South Africa v Uruguay: Support the boys, the boys this Youth Day

Today is an important day for South Africa, and not just because it’s Bafana Bafana’s second group match of the World Cup against Uruguay. The date has a significant place in the country’s history and the campaign against apartheid and is marked annually with a public holiday to celebrate ‘Youth Day’.

On 16 June 1976 thousands of students from Soweto, a township in Johannesburg, walked from their schools to Orlando Stadium to protest against being made to learn Afrikaans in school. The introduction of compulsory language lessons was part of the overall Bantu education system, which saw separate schools and universities for blacks and whites, with overcrowded classrooms and inadequately trained teachers at black schools.

The students planned a peaceful demonstration and walked singing songs and waving placards. On finding their route blocked by a police barricade they diverted their route so as not to provoke the police. What happened next is unclear, but Colonel Kleingeld who fired the first shot, reported that some children started to throw stones at the police patrol. In response Kleingeld fired a shot from his handgun and chaos broke out.

23 people died that day in what became known as the Soweto Uprising. The most well-known victim was a 12 year old boy called Hector Pietersen. The photograph of the dying boy being carried in the arms of a fellow student and his sister running alongside was published around the world and came to represent the events that happened that day. Over 500 people, many of them youths, were killed in the violence that ensured over the next few weeks, and 1,000 men, women and children were injured.

It took another 18 years until apartheid came to an end in South Africa. In 1994 the country held its first ever democratic elections, and chose Nelson Mandela as its President.

Yet, in 2010 the legacy of apartheid still grips the country, which is evident in WDM’s statistics that rate South Africa only the 28th most supportable team. The country suffers from inequality; there is also a high rate of unemployment and poverty with millions living in townships where conditions are poor. The country also has high HIV prevalence rates, with 2008 figures showing that 16.9 per cent of 15-49 year olds are HIV positive.

But what you don’t see from these figures is the leap the country has made since 1994. The Government has provided electricity, water and sanitation to millions who were previously without. Expenditure on education has increased, and pensions and child benefits are now available to millions, not thousands. The economy has also had the longest period of growth in its history.

These stats also don’t show how South Africa has transformed from a system of apartheid and inequality, to a functioning democracy. Last year it held its fourth democratic elections and has one of the most stable democracies in Africa. The country also has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world and is committed to equality for all its citizens, something seen in the figure of women in government, which stands at 41.1 per cent.

The journey South Africa is on to develop and overcome the legacy of its past is, in many ways, exemplified by the story of Bafana Bafana captain, Aaron Mokoena. Last season he played in the English Premiership for Portsmouth and has carved out a successful career for himself in international football, currently he is South Africa’s most capped player. Yet Mokoena grew up in Boipatong Township near Vanderbijlpark, the site of a massacre in June 1992, when Inkatha party members, aided by the police, killed more than 40 people, in what was rumoured to be an attempt to purge the township of its next generation of men.

Mokoena has said:

“I was still young, only 11 years of age, but I remember the following day that I was on my way to school and people were coming back, crying. That’s when we heard there had been a massacre. It happened at night when people were sleeping. It was awful.

After the massacre, there were a lot of rumours saying that these people wanted to kill the young boys. So my mum had to protect me in any way and she decided to dress me as a girl. She also took me to this community hall where there was enough protection for people from the township, especially the boys.”

I’m supporting South Africa in today’s match because in spite of the many challenges the country still needs to overcome, it has come a long way since 1994 and deserves recognition for that. 34 years ago today black and white South Africans lined up against each other in opposition. This afternoon at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria they will stand together as one in support of their national team. I’m definitely cheering for that.

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