The Story of “El Negro”

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In the early 19th Century, it was fashionable for Europeans to collect wild animals from around the globe, bring them home and put them on display. One French dealer went further, bringing back the body of an adult African man.  Dutch writer Frank Westerman came across the exhibit in a Spanish museum 30 years ago, and was determined to trace the man’s history.

His name is not known, only his nickname: El Negro.

His fame comes from his posthumous travels – lasting 170 years – from Botswana to a museum exhibition in France and Spain. Generations of Europeans gaped at his half-naked body, which had been stuffed and mounted by a taxidermist. There he stood, nameless, exhibited like a trophy.

In the Darder Museum of Natural History in Banyoles, Spain, El Negro was prominently still on display in the 1980s.  In the museum, “El Negro” was displayed standing in a glass case in the middle of the carpet.

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postcard of “El Negro” on display in a Spanish museum

As Westerman states, “This was not Madame Tussaud’s. I was not staring at an illusion of authenticity – this black man was neither a cast nor some kind of mummy. He was a human being, displayed like yet another wildlife specimen. History dictated that the taxidermist was a white European and his object a black African. The reverse was unimaginable.”

The story begins with Jules Verreaux, a French dealer in “naturalia”, who in 1831 witnessed the burial of a Tswana man present-day Botswana.  He returned at night to dig up the body and steal the skin, the skull and a few bones.

With the help of metal wire acting as a spine, wooden boards as shoulder blades, and stuffed with newspapers, Verreaux prepared and preserved the stolen body parts. Then he shipped him to Paris, along with a batch of stuffed animals in crates.

According to the French newspaper Le Constitutionnel, which was writing a review of “El Negro” on public display in France, the “individual of the Bechuana people” attracted more attention than the giraffes, hyenas or ostriches.

This disturbing scene is similar to that of Sarah Baartman.  Baartman was a young Khoisan woman cajoled into going to Europe in 1810 to publicly exhibit her body, which Europeans viewed as unique and exotic. Stage-named the “Hottentot Venus”, she was paraded around “freak shows” in London and Paris, with crowds invited to look at her large buttocks. She eventually came to the attention of scientists who wanted to study her.

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Even after she died, her brain, skeleton and sexual organs remained on display in a Paris museum until 1974. Her remains weren’t repatriated and buried in South Africa until 2002.

Another similarity is what the Germans did with skulls of indigenous populations in their colonies in present-day Namibia.

In German concentration camps, female Herero and Nama prisoners were forced to boil the severed heads of their own people.  The skulls of the dead Herero and Nama were then placed in crates and shipped to museums, collections, and universities in Germany.

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This practice was started by Eugen Fischer, a prominent German anthropologist, who first went to Namibia in 1904 wanting evidence to show that racial degeneration was real.

German South West Africa became a field laboratory of German racial scientists in the early 1900s, led by Fischer.

As late as 2008, Freiburg University still had 12 skulls from Namibia, and the Medical History Museum of Berlin’s Charitie Hospital had 47 Namibian skulls.

In October 2008, the Namibian government formally requested the repatriation of all Namibian remains still held in German universities. These skulls, eventually sent back to Namibia, received a proper burial in the land of their birth, and finally, the chance to rest in peace and dignity.

For “El Negro,” more than a century after his original display he was still in a Spanish museum.

Everything began to shift in 1992 when there were increasing calls El Negro should be removed from the museum. The Olympic Games were coming to Barcelona that year and the lake of Banyoles was the venue for the rowing competitions. Surely, any athletes and spectators who visited the local museum would take offense at the sight of a stuffed black man.

These calls were supported by prominent figures such as the US pastor Jesse Jackson and basketball player Magic Johnson. Kofi Annan, then still Assistant Secretary-General of the UN, condemned the exhibit as “repulsive” and “barbarically insensitive”.

