South Africa Youth Day – The Soweto Uprising Remembered
June 17, 2010

On June 15th we received the long awaited Saville Report into the atrocities of Bloody Sunday, 38 years ago in Northern Ireland.  

Yesterday, June 16th, was South Africa Youth Day, a national holiday commemorating the 34th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising. The parallels are there for all to see.

The Soweto riots grew out of student protests against the ruling National Party’s apartheid regime which forced children, from black only schools, to be taught in Afrikaans, or in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “the language of the oppressor”.

Resentment grew amongst the children of Soweto, resulting in the formation of a Students’ Representative Council which organized a mass rally, in order to make their voices heard.

The student demonstration was planned with a degree of secrecy which took parents and teachers by surprise and, on the morning of June 16th 1976, thousands of black students walked from their schools towards the Orlando Stadium.

It set out as a peaceful protest but police barricaded the road along their intended route and a diversion had to be taken towards the Orlando High School. Estimates suggest that by this time up to 10,000 students had gathered; singing and waving placards.

When a police patrol arrived, to marshal the demonstration, the majority of students continued to march peacefully but some children reacted by throwing stones. A handgun was drawn and fired, causing immediate panic and chaos as the students fled for safety.   

Emotions were running high and, following a subsequent escalation in violent retaliation, 15,000 heavily armed police, supported by armed vehicles and helicopters, were deployed to the township. Shots were fired indiscriminately as means of dispersing the rioting crowds.

Government figures maintained there were 23 student fatalities whilst the Reuters news agency put the figure at ‘more than 500’ with over 1,000 men, women and children wounded.   

The BBC’s World Cup football coverage has been matched by a series of excellent off the field reports, providing a valuable insight into the recent history of South Africa and how the ‘rainbow nation’ has emerged from the apartheid era into the free country it is today.

Yesterday, following a report by Garth Crooks on the Soweto Riots, we saw Desmond Tutu, accompanied by former Dutch international Clarence Seedorf (right), at an Africa Youth Day celebration, where he reminded a group of students You and I, old and young, now have a very precious thing, this freedom that was bought with the lives and blood of all – young and old, black and white.”

On a lighter note he also said it was it was important for South Africans to rejoice in their moment of World Cup glory and that foreigners must accept their traditions, including the controversial vuvuzela, which was an integral part of their games. He urged football fans to blow them even louder!

Meanwhile, broadcasting  from the BBC studio in Cape Town, prior to last night’s South Africa v Uruguay game, Gary Lineker reminded viewers that not long ago his panel of co-presenters, Alan Hansen, Lee Dixon and Emmanuel Adebayor (right) would not have been allowed.

Unfortunately ‘Bafana Bafana’ could not add to the Africa Youth Day celebrations, losing 3-0 to a Uruguay team inspired by former Man Utd player Diego Forlan.