JOHANNESBURG – When the South African team took the field against Uruguay Wednesday, the match carried not just the soccer dreams of millions, but the historical weight of events that happened here 34 years ago today.
In June 1976, racial tensions among South African students were at a breaking point. Already desperately underfunded because the Bantu Education Act of 1953 cut government funding to predominantly black schools, students were fuming over a new law forcing schools to abandon teaching in native tongues like Zulu in favor of Afrikaans and English.
While many black South Africans could stomach English because it had become an increasingly popular language for business, the forced use of Afrikaans – the language of the ruling white minority – was too much to bear.
In protest, on June 16, 1976, thousands of black students and teachers in the Johannesburg township of Soweto organized a peaceful march to Orlando Stadium (just a few miles south of Soccer City stadium, the site of the World Cup’s opening and closing matches) to air their grievances.
How the violence started remains a source of historical debate, but what followed was a short and intense engagement between youthful protesters and South African police that blew the lid off the long-simmering racial tension in Soweto.
In the ensuing rioting and occupation of the township by the South African Army, hundreds of black students were killed – including 13-year-old Hector Pieterson. A photograph of a demonstrator carrying away Pieterson’s body caused international outrage and galvanized the anti-apartheid movement.
The tragic events of the "The Soweto Uprisings" inspired students to align themselves with the African National Congress, the future political party of Nelson Mandela.
The anniversary is now commemorated annually as Youth Day – which today coincided with South Africa’s second game in the World Cup.
The symbolism of how far the country has come since the dark days of apartheid was not lost on South African team captain Aaron Mokoena. "This is a day which all South Africans remember," Mokoena said before the game. "Playing this match on this day means a lot to us as players, and some of us would not have been here were it not for the sacrifices of many who came before us."
Despite a 3-0 loss to Uruguay, the fact that a team of black South Africans were center stage paid tribute to what the townships brought to the nation so many years ago.