But due to heavy resistance among the Catalan people, who embraced El Negro as a “national” treasure, it was not until March 1997 that El Negro disappeared from public view and was put into storage. Three years later, in 2000, he began his final journey home.

Spain had agreed to repatriate the human remains to Botswana for a ceremonial reburial.

The remains of the Tswana man lay in state for a day in the capital Gaborone, where an estimated 10,000 people walked past to pay their last respects, before he was laid to rest.

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The story of “El Negro,” as well as that of Sarah Baartman and countless others, are representatives of the darkest aspects of Europe’s colonial past.  They represented theories of “scientific racism” – the classification of people according to their supposed inferiority or superiority on the basis of skull measurements and other false assumptions

Today they are seen by many as the epitome of colonial exploitation and racism, of the ridicule and commodification of black people.

How big is Africa?

Maps are political and influence how we perceive the world, especially the map that was most widely used in schools throughout the 20th century.

In the 16th century, a Belgian cartographer developed a new map predominantly designed for sailors at the height of European exploration.  The map that Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594) created became the standard map projection for nautical purposes.  His 1569 world map became known as the Mercator map projection.

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As someone who originally made globes, Mercator took a unique approach to converting a three-dimensional curved surface to a flat sheet of paper. Taking the equator as the logical map center left big, confusing gaps near the poles. Mercator’s solution was to stretch out the northern and southern extremities of the globe to fill those gaps, producing an elegant and usable map.

He drew longitude and latitude as straight lines (as opposed to curved lines) that cross at right angles.  This had the benefit of helping sailors to navigate the seas as it accurately depicted the shapes and directions of landmasses.

While a revolutionary tool for captains and explorers, the projection distorts the relative size of the continents, to the advantage of the West.

The repercussions of this are still being felt today.

On the Mercator map, Africa is left looking much smaller than it really is, and as a result, the interpretation is that it is less important and influential.

But Canada, Russia, the United States and Europe are greatly enlarged, and therefore more important and powerful.

That European and North American countries are enlarged is no accident. This system provided more space for Western cartographers to mark towns, cities, and roads in their part of the world, says Menno-Jan Kraak, president of the International Cartographic Association and professor of cartography at the University of Twente, Netherlands.

“If you would take a map projection with equal areas then there is almost no space on the map to display all [these details].”

There was, of course, much to map in Africa, too, but that mattered less to the cartographers up north, he adds.

One of the dangers of the Mercator map is that it can make enlarged countries seem unnaturally powerful and intimidating.

“The term ‘power of representation and representation of power’ sums up quite well how maps and the rise of the Western nation-state system — and with that, empire and colonialism — are linked,” says Marianne Franklin, professor of Global Media and Politics at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Not only was this map useful to 16th century sailors, but it also became the standard map projection of the world for centuries.

“Somehow this map projection came to be used on most world maps, especially those produced for classrooms since the beginning of the 1900s,” says Kraak. “Most of us have grown up with this world image.”

Mercator maps “continues (to prevail) despite many challenges to their fairness and accuracy because they underpin the ongoing Anglo-Euro-American presumption that the world belongs to them, and pivots around these geo-cultural axes,” Franklin says.

In reality, Africa is a massive continent, and the more area-accurate Peters Projection Map demonstrates this.

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Area-accurate Peters Projection Map overlaid with the Mercator Projection Map

On the Mercator map, Africa is perceived to be the same size as Greenland. In truth, Greenland is no bigger than the Democratic Republic of Congo, and China, the United States, India, Mexico, and all of Western and Eastern Europe combined could all geographically fit inside the borders of Africa.

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Check out the difference between the size of Africa on a Mercator map compared with more area-accurate maps.

How we see regions on the map affects how we perceive them.  It is time that we start accurately displaying the true size of the continent of Africa.

 

 

South Africa’s first black Olympic gold medalist

Twenty years ago, at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Josia Thugwane shocked his nation by becoming the first black South African to win an Olympic gold medal.

