Today is Youth Day in South Africa. It’s the day we remember the Soweto uprisings of 16 June 1976.
I’m not going to bore you with all the history, but in short on that day black high school students took to the streets to protest against a government policy which would have forced them to do receive half their schooling in Afrikaans and half in English with them having no choice in the matter. There were several protest marches in the country with the biggest being in Soweto, Johannesburg where between ten and twenty thousand learners took part.
The protest was initially peaceful. Accounts differ on who started hostilities, but at some point the police fired teargas to disperse the crowd while some of the students started throwing stones at the police who were blocking their intended route. Then the police started firing into the crowd, injuring hundreds. There’s also a lack of agreement on the death toll, with official numbers at the time stating 23, wikipedia saying 176 and a government website claiming as many as 700.
What is agreed is that unarmed children were shot down by police during a peaceful protest. News of the massacre sent shockwaves through the international community and it is commonly hailed as the turning point of the freedom struggle in South Africa.
In 1994, when the ANC came into power, 16 June was declared a national holiday, named Youth Day, to commemorate the lives of the children who died that day and also to honour all youth who had a part in the freedom struggle.
These days that isn’t happening. Nowadays Youth Day seems nothing more than an excuse for a party. Youth Day celebrations are held across the country every year at a cost of millions of rands. Celebrities are flown in, international artists perform, and a bunch of politicians and businessmen sit in the front rows where all the cameras can see them. Some minister or other high-up will give a moving speech about the sacrifices of the youth in the struggle, possibly mentioning Hector Pieterson and Nelson Mandela for good measure, but the rest of the event will be one extravagant bash.
And that, I think, is nothing but an insult to the memory of the kids that died that day. 23, or 176, or 700 kids dying is nothing to celebrate. Not even in the context of South Africa being free today is their deaths a reason for a party.
So, no. I will not be celebrating Youth Day and I won’t be attending any Youth Day celebrations. And it’s not because I’m anti-ANC, or don’t accept my country’s history, or white. It’s because I believe we can better honour the memories of those children by remembering their sacrifice, by saying a prayer for their still-grieving families, and by teaching today’s children about the price that had to be paid so that they can today be free.