Youth and the National Liberation Struggle

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Photo: Ruth Kerkham Sim Bao, June 16, 2006

Commemoration, remembering and memorialising June 16 Soweto uprising

Since the early 1990s, June 16, now known as Youth Day, has been remembered, commemorated, and memorialised as public history. There have been different ways and forms through which the June 16 1976 student uprisings have been commemorated. The Soweto student uprisings have also inspired the production of plays including Sarafina which went on to play on Broadway. Sarafina, a South African musical produced by Mbongeni Ngema depicted students who were involved in the Soweto Student uprising on 16 June 1976. It was adapted into a 1992 film featuring Leleti Khumalo, Mariam Makeba and Whoopi Goldberg as the leading actors.

The new projects of commemorating and memorialising the June 16 Soweto uprising started in the early 1980s. One of the projects involved the construction of a tombstone for Hector Peterson at Avalon Cemetery in Soweto, South of Johannesburg. The construction of the tombstone was carried out by the Azanian National Youth Unity (Azanyu), an internal wing of the then banned Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). Hector Peterson’s tombstone was unveiled on 16 December 1981.

Hector Peterson’s tombstone was also a dedication to the memory of all those who died on 16 June 1976 as they are remembered as heroes and heroines who followed the tradition of the South African struggle against apartheid. The tombstone also serves as an inspiration to South African youth, and a constant reminder of what happened to South African youth during apartheid. On the twentieth anniversary of June 16, another memorial stone for young students who died on 16 June 1976 in Soweto was erected. The message on the stone reads, “Ever never again: dedicated to all those who lost their lives on this day and there after 20th commemoration of 16 June 1976.” 

The early 1990s marked more fundamental changes in memory and commemoration making of June 16. In the 1990s, political prisoners were released, liberation movements were unbanned and legalised, many who had been in exile returned home, and negotiation processes started. In 1992, the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) erected a commemorative plaque in Orlando West, Soweto, close to where the shooting of Hector Pieterson took place, and close to the Phomolong Clinic (now known as the Sisulu and Mandela Community Clinic) where Hector Peterson was certified dead.

The commemorative plaque is also close to the home of Mbuyisa Makhubu, the young person, who was photographed by Sam Nzima, carrying the dead body of Hector Person and alongside was Pieterson sister, Antoninette Pieterson, now Antoninette Sithole. The commemorative plaque was erected in honour of South African youth in the struggle for freedom and democracy, as well as in memory of Hector Pieterson and other young heroes and heroines who died for freedom, democracy and peace.  

In 1996, further projects of the memorial of June 16 were in the form of an exhibition of black and white photograph to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Soweto uprising. The title of the exhibition was “Youth Uprising – Point of No Return”. The exhibition featured the photographs of Alf Khumalo, Sam Nzima, Bongane Mnguni, Peter Magubane, and Ruth Motau. The exhibition was housed in 11 containers provided by Transnet Company and supported by African Institute of Contemporary Art (AICA). The exhibition was opened on 16 June and ran until 16 July 1996. The exhibition was popular as it attracted both local and international visitors.

In Cape Town, the photograph of Hector Pieterson was temporarily installed on the wall of the Castle of Good Hope. The installation was part of the Faultlines exhibition that opened on Youth Day in 1996, the 20th anniversary of the Soweto uprisings.

In 2002, Hector Pieterson Memorial and museum was opened in Soweto, close to where Hector Pieterson was shot and killed on the 16 June 1976. The Pieterson photograph, taken by Sam Nzima, a photographer at the time for The World newspaper in Johannesburg, became an iconic image of that fateful day, was published across the world.

Another project of June 16 took the form of billboards of children’s portraits in Soweto. The children’s portraits were made by Marcel Tave of the Reunion Republic. The faces that were depicted on the boards were rough imaginations of artists, and at the back of each portrait, the artist wrote the names of the children as well as the dates on which they died. These billboards became an integral part of the space where the commemorative plaque stands prominently, facing the east.

 In 1995, the South African Government officially declared 16 June a national public holiday, in recognition of the sacrifices and contributions of the youth in the struggle against apartheid. Ever since, Youth Day is commemorated every year in South Africa. 


References:
• Hlongwane, A, K. (2008). Commemoration, memory and monuments in the language of Black liberation: the South African experience. The Journal of Pan African Studies, Vol.2, No.4, June 2008.
• Simbao, R, K. (2007). The thirtieth anniversary of the Soweto uprisings: reading the shadow in Sam Nzima’s iconic photograph of Hector Pieterson. African Arts, Vol. 40, No 2, pp52-69. 

Last updated : 17-Jun-2014

This article was produced for South African History Online on 17-Jun-2014