Have you told your kids why Youth Day is a public holiday in South Africa? Here’s how I tried:
Before you were born we had a bad president who had a bad government. This president said ‘white people you must live here’, ‘coloured people you must live here’ and ‘black people you must live here.’ He said that white people can’t be friends with black people. This was very wrong. One day the government decided that all the kids need to learn in Afrikaans at their schools, even the kids who only knew how to speak Xhosa or Zulu. This wasn’t fair because it’s hard to learn in a different language that you don’t know. The government didn’t want the black people to get too clever which was very wrong.
One day these children (they were actually big kids) from three different schools in a place called Soweto decided that they had had enough and made a plan to get together for a peaceful protest. They all got together early on the morning of June 16 to march to the stadium. Their principal said, ‘Good luck everyone. Please be peaceful and behave well.’ All the children were very excited to march and sang songs together – there were about 10 000 kids all together.
The big kids heard that the police were on their way and so one of the kids jumped up onto a tractor to talk to the crowd. He said, ‘Brothers and sisters, I appeal to you – keep calm and cool. We have just received a report that the police are coming. Don’t taunt them, don’t do anything to them. Be cool and calm. We are not fighting.’
The police were given orders to block the children who were marching. The policemen threw teargas into the crowd and surrounded the kids. At the back of the crowd one of the policemen let his dog attack the children and they were scared and threw stones at the dog. Next thing you know, the policemen panicked and started shooting the kids with their guns. The kids all started running and screaming.
Everyone in Soweto was mad that the police were shooting the children and so they retaliated by burning cars and government buildings. The police kept shooting the people and at the end of the day 23 people were dead. The uprising spread to other townships and at the end of the month a lot of people had died – 176 people at least but some say 700.
June 16 is a day that we remember the children who died because they told the bad government that they didn’t want to learn in Afrikaans. This is not something we must ever forget or ever let happen again.
Please forgive my overly simplistic summary of June 16, you can read more about the events of the day here or follow live tweets on @SA_info or with the hashtag #SowetoUprising.
*Photo by Sam Nzima: Mbuyisa Makhubothe, the 18-year old South African school boy seen carrying the dying Hector Pieterson.