June 16 th – Soweto Day. Forty-four years ago today in Soweto, at five to nine in the morning, a South African Policeman opened fire on a crowd of black South African schoolchildren singing freedom songs on a peaceful protest march. Hector Peterson was killed and the Soweto revolt was triggered. Forty-four years ago today, at five to nine in the morning, our eldest child, Anthony, was born.
So June 16 th is a memorable day. The photograph of the dying Hector Peterson, being carried away from that shooting by an anguished Mbuyisa Makhubo, seared itself into the memory of innumerable newspaper readers around the world, even as it enraged so many of us in South Africa. There have been very few iconic photographs in my lifetime that have managed to encapsulate an important historical moment so vividly and memorably. The two others that come to mind are the photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phúc, the naked Vietnamese child fleeing her napalmed village during the Vietnam War, and that of the drowned body of three year-old Alan Kurdi lying on the Mediterranean beach in 2015. They were all images that captured
the anguish and pathos of a dire situation that encompassed a great many people beyond the subjects of those individual photographs.
So Anthony’s 44 years have carried him through the stormy death-throes of
apartheid all the way to the becalmed waters of Covid-19 lockdown in York. When he was a child I used to tell him that one day his birthday would be public holiday and he would never have to work on it. Now it is, indeed, a public holiday in South Africa – now designated as Youth Day rather than Soweto Day – but he is no longer there to enjoy it, so he has to work on his birthday after all.
The children in Soweto were protesting against the imposition on them of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in their schools, in a situation in which neither they nor their teachers had much, if any, facility in Afrikaans, which would in most cases have been the children’s third or fourth language. No one government ever has a monopoly on stupidity. The Soweto revolt spread countrywide, with hundreds of black casualties, was greeted with international revulsion, and was one of the milestones on the long road to freedom. But it is good that the public holiday was renamed Youth Day: both in recognition of the role played more widely along that
road by young people all over South Africa, and by way of signalling hope for the future.
Today is not recognised as Youth Day in UK but it brings cause for celebrating youth. After a weekend in which large, ethnically-mixed, crowds of mainly young people came together to assert their belief that Black Lives Matter, braving the attentions of cohorts of right-wing racist thugs (and, potentially more rashly, Covid-19) in the process, Marcus Rashford has more or less single-handedly forced a government U-
turn on free summer lunch-vouchers for economically disadvantaged schoolchildren.
It may not be too much to hope that the groundswell of support for the Black Lives Matter movement over the past few weeks could, like the Soweto protests, be a milestone on the long road to genuine racial equality in this country. In the meantime Anthony’s birthday appears to be heralding a shifting of the order of the generations: whereas it was always we who took our children out for special dinners on their birthdays, tonight Anthony is bringing a take-away dinner to us from Mumbai Lounge, arguably the best of the many curry restaurants in York. So the old