His name was Hector Peterson; his age was 12. His violent death marked the beginning of the end of apartheid.
On Saturday, nearly 22 years later, President Clinton came to South Africa’s most conspicuous township to honor Peterson and countless others who gave their lives to the long struggle against forced racial separation.
That an American president would visit the site that so singularly symbolizes black South African resistance was yet another sign of just how far this nation has come in the seven years since apartheid was dismantled.
“This solemn place commemorates forever the death of one young boy, a death that shocked the world into a new recognition of the vast evil of apartheid,” Clinton said as he stood at a stone memorial to Peterson.
Saturday, Clinton said, “We remember the historic events of this decade, and we remember that none of them could have been possible without the bravery of the young men and women of the townships, who took to the streets in protest, many of whom were cut down in struggle, more of whom were damaged by prison and torture.”
It was children who started the Soweto Uprising. On June 16, 1976, students from Morris Isaacson High School marched in protest of a government order that they study their lessons in Afrikaans, the language of the ruling white minority.
The white police gunned them down, and Hector Peterson was the first to die. A picture of his body, carried in the arms of another student as his screaming sister ran alongside, ran in newspapers around the world. That photo is etched on the front of the small memorial to Peterson and other young warriors in the fight against apartheid.
Now, South African newspapers - showing white policemen with automatic weapons facing black children with rocks - are displayed in trailers on the edges of the memorial, as are graphic photos banned from publication at the time.
Clinton toured the site under heavy armed guard, including two South African armored personnel vehicles used to block a road and police carrying semi-automatic weapons. He said he was speaking on behalf of all Americans when he honored the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement “who answered the call of conscience.”
The leaders, he said, “by their unyielding refusal to accept injustice, summoned men and women around this country, and indeed around the world, to raise their voices and work until change came to South Africa.”
As residents of Soweto looked on from perches on rooftops and walls, the president and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton planted a karee tree near the memorial. The couple also held a round-table discussion with young adults at the R.P. Maphanzela Primary School in Thokoza township, scene of bloody battles for control between Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress and the opposing Inkatha Freedom Party.
The Soweto of 1998 looks quite a bit different from the one Hector Peterson would have known. Then, the government decided where black people could live, and they could not own their own homes. The rolling hills were crammed with shacks in the giant ghetto on the outskirts of Johannesburg.
Today, the sprawling community - with a population estimated at 2 million to 4 million - shows new signs of life. Shops and restaurants have sprung up, as have new and larger homes and the occasional bank.
South Africa President Mandela once lived in Soweto, and his small former home is now a museum.
“There are many bullet holes here we’d like you to see,” guide Ngugi Githuka said Saturday. Beginning in 1976 and continuing until Mandela became president in 1994, he said, the neighborhood was a “war zone.”
Now, Archbishop Desmond Tutu lives down the block, making Vilakazi the only street in the world that can claimed to have housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners.
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