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.

Domhnach na Fola – 38 Years of Hurt……
June 16, 2010

The events of Sunday January 3oth 1972 should and will forever be remembered.   

I was still at school, studying ‘A’ levels, and living at home with my parents. I don’t actually recall, but it was probably a typical Sunday for us, reading the papers, enjoying a roast lunch and settling down in front of the TV to watch edited highlights of one of the previous day’s big games  on ‘Star Soccer’.   

Meanwhile over the Irish Sea, in Derry, the tragic events of ‘Bloody Sunday’ were unfolding. 26  unarmed and innocent civilians were gunned down by British Paratroopers, confronting an unlawful but peaceful demonstration with a hail of gunfire.

The families and friends of the victims, indeed the whole community of Northern Ireland’s second city have lived with the painful consequences of these murderous actions for 38 years.  

The initial enquiry, from Lord Chief Justice Widgery 11 weeks after the event and proclaimed as the ‘official truth’, has now been shown to be anything but. In many ways the publication of this report, which whitewashed the actions of the British troops and in effect denied what local people and the media had seen with their own eyes, was almost certainly responsible for intensifying and prolonging the Troubles in Ireland.    

Twelve years ago, as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, then Prime Minister Tony Blair took the unprecedented step of setting up a second official enquiry, led by Lord Saville,  which was finally and momentously published yesterday.

It couldn’t have been more categorical and unambiguous in its findings, clearing all 26 victims (14 killed) of any actions that might have provoked the massacre and laying the blame firmly with the paratroopers.   

The report, 10 volumes and 5000 words long, took an amazing 12 years and £192,000,000 to produce, which begs belief when one considers the Nuremberg Trials at the end of the Second World War only lasted a year!

However, whilst there should be future questions about where that money went and whether lawyers have been profiteering at the tax payers’  expense,  sometimes the truth costs and it is far better that the people of Derry can have their ‘closure’ after all these years and  that the British Government can be seen to have acted honestly and honourably.

It was a humbling and emotional experience, listening to  David Cameron announce the Saville Report findings to the Commons, while simultaneously watching the reactions of the people in Derry. It seemed almost surreal that Cameron was apologising on behalf of the nation for something that had happened when he was only five years old!

Many of the innocent Bloody Sunday victims were my age. 1972 seems a lifetime ago , and when I consider what I have experienced and achieved in the intervening years it really brings home to me the full tragedy of the event. It is preposterous that it has taken this long for the truth to become officially recognised, but far better late than never.  

However this might not be the end. After all these years, will ‘closure’ be enough for the families and friends of the dead Bloody Sunday victims or will charges be brought against those who unlawfully killed them.