The day when S. African children wrote history

CAPE TOWN, JUNE 16. Today is the 25th anniversary of the Soweto uprising. It was on this day in 1976 that thousands of black schoolchildren from the Soweto township and from other black townships across the country took to the streets in protest against the imposition of Afrikaans as a compulsory medium of instruction from Standard Five onwards. The uprising was suppressed with great violence, though the toll of the dead and injured has never been accurately measured.

As was the case with the Sharpeville protests 16 years earlier, the leadership of the liberation movement was caught unawares by the Soweto uprising. This is again evident in the collection of essays recently brought out by Mr. Mac Maharaj, veteran freedom fighter (Reflections in Prison, Zebra and Robben Island Museum, 2001).

The book containing nine essays - dealing with the strategic issues facing the liberation movement as viewed by long-term political prisoners - which were written clandestinely and smuggled out by Mr. Maharaj who was due for release. All but one of the essays were written just before the Soweto uprising.

However, as Mr Maharaj acknowledges, though the essays were ``on the very eve of the uprising, there is no hint in them of the uprising, which exploded even as we were writing the last page''.

Like Sharpeville, Soweto too became a defining moment in the country's history. The two days, March 21 and June 16, are inscribed in the national calendar among the 12 public holidays of democratic South Africa.

These public holidays mark both a continuity and break from the 11 public holidays of the apartheid regime. Four of the earlier holidays were dropped, one was renamed and five new holidays were added. Apart from March 21 and June 16, the other three new public holidays are April 27 called Freedom Day as it was on that day in 1994 that all adult South Africans voted for the first time, August 9 called National Women's Day in commemoration of the Women's March to Pretoria on that day in 1956, and September 21 called Heritage Day, commemorating the death of King Shaka on this day in 1828.

The nuances of this acknowledgement are interesting. While the first official South Africa Yearbook issued under the imprimatur of the democratic Government in 1995 identifies March 21 and June 16 as ``Human Rights Day (Sharpeville Day)'' and ``Youth Day (Soweto Day''), the clarification locating the concepts of ``human rights'' and ``youth'' in their unique historical context is omitted in all the subsequent yearbooks.

Thus, both the days are now celebratory events, with little indication of what these days actually stand for in the history of the liberation movement.

Indeed, one is hard put to recognise any awareness of this history while talking about these days to the post-apartheid generation (born after 1990), who now comprise nearly a third of South Africa's population. One can only speculate about what shape these celebrations will take in the years to come as the age composition of the population undergoes even greater changes. What is, however, clear is the deliberateness of the policy that has led to such delinking.

Today is also the day when the Comrades Marathon, alternately between Durban and Pietermaritzburg over a distance of about 100 km, is run. The race which used to be held on May 31 (the ``Republic Day'' of the apartheid regime) has been rescheduled since 1997 to the Youth Day.

Though the winner crosses the victory line under six hours, the SABC telecast of the race goes on throughout the day till 5 pm, for tens of thousands of people take part in the race and to complete the race itself is an honour. Could it be that the riveting spectacle is yet another well-calculated diversion for the people of South Africa from boring political concerns, from brooding too much over the past?