In the words of Nelson Mandela, Thugwane “reinforced our pride and confidence as a nation.”

Josia had to overcome more than just his competitors in the marathon in the 1996 Olympics, but also the segregation and oppression of apartheid that he had grown up under.

While trying to earn a living by gardening for an older woman in 1988, Josia asked a join a local running team that was sponsored by a mining company.  With no formal education and no running shoes, Josia saw this as an opportunity.  At 18, he was given a job as a janitor, mopping floors and cleaning rooms for the mining company in a coal mine hostel, and was allowed to train with the company’s running team.

But even running was segregated in apartheid South Africa.

During apartheid, whites generally had the access to technical instruction, equipment and running tracks that were forbidden to blacks. In all of what was formerly considered black South Africa, there is only one all-weather running surface, in the township of Soweto. Blacks generally took to road racing, where shoes were the only equipment needed and bare feet would often suffice.

Still, blacks suffered legislated discrimination. In the past, black runners were frequently stopped by police for running through white areas without carrying their identification papers.

Josia quickly became one of the best long-distance runners in the country, and in 1993 he won the national marathon championship in Cape Town and eventually earned a spot on the South Africa Olympic team for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.  He was thrilled to be able to run for Mandela – the man who freed all South Africans just two years earlier when he was elected president of the country.

At the Olympics, he was so much of an underdog in the marathon that not one journalist managed to ask him before the race what a win would mean.

But here was Josia, a black man, running for Mandela — running the race of the ancients.  A black man, running away from his homeland’s sad racial past — running toward a reformed South Africa.

If he won, not since Jesse Owens won four gold medals in Berlin in 1936 or aboriginal 400-meter runner Cathy Freeman won gold in Sydney in 2000, could a more powerful racial message be sent on an Olympic track.

South Africa’s first healing, unifying moment on the sporting stage had come the year before, when the Springboks stunningly won the Rugby World Cup. Mandela partnered with the team’s white captain, Francois Pienaar, to unite the country behind the most popular sport of white South Africans. Months later, in January 1996, South Africa won the African Cup of Nations for the first time, inspiring whites to unite behind the mostly black national soccer team.

But no black South African had ever won an individual gold medal on the Olympic stage; government money had scarcely been used to develop anyone but South Africa’s white athletes.

Never had just one black man faced the possibility of millions of white South Africans on the brink of euphoria if he could medal.

In a stunning upset, Josia won the marathon by just 3 seconds in what was the closest finish in Olympic marathon history.

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Josia had become South Africa’s first black Olympic gold medalist.

In South Africa, they poured out of the black townships, out of the gated white neighborhoods, out of malls and restaurants, off the motorways into filling stations – all celebrating the glory of one man, one flag.

“I won this gold medal for the people of South Africa. I also won this gold medal for President Nelson Mandela. His efforts to end apartheid have made us free – free to run, free to be part of the international community.  Without him, I would not be standing here today as Olympic champion,” Thugwane said.

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Nelson Mandela with Josia Thugwane after winning the gold medal in the 1996 Olympics

“It is an indication to others that if we work hard, all of us have equal opportunity, not like in the past.”

Josia Thugwane came home to two weeks of celebrations, parades and honorary dinners. Nelson Mandela even said of Thugwane’s historic victory, “He is our golden boy and he has reinforced our pride and confidence as a nation.”

Josiah Thugwane

Tony Longhurst, Thugwane’s agent, said, “For a country that has been through so much political turmoil, this is a huge hope for the future. We can have heroes who don’t have to be black or white. They can be South Africans.”

South Africa’s troubled history with the Olympics

As the Rio Olympics near, another opportunity presents itself to look back at South Africa’s conflicted experience with the Olympics, from being banned from the Games for decades to their triumphant return.

While most countries take for granted their right to compete among the world’s best every four years, South Africa knows what it is like to be an outcast on this world stage.  As a result of the almost universal condemnation and abhorrence of apartheid, South Africa was banned from the Olympics from 1964 until 1992.

