Youth remember schoolboy's death in a transformed Soweto

 

VILAKAZI STREET in Soweto slopes down towards Soccer City, the iconic clay-brown stadium that in the distance lights the evening skyline.

On June 16th, 1976, when thousands of Sowetan schoolchildren marched from the Morris Isaacson high school, such a magnificent stadium would have been unimaginable. That morning was supposed to be about a peaceful walk to protest the stipulation that all South Africans would have to learn Afrikaans as well as English.

Hector Pieterson, aged 12, was among the first children killed. Within hours, Soweto was wreathed in smoke while riots between police and locals raged.

Hundreds of people were killed – a precise figure has never been agreed. The date has now become Youth Day in South Africa.

And with Bafana Bafana, the national football team, on the evening billing against Uruguay, the famous township was caught yesterday between remembering that day and celebrating a football match. President Jacob Zuma, Fifa officials, football heroes such as Patrick Vieira and Nwankwo Kanu, hundreds of Sowetan schoolchildren and those who survived the march: all reprised the walk from Jacob Issacson high school yesterday morning.

“I believe the spirit of Pieterson will be seen on the battlefield tonight,” said Kirsten Nematandani, the President of South Africa’s Football Association in an address beside the simple stone memorial to Pieterson. “Thank you Hector, thanks to the youth of Soweto. The route to Bafana started here. Long live the spirit of youth! May I remind you that the struggle is not over. Indeed we have the political freedom. The educational and the economic freedom is waiting for you. Long live the youth of South Africa!”

On a beautifully crisp and sunny morning, Sowetans stood singing outside the high school, the local shebeens prepared buffet lunches and stocked the coolers with beer and many tourists wandered around wearing yellow T-shirts bearing a photograph of Pieterson being carried away injured. It was a strange occasion, half-celebratory but solemn and a rare chance for World Cup tourists to capture “authenticity” on their camera phones. But for many Sowetans over 40 it was a reflection of a horrific day that altered lives.

“I remember it was as cold a day as today,” says Zwelinzima Sizani, who helped organised the walk. “And I remember the trauma of seeing children getting shot. I was a kid myself. Seventeen. We had avoided going anywhere near the police station on our route. But the police treatment was very brutal. It was indiscriminate, whether young, old or whatever. In the afternoon, they came in with helicopters and whatever. But by evening they could not come into Soweto. They were scared.”

Sizani woke up that morning in a bed he would not sleep in until 1992. He was imprisoned for nine months, fled South Africa in 1977 and lived in Angola, Cuba and East Germany. Asked what he had learned on his travels, he laughs. “Artillery. Working against enemy forces. Counterinsurgency. But I got my political education too.”

He is a tall man, and wears the rainbow scarf of South Africa and a black beret with a silver star. Today he is the director for political education for the Gautung branch of the ANC.

Mandela House shades even Desmond Tutu’s as the most famous dwelling on Vilakazi Street and business was particularly brisk on this morning. One of the guides, who goes by the name of Madonna in her public life, has promised herself this is her last year.

“I wanted to retire but they asked me not to because of this 2010 thing.”

She was a student marcher 34 years ago. She was shot in the leg, her head was bludgeoned and she lived like a fugitive for the rest of that year, moving from house to house. Later, she became deeply involved in the Women’s League of the ANC. She speaks formally and quietly and her face creases with laughter when asked about the big match against Uruguay. “Oh, I will watch them. I like watching them. They might win!”

By noon, Patrick Vieira, the statesmanlike French midfielder, has come up Vilakazi Street past kids performing Zulu dances and visitors posing outside the famous landmarks.

Already, the commentary of the first match of the day is audible from the bars, the sky is clear blue and everywhere people are laughing. This is Soweto 34 years on.