Soweto Revisited

If you read the last post you’ll remember my visit to Soweto and the Hector Peterson museum, which stands as a tribute to all who died in the Soweto uprisings that began in June, 1976, and culminated with the release from prison of Nelson Mandela and the end of Apartheid. I didn’t expect to revisit the subject, but on my final night in South Africa I met an extraordinary guy and had to share his story. There is nothing like a first-person account to give you perspective.

On that night I attended the Lesedi Cultural Experience, an hour or so outside of Johannesburg. They’ve recreated villages from five tribes, including the Zulu and the Xhosa; they have an excellent 20-minute video about the history of South Africa and the tribes, and a dance and drum show; and they offer dinner if you’re interested.

It was touristy but fun, and informative about the differences among the tribes. The men of the Pedi tribe, for example, wear kilts. Back in warring times the Pedi were defeated by the British because they thought the Scottish highlanders on the front line were women, and refused to fight them. They now wear the kilts themselves, as a reminder of the trickery.

My guide for the evening was Emmanuel Ramafola. When I mentioned to him that I had been to Soweto the previous day he asked if I’d visited the Hector Peterson museum but made no further comment. A bit later I asked where he was from. “I’m from Soweto,” he said. “I was there the day Hector Peterson was killed.”

Emmanuel was 14 at the time, and was part of the group of students protesting. I wanted to know if the protest was really all about language.

“It was 100% about language,” he said. “The government had done many things to oppress us, but demanding that Afrikaans be the language of our learning was the final straw. After years of it being illegal we were finally able to learn in English. Afrikaans was a subject we had to take, but we all struggled with it. And now we were supposed to learn history, mathematics and everything else in this language?

“It was their attempt to keep us down, keep us ignorant so we would only be able to do the will of our masters.” So a huge protest march was scheduled for June 16, 1976.

“Somehow, the police found out what was going to happen, and they gathered in a church,” he told me. ‘But they didn’t expect there would be 25,000 of us and they were scared. They came out and ordered us to leave, and they were accustomed to black people doing whatever white people told them to do. But we didn’t move, and that made them more scared. So they sent their dogs to attack us, but we killed the dogs with rocks and sticks. They saw their dogs were dead, and that’s when they started shooting.”

Hector Peterson was the first to die; there would be 61 others by day’s end. “That day was the beginning of the end of Apartheid,” he said.

Emmanuel doesn’t struggle with Afrikaans anymore. There are nine black languages in South Africa and two white languages, and he speaks, reads and writes them all.

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