‘Long live the memory of the June 16 martyrs!’ declared the African National Congress last Friday as it marked the 30th Anniversary of the Soweto youth uprising.
President Thabo Mbeki led a march along the route taken on 16 June 1976 by black school students fighting a policy forcing them to learn in Afrikaans.
The commemorations began at the Morris Isaacson High School where the first march began 30 years ago, before proceeding to the Hector Peterson memorial, named after the 13-year-old first and youngest school student to die in the protests.
Relatives of the children killed when police opened fire on the 1976 demonstration cried as wreaths were laid in their memory.
In Soweto, red paving stones symbolising spilled blood were laid along the route the protesters took in 1976 from Morris Isaacson High School to the Orlando West neighbourhood where the fateful confrontation with police took place that left hundreds of youth dead.
In a letter to the party magazine, ANC TODAY, President Mbeki wrote: ‘We therefore take this opportunity once more to salute the outstanding heroes and heroines whose courage, willingness and capacity to sacrifice that belied their youth, made such an important contribution to the victory of our democratic revolution.
‘We should never allow that the passage of the years and the decades, and changed circumstances, diminish our understanding of the historic meaning of what the youth of our country did from June 16, 1976 onwards.
‘Our country, which today lives in conditions of freedom, must discharge its responsibility to ensure that the inspiring story of what our youth did, serves, for all time, as part of what constitutes our definition of ourselves as a nation.
‘We are privileged that many of the then young people who survived the sustained murderous offensive of the apartheid regime against the very young, today play a central role in building the new South Africa for which many of their comrades sacrificed their lives.
‘Their presence among us, committed, as ever, to advance the cause of the people, communicates the message to all of us that we have an obligation to ensure that the things we do daily actually help to transform into reality the hopes that inspired children as young as was Hector Petersen, when apartheid terror decreed that he had to die.
‘Our movement, the African National Congress, was 64 years old when the Soweto Uprising exploded in the dusty streets of our townships, acting as a powerful force that took our struggle for national liberation to even higher levels of militancy and intensity.
‘From the very first day, our movement understood that the Uprising constituted a new and critically important chapter in the struggle it had led for over six decades already.
‘It therefore welcomed the Uprising, saluted the young patriots who were ready to die for freedom, and resolved to do everything to support the fighting youth of our country, integrating them in the broad struggle for national liberation.
‘In a Message to the People of South Africa broadcast on Radio Freedom on August 26, 1976, the ANC said: “The heroic youth and masses in many parts of our country have stood against brutal massacre and defied police bullets in a sustained offensive against oppression, exploitation and racial humiliation, for political and economic power, for human dignity in a South Africa liberated from the white minority regime. They have attacked many accessible instruments and symbols of domination.
‘“Demonstrations and acts of resistance in Soweto and other parts of the country are, therefore, not riots by anti-social elements but blows for liberation by an oppressed people.
‘“They are not passing disturbances by adventurous and misguided students but an integral part of the continuing and irrepressible liberation struggle of our people.
‘“Our youth have raised this struggle to new heights. They have enriched our revolution. The struggle continues.
‘“There can be no going back. The offensive must be broadened, deepened and generalised to encompass the whole country and involve every section of our people and all social groups with whom we share the common objective of a non-racial democratic South Africa . . . 1976 is, and must be, the year of decision.”
‘It was not accidental that it was during this “year of decision” that our movement was allowed, for the first time, to address the United Nations General Assembly.’
In his letter, Mbeki quoted the then ANC president Oliver Tambo’s October 26, 1976, speech to the UN.
Tambo said: ‘For the first time in the history of the United Nations, a representative of the majority of the people of South Africa has been allowed and invited to share this prestigious rostrum with the representatives of the independent and sovereign nations and peoples of the world. . .
‘Despite its imminence, our victory will not come easily. In the last four months, the apartheid regime has demonstrated to all who were ever in doubt that it is determined to fight to the bitter end, without regard for the numbers of our people it butchers in the process.
‘In spite of that practical experience and, indeed, exactly because of it, our people are demanding freedom now.
‘They do not ask that their masters should restore to them their rights as free men and women.
‘Rather, by their own actions against immense odds, they are restoring to themselves the right to call themselves free.
‘After three and a quarter centuries of the most brutal national oppression suffered by any people on the African continent, our people, the indigenous majority, are asserting their will to be free with breathtaking heroism.
‘There is no vocabulary to describe the nobility and the pathos of the conscious sacrifices that the black youth of South Africa have made over the last four months to free themselves, their people and their country from forces that are determined to keep us forever their chattels. . .
‘Daily in our South Africa, as in Palestine and in East Timor, ordinary people make extraordinary sacrifices in their quest for freedom. . .
‘The blood that our people have shed calls for action, not for more words. It calls for action to destroy the fascist regime that continues to massacre the innocent. . .
‘The mass shootings that characterise South Africa today are. . . neither an aberration nor freak incidents. They are the concrete expressions of the policy of the apartheid State, whose central features are extreme national oppression, brutal super-exploitation of the oppressed black people and maintenance of this system through open fascism.’
Mbeki went on to quote his predecessor, Nelson Mandela: ‘In the 1996 January 8th Statement of our movement, during the year of the 20th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising, Nelson Mandela said: “The empowerment and development of the youth is central to the whole process of the upliftment of our people and renewal of our society.
‘“The youth themselves continue to be a vital player among the forces engaged in the struggle for the fundamental transformation of our country.
‘“It is in this context that the Youth League is, once again, called upon to play a pioneering role in terms of helping to engage the youth in the new tasks which arise as a result of the defeat of the system of apartheid.”’
Mbeki concluded his letter: ‘In this year’s January 8th Statement, we committed ourselves to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising in an appropriate manner.
‘We said that “through (the Uprising) our youth entrenched their role as one of the motive forces of the national democratic revolution, and made it inevitable that this revolution should define youth empowerment and development one of its fundamental tasks. . .
‘“The observance of the various anniversaries we have mentioned also provides us with other opportunities to promote our work with regard to mass mobilisation and the activation of various sections of our people, including the women and the youth, raising the level of awareness among the people concerning the current tasks of the national democratic revolution, and further improving the quality of our cadres and members to discharge their responsibility as the leaders of the process of accelerated progressive change in our country.
‘“The pursuit of this last objective will also help us properly to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Joe Gqabi and the martyrs of 1976.
‘“We must use the example they set to inspire all our cadres and members to dedicate themselves to the achievement of the goals of the national democratic revolution, in the same way that Joe Gqabi and the youth of 1976 dedicated their lives to the defeat of apartheid tyranny.”
‘Properly to pay tribute to the martyrs of 1976 therefore means that we must indeed focus on the central strategic task of the achievement of the goals of the national democratic revolution.
‘As Nelson Mandela said, one of these goals is youth empowerment and development.
‘As we commemorate the 30th anniversary of the historic Soweto Uprising, our movement therefore pledges to our youth and all our people that nothing will divert us from the relentless pursuit of the goals of the national democratic revolution, as nothing diverted us from the struggle to defeat white minority rule.
‘Long live the memory of the June 16 martyrs!’