In South Africa, Remembering Soweto Uprising

June 16 is a national holiday in South Africa, but not because of the World Cup play being held there. The day marks the death of 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, killed by police in 1976 during student protests in Soweto. His death became a symbol of youth resistance to apartheid. It is a day of remembrance, but also one of celebration.

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Hosting the World Cup has made for some joyous celebrations in the host country, South Africa, but today is also an important and terrible day in the country's history. From Johannesburg, NPR's Mike Pesca reports.

MIKE PESCA: Thomas Khosa woke up today, made a run to the bank and found it closed. Of course, he realized too late, it's June 16th.

To most people in South Africa, where the median age is 24, it's a day from the history books. In 1976 in Soweto, the sprawling black township then considered separate from Johannesburg, students took to the streets protesting the forced learning of the Afrikaans language.

To Thomas Khosa, it was personal history. In fact, without him, the rest of the world might not have known about the shooting of a young boy named Hector Pieterson.

Thirty-six years ago, Khosa was told by his bosses at The World newspaper to rush to Soweto.

THOMAS KHOSA: And there was Sam Nzima, the photographer, shooting pictures. And I looked at what he was shooting, and I saw Mbuyisa carrying Hector Pieterson, and he was put in a press car and went to the hospital, where he died.

PESCA: Sam Nzima, accurately predicting that he would be harassed or detained, handed the film off to Khosa, who sped back to the newspaper's offices. Within a day, the iconic image of the Soweto uprisings had spread around the world: Mbuyisa Makhubo, a teenager wearing overalls, carrying a bleeding 12-year-old, Hector Pieterson.

Today in Soweto, close to wear the picture was taken, stands the Hector Pieterson Memorial, dominated by a huge reproduction of the famous photograph. Tzisikelim Zakulu(ph) was there. She was a 16-year-old student the day of the strike.

TZISIKELIM ZAKULU: On June 16, as we were writing our midyear exams, we saw a group of students marching down Vilakazi Street, you know, and chanting. Where do they come from because this is just not done in South Africa, especially under apartheid.

PESCA: She saw students being shot at, she saw fires, she saw policemen being stoned to death by a mob. What she sees now in Hector Pieterson Square is very different. Well over 100 visitors are gathered, wearing South African national team jerseys, blowing vuvuzelas, crowding around a four-foot replica of the World Cup trophy that's being wheeled about.

The hubbub doesn't faze Tzisikelim, who sees the events of June 16th, 1976, and the soccer game of June 16th, 2010, as an evolution.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

(SOUNDBITE OF VUVUZELAS)

ZAKULU: We never imagined that World Cup would come to South Africa first of all. We never believed that we would actually be free.

PESCA: Most everyone I spoke with at the memorial took this tack: We honor the past by celebrating the present. But Thomas Khosa dissents.

KHOSA: It was the beginning of many people dying, the beginning of many people going into exile, the beginning of many people losing their lives, families breaking asunder.

PESCA: The country has sought to remake the day as National Youth Day, a celebration of possibility, which fits in nicely with the theme of the World Cup. Hector Pieterson would have been 46 years old this year. The whereabouts of Mbuyisa Makhubo, the boy who carried him, are unknown.

His mother testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996 that the last she heard he was in Nigeria, where the activity he most enjoyed was playing soccer.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, Johannesburg, South Africa.

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