One of the greatest weapons in the struggle against apartheid was the international sports boycott.  These boycotts included both foreign countries and individual athletes from abroad refusing to play in South Africa and South African teams and athletes being prohibited from playing in other countries.  Specific sports bodies, for example, FIFA and the Davis Cup, also banned South Africa and its athletes from taking part in tournaments and even being part of these associations due to apartheid.  South Africa was almost entirely isolated from the international sports world as a result of apartheid, affecting boxing, soccer, rugby, cricket, tennis, and golf, among others.

But the largest and most prominent sports ban was from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

South Africa’s rigid sports apartheid had been applied since the National Party came to power in 1948, and it included segregation in sports fields, seating in stadiums, and especially on teams and clubs.  Not only were “non-European” South Africans banned from being part of national and local teams, but South Africa even refused at times to play against multiracial teams from other countries.

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SAN-ROC pin

The campaign to prevent South Africa from taking part in the Olympics started in the early 1960s, led primarily by Dennis Brutus.  Brutus, one of the first sports social activists, saw the power sport had to change society, and he recognized and channeled the power of sport in the fight against apartheid.  In 1962, he helped set up the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SAN-ROC), as opposed to the white-only government sports bodies, which spearheaded the international sports boycott against apartheid South Africa.

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Dennis Brutus

It was Dennis Brutus who, in 1963, wrote to members of the IOC urging them to join the struggle against racist sport in South Africa.  Brutus gathered support from other African nations, who supported both the ban on apartheid sport and South Africa’s dismissal from the Olympics.

Brutus and others focused on the Olympic Charter, which specifically prohibits “discrimination…against any country or person on grounds of race, religion or political affiliation.”  They hoped that if enough countries called for South Africa to be banned from the Games, then the IOC would have to take action.

The 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo were the first Games where South Africa was banned. The IOC made the decision to withdraw its invitation to South Africa when the South African government insisted that the team would not be racially integrated.

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As Dennis Brutus points out, “[Sport] was the first area in which apartheid was successfully challenged, and it sent an absolute earthquake through white South Africa.”

The IOC said the decision could be overturned only if South Africa renounced racial discrimination in sport and opposed the ban in its own country on competition between white and black athletes.

At the next Summer Olympic Games, in 1968 in Mexico City,  the IOC was prepared to readmit South Africa after assurances that its team would be multi-racial. The IOC visited South Africa and presented a favorable report, stating that they had undertaken to send a multiracial team, selected on merit, to the Olympic Games. Their invitation to take part in the Games, however, elicited such sharp protests from many African countries and others, with 38 countries threatening to boycott the Games if South Africa was allowed to participate.  The IOC thus made the decision to withdraw its invitation to South Africa, preventing them from taking part in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

It was finally in 1970 when the IOC took the decision to formally expel South Africa from the IOC, preventing their participation in any future Olympic Games.

In South Africa, some athletes, however, were able to compete in the Olympics after leaving the country and gaining citizenship in other countries, including Zola Budd (Britain) and Sydney Maree (United States) in 1984.

The Olympic condemnation over apartheid continued despite South Africa’s ban. In the 1976 Montreal games,South Africa’s apartheid again brought controversy to the Olympics. Earlier that year, New Zealand’s rugby team had undertaken a three-month rugby tour of segregated South Africa.  This rugby tour prompted dozens of African countries to demand that the New Zealand Olympic team be excluded from the games. The IOC chose not to exclude New Zealand on the grounds that rugby was not an Olympic sport.

As a result, protests against their participation spread.  In the end, 28 nations boycotted the Games in response to New Zealand’s inclusion.

The Olympic ban on South Africa was only lifted prior to the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, when the international community became convinced that South Africa was irrevocably on the road to political transformation and democracy.

