, but it was packed with locals and school children when I visited. Some pieces of original furniture are on display along with many photographs and quotes on the walls. It was interesting to see the site described in his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom."
A couple blocks away is the Hector Pieterson museum where the current President of South Africa laid a wreath earlier in the day the dedication of a new monument to celebrate Youth Day. Again the museum was packed with hundreds of school children and adults wearing their old school ties and colors remembering or learning about the student uprising. The stories of people who were a part of the march are posted on the walls along with photographs of the march and ensuing violence at the hands of the police. This wasn't something in the distant past for the people walking through the museum, but still recent events that most of the population had lived through. I wonder how long it will take for these wounds to not be so painful.
At the end of the long day visiting museums and touring the city we stopped at a roadside Braii and grilled our dinner. At the Braii you select your meat then throw it on the outside grill with 20 or so other people sharing strands of wire to flip the meat. Once the meat was done my black tour-guide and I sat down at the nearby picnic table and discussed the day, his experiences during the protests, and what it all meant. We also talked about my other travels in Africa and my tour-guide was surprised to learn that the rest of the continent was different. He had never left his country and only compared himself to the US, Europe, or Australia as those were the only places he had seen on TV. He thought his country was bad with corruption and unemployment but was amazed when I mentioned Chad or the electricity problems in Senegal.