June 16, a day that changed South Africa

National Youth Day Commemorates Soweto Uprising in South Africa

Hundreds of black students march in the streets of Soweto, South Africa to protest white rule and the mandatory instruction in the Afrikaans language. It’s June 16, 1976 and what started as a peaceful protest turns deadly. Student Mbuyisa Makhubo carries a lifeless boy in his arms, 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, the first victim of the uprising. Hector’s teenage sister Antoinette Sithole runs alongside in horror — a picture captured by a newspaper photographer in what becomes an iconic image of the student-police clash amid the black students’ demand for freedom. More than 175 people were killed in Soweto.

Photographer Sam Nzima’s image of Hector Pieterson’s body being carried after he was shot Source: m.ecr.co.za

Museum remembers those who died
Last week during a trip to South Africa, I visited the location where the students assembled in Soweto and Pieterson was killed. Accompanied by Tshamano Makhadi, a journalism lecturer at Tshwane University of Technology and Hope Motau, one of Makhadi’s promising broadcast students, I walked through the Hector Pieterson Museum on Maseko Street shocked and moved by the images of protests and killings. It was late in the day with the museum closing soon; only a few visitors including our trio walked through the exhibits. The calm space was ironic to what it memorialized: a chaotic, violent confrontation.

As I absorbed the video footage, documents and journalist reports, witness testimonies, images and audio clips I wondered: How can I possibly understand the students’ struggles? Where was I at the time of the uprising?

With Tshamano Makhadi (left) and Hope Motau (center) at the Hector Pieterson memorial and museum in Soweto. Photo courtesy: Hope Motau.

June mid-1970s, United States of America
A black principal holds the hand of a white first-grader. They walk down the hallway of an elementary school. He points out classrooms with little desks and chairs, drawings on the wall by students and the gym where kids are running around playing. She’s wide-eyed, curious and eager to learn. It’s the mid-1970s in the United States, the same time as the Soweto uprising.

The little schoolgirl is me and the principal, Mr. May (as I called him). He was giving a tour of the elementary school to fulfill my parent’s request. They were considering entering me into first grade early (age 5 instead of 6) and wanted a professional’s opinion, and permission. Most US kids go to first grade at age 6, but by age 5 I already had completed two years at a Montessori school and they thought kindergarten wouldn’t provide enough of a challenge. Maybe going straight to first grade would be advantageous, they thought.

Elementary school principal Arthur S. May in Poughkeepsie, NY. Photo courtesy: google images

As I was tiny for my age, Mr. May escorted me slowly and gently through the school. He allowed me to peer into a classroom and held my hand tight as I took it step by step down the stairwell where the handrail was just out of reach. It’s hard to recall too many more details, but vividly I remember Mr. May consulting me at the of the day for my 5-year-old’s opinion: “Jenny, so what do you think? Would you like to enter first grade in the fall?”

A well-regarded administrator in the district for close to 50 years, Arthur S. May was principal for 35 years of those years. Testament to his integrity and character, the district renamed the building the Arthur S. May Elementary School in 1999 after his retirement. He died in 2010 at age 84.

Arlington Elementary School in Poughkeepsie, NY was renamed in 1999 to commemorate longtime principal Mr. May.

If Mr. May had been in Soweto in 1976 what would have been his fate? At 50 years old, would he have been a well-regarded principal in South Africa? Would little schoolchildren, black and white, have looked up to him and possibly walked the hallway holding his strong hand?

Jennifer Karchmer is a freelance journalist covering freedom of the press. She was a guest speaker at Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria, June 9, 2015 speaking to journalism students about press freedom, journalism ethics and newswriting. www.jenniferkarchmer.com

Further reading:

· South African History Online: Soweto students march against government’s language policy: http://www.sahistory.org.za/dated-event/soweto-students-march-against-government039s-language-policy

· Soweto Youths of 1976 deserve better than Badvertising, June 16, 2015: http://africasacountry.com/soweto-youths-of-1976-deserve-better-than-badvertising/

· Soweto: The day that changed a nation’s history, June 16, 2006: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/soweto-the-day-that-changed-a-nations-history-404269.html

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