While the country’s first democratic elections were still two years away, it was deemed that the apartheid government had shown efforts to bring an end to apartheid in the country. In 1991, the Population Registration Act, a cornerstone of apartheid legislation, was repealed by the government of F. W. de Klerk, and a nonracial national Olympic committee was formed and recognized in South Africa.

Interestingly, at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, the official flag of South Africa and anthem Die Stem were still the apartheid-era ones, but the Olympic team competed under an interim flag and used Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as their interim anthem.

Apartheid victims lose 14-year legal battle against Ford and IBM

In a unique and complex legal battle, a 1789 law in the United States and apartheid have been linked up in the U.S. court system, including the U.S. Supreme Court, for over a decade.

The case has its roots in South African apartheid victims seeking compensation and reparations for abuses, oppression, discrimination, and violence during the apartheid era. Their focus, however, was not solely on individuals and organization in South Africa, but also multinational corporations who did business with South Africa in this era, thus profiting from apartheid’s system of cheap labor and thus propping up the apartheid state and aiding and abetting the perpetuation of gross human rights violations during apartheid.

In 2002, apartheid victims filed a class action lawsuit in the U.S.  The case was brought by several South Africans, including Lungisile Ntsebeza, whose brother Dumisa Ntsebeza is one of the lawyers in the case.  Several of them were former employees of Ford who were arrested and tortured after Ford released information about protests to the apartheid government.

The case went through the U.S. court system, and eventually all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case this week.

The denial by the Supreme Court this week means that an earlier ruling by the lower US District Court stands – that IBM and Ford could not be held liable, in US courts, for actions by its subsidiaries based in South Africa in favor of the apartheid regime.

The South Africans sued the corporations under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a U.S. law enacted in 1789, which allows non-citizens to pursue civil claims in US district courts for violations of international law or US treaties. Initially, 23 companies had been sued for having relations with the apartheid regime, including Citigroup, Hewlett-Packard, Bank of America, General Electric, ExxonMobil, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler.

Since 1980, US courts have interpreted the statute to allow foreign citizens to sue for human-rights violations that may have occurred outside of the United States. However, the Supreme Court has never specified if corporations can be held liable for their actions under this law.

Additionally, it is still unclear if entities can be held liable for actions that did not occur in the United States. In the absence of a final decision on that question, lower courts have required varying degrees of the planning of human rights violations to have actually occurred in the United States.

As a result, by 2013, claims had been dismissed against all corporations, except for Ford and IBM, due to an inability to prove that the corporations had planned their human rights violations within the United States.

Support for the plaintiffs came from a variety of organizations, including former Truth and Reconciliation commissioners, various human rights NGOs, COSATU, and the South African Council of Churches. Former US Ambassador David Scheffer even submitted a brief to the Supreme Court supporting the plaintiffs.

The government of South Africa was initially opposed to the lawsuit, claiming that it would damage foreign investor perceptions of the country. However, in 2009, the government officially reversed its position. In a letter to the United States Supreme Court, Minister of Justice Jeffrey Radebe stated that his government was of the view that the “[Supreme] Court is the appropriate forum to hear the remaining claims of aiding and abetting in violation of international law.”

In their arguments to the Second Circuit Court, Ntsebeza and the others argued that Ford and IBM should be held accountable as they were “U.S. corporations that, through their conduct in the United States, provided direct support to the South African government during apartheid and/or were purposefully complicit in the human rights violations committed by the apartheid government and security forces…[and] produced the very products that enabled the apartheid government to run and maintain the apartheid system and to oppress, control, suppress, intimidate, denationalize, and otherwise violate the rights of black South Africans.”

They claim that Ford’s US board made key decisions to manufacture specialized vehicles for apartheid security forces in violation of US sanctions and retaliated against employees who took part in anti-apartheid protests.

IBM, they say, provided database and information storage services that were key to the apartheid government implementing their race-based classification system.

