Wednesday, June 16, 2010

South Africa: June 16 1976, 12 year old Hector Peterson, killed by police. Today, Soweto is a very different place

Soccer fans in South Africa for the World Cup will also have the opportunity learn about some of the country's turbulent history. June 16 is the national holiday called "Youth Day." On this date in 1976, Hector Peterson, a 12-year-old schoolboy was killed by police in Soweto. The event marked the beginning of the Soweto uprising and the eventual end of apartheid in 1994.

Sixteen years after the end of apartheid, Sakhumzi Maqupela is one of South Africa's "black diamonds," the country's emerging black upper class.

He owns Sakhumzi's restaurant on the famed Vilakazi Street in Soweto. In the apartheid era it was illegal for blacks to own a business. As Sakhumzi told us, it was so blacks always knew who their master was. "Police used to come and terrorize you, if you are still open they used to come and take even your clients," he said.

On June 16 1976, a few blocks from Sakhumzi's restaurant, 12-year-old schoolboy Hector Peterson was shot by police. He and other schoolchildren were protesting against the use of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools. This monument was built in his memory. The shooting marked the beginning of the Soweto uprising and the eventual end of apartheid. Each year, on the same date, South Africa observes Youth Day. "Those people are heroes because without them we wouldn't be where we are," Sakhumzi said.

Today, Soweto is a very different place. Sakhumzi's restaurant is thriving. Situated on the same street where Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela once lived, it is frequented by tourists from around the world. We first met Sakhumzi sitting and talking with a white Afrikaner friend, something that would have been impossible during apartheid.

Patron Ernst Vanbiljon told us that over the past sixteen years, more and more whites have ventured into the black townships. "After '94 we started working together but we know so little about one another. And at that stage, I thought it good to go out and make contact and see what everything is about," he said.

Today, parts of Soweto looks like a typical suburb anywhere in the world. The new face of the township is represented by. Maponya Mall, the first in the area. It is filled with luxury and international-brand stores. We asked one shopper, Tumi, who had stopped by for a quick browse before going to a match at Soccer City, if most people in Soweto could afford to shop here

"People can definitely afford to shop here. In the past they would get on taxis and go to get to these sort of malls in other areas, areas where predominantly white people lived. So, now the malls are here in their own areas which is fantastic," Tumi said.

But for every person who can afford to shop at Maponya Mall, there are five who cannot. Soweto still has deep pockets of poverty. There are places where shanties stretch as far as the eye could see. Lizi We, who is unemployed and has been living in this tin shack for more five years, says local officials have squandered the national assistance they receive. "Because our government, he is giving them money for the improvement but, we don't see anything, any improvement here," she said.

Back on Vilakazi Street, Sakhumzi has plans to expand his business. Building on the freedoms that activists like Hector Peterson have given him, he would like one day to turn Sakhumzi Restaurant into a global chain.

Jeff Swicord
Published with the permission of Voice of America
Photo: J. Swicord, VOA