Several of the South Africans in the court case were former employees of Ford who had been arrested and tortured after Ford released information about protest activities to the apartheid government. They believe that Ford and IBM’s US supervision of South African subsidiaries was a strong enough connection to allow the companies to be prosecuted under the Alien Tort Statute.

In their submitted briefs, Ford and IBM did not deny that their South African subsidiaries had helped the apartheid government. But they argued that they could not be held liable in the United States, as general supervision of their South African subsidiaries was not a strong enough connection to establish that the US headquarters had planned and supported the human rights violations.

Additionally, they contended that the statute did not allow for corporate liability, especially when the corporation that had committed the violations were based in another country (as their subsidiaries technically were).

In August 2014, US District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin dismissed the claims on grounds that the statute did not allow for corporations to be held liable, when all relevant violations of international law had taken place outside of the United States. In her opinion she stated, “that these plaintiffs are left without relief in an American court is regrettable” but said she was bound to follow previous cases, “no matter what my personal view of the law may be.”

In February 2016, Ntsebeza’s legal team wrote a petition to the Supreme Court, appealing against the dismissal of their case. They highlighted inconsistent standards among lower courts on what actually constitutes “aiding and abetting in human rights violations” and they asked the Supreme Court to answer the fundamental question of whether corporations can be held liable under the Statute.

The denial of appeal means the Supreme Court did not see this as a strong enough court case or did not want to answer either of those questions. As it is the highest court in the United States, Ford and IBM are officially free from the civil action by Ntsebeza.

Divided cities: South Africa’s apartheid legacy

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Hout Bay, Cape Town

A photographer is offering a new perspective on the sharp divide between rich and poor in South Africa with a series of aerial photographs.

Johnny Miller’s project, Unequal Scenes, saw him use a drone to capture images of some of South Africa’s richest and poorest neighborhoods lying side-by-side.

Miller, originally from the US, moved to Cape Town in 2011.

During his studies he became fascinated by the method of city planning used during apartheid, which involved creating buffer zones to keep racial groups separate.

Decades on, a level of separation continues between informal settlements, or shanty towns, and wealthier suburbs, even though geographically many of them are very close.

“I took the drone to one of the most dramatic examples of informal settlements, which is the boundary between Masiphumelele and Lake Michelle,” Miller said.

“I wanted people to see that divide from a new perspective.”

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Kya Sands, Johannesburg

Miller said people had strong reactions to the project.

“Recently I spoke in front of a crowd and a man came up to me, whom I had never met before,” Miller said.  “He looked me dead in the eyes, and said, ‘you’re giving a voice to millions of people around South Africa who are living in these conditions.'”

Critics pointed out that inequality exists everywhere, but Miller argues Cape Town’s layout makes its two extremes even more apparent.

“There aren’t really that many places in the world that look as extreme as South Africa,” he said.

“Have these people ever been inside a South African informal settlement? I have. I can tell you that it is desperate. In some cases, it is like an urban hell.

“There is disease, there is crime, there is unemployment, there is anger, and there is hopelessness.”

Miller’s photography helps us better understand the realities of apartheid-era segregation, the lingering realities of that segregation in today’s South Africa, and the economic inequalities that exist in South Africa.

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Check out all of Miller’s photography from this project here: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/gallery/2016/jun/23/south-africa-divided-cities-apartheid-photographed-drone.

40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising

June 16th marked the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising in South Africa.

It is considered a turning point in the long struggle against apartheid in South Africa. But what exactly happened that led up to this fateful day in June 1976, and why was it so important to the downfall of apartheid?

Background

The 1953 Bantu Education Act, passed by the apartheid government, laid the seeds of the 1976 Student Uprising in Soweto and around the country.

The Act was part of an an inferior education system that was designed to limit African education to the needs of the white community. The architect of the Act, Hendrik Verwoerd, put it bluntly as to how he thought of African education in the country:

“The native child must be taught subjects which will enable him to work with and among his own people; therefore there is no use misleading him by showing him the green pastures of European society, in which he is not allowed to graze. Bantu education should not be used to create imitation whites. … There is no place for him…above the level of certain forms of labor.”

As Nelson Mandela said in 1953 about the Act, “The Minister of Native Affairs, Verwoerd, has been brutally clear in explaining the objects of the Bantu Education Bill. According to him the aim of this law is to teach our children that Africans are inferior to Europeans.”

The brutal realities of what this act did to education in South Africa was in full effect by the 1970s:

  • The government spent 30 times more on the education of a   white student than a black student
  • In 1967, there was a 58 pupils/teacher ratio in Soweto
  • From 1962-1971 no new secondary schools were built in Soweto as the government said all new high schools would be built in the Homelands
  • In 1961, less than 10% of teachers in black schools had graduated high school
  • Only 33% of Grade 12 students graduated in 1968

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Then, in 1974, the government announced the compulsory use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction from Grade 7 onwards in Math, Social Sciences, and Biology in the southern Transvaal, which included Soweto.  Few teachers knew how to speak Afrikaans, and students regarded it as the language of the oppressor, and thus this regulation proved to be highly volatile.  It was set to take effect in 1975.

To put it in perspective to an American audience, New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis said, “Suppose white American families were told that their children would be taught all their school subjects in French or Dutch from now on. Imagine that virtually all white children, regardless of ability, were given a different and inferior kind of education.”

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Abram Tiro

Student anger was aided by the rise of the Black Consciousness movement, the South African Student Organization (SASO), and the influence of Abram Tiro.  Tiro was a SASO leader and student at Turfloop University in 1972 and was outspoken in his calls for educational reforms.  He was subsequently expelled from the university, in response to which black campuses throughout the country rallied behind Tiro and the students from Turfloop, boycotting classes in 1972.  Harry Mashabela recalled that “The expulsion of Tiro from Turfloop crippled black tertiary education countrywide.” Tiro went on to teach in Soweto right at the time when Afrikaans was being enforced as the language of instruction there, and he became a role model and icon of the young students.

On May 16, 1976, students at Phefeni Junior Secondary School in Soweto refused to proceed to their classrooms after the morning assembly, boycotting their classes.  They demanded the principal explain why they were now expected to study in Afrikaans. Six other schools around Soweto soon joined in them on the boycott, and by early June, 2,700 students were boycotting classes.

As Nelson Mandela recognized, “Students did not want to learn and teachers did not want to teach in the language of the oppressor.”

The South African Students Movement (SASM) organized a student march on June 16, organized by Tsietsi Mashinini, a local high school student.

The march was in protest at the Afrikaans ruling and in support of the local students who had been boycotting classes for weeks. More than 15,000 students marched, carrying signs that read, “Down with Afrikaans” and “Bantu Education—to hell with it.”  This march launched the Soweto Uprising.

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The police opened fire on the unarmed students less than an hour after the march began. The police killed 23 people that day, including 15-year-old Hastings Ndlovu and 12-year-old Hector Pieterson.

Hector Pieterson’s death became the symbol of the uprising as photographer Sam Nzima was there to capture the moment.

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Riots broke out throughout Soweto and surrounding townships and continued for months.  Protests broke out across the country, in Pretoria, Durban, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town, and many other cities.  What happened in Soweto was a spark that had ignited the resistance of the entire country against apartheid.

By the end of 1976, the police had shot and killed more than 500 protestors and wounded over 4,000 protestors in riots and marches that had continued. Thousands had been arrested

The Soweto Uprising signaled the beginning of the end of apartheid.  It inspired thousands of young people to flee the country to join the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) to help fight for their country’s liberation.  In many ways, with the leaders in jail or in exile, it inspired the masses to stand up for their rights and refuse to accept the oppression and segregation of apartheid.

But 40 years on, what does the Soweto Uprising mean for a new generation of young South Africans?