Our purpose in going, apart from the solidarity links that connect our two struggles, was to speak to a wide range of ANC negotiators who had succeeded in bringing an end to the apartheid regime.
It was an emotional experience for all of us. There wasn’t a dry eye at our first engagement as we listened to the late Walter Sisulu, the grand old man of African resistance, who had made a special point of coming to meet us. He spoke of his own time in prison and of his memories of the hunger strike in Ireland in 1981. He was in prison then and told us of the great solidarity that existed between ANC prisoners and the republican prisoners.
It was a moving speech in which Walter Sisulu recalled hearing of the death of Bobby Sands and of the silent tribute ANC prisoners across South Africa paid to a fellow freedom fighter. Further evidence of the connection between the two struggles can be found in Madiba’s note on his prison calendar on Robben Island on which he wrote on the 5 May 1981 - ‘IRA Martyr Bobby Sands dies’.
Some days later we visited several of the townships around Jo’burg, including Alexandra and Phola Park. The poverty, that was the legacy of apartheid, was enormous. But the spirit of the people was incredible. They danced and sang and their sense of hope for the future was overwhelming.
I was reminded of this visit in the summer of 1995 as I read newspaper accounts in recent days of the Soweto Uprising that took place in June 1976 - 40 years ago this month. I was in Cage 11 when the uprising began. Inside and outside of the prison republicans identified closely with the struggles for liberation in south Africa, Angola and Mozambique and with the Palestinian people. The nightly news reports of street confrontations on our television screens from Soweto, as young people, armed with stones took on the might of the best trained and equipped army in Africa, reminded all of us of our own experiences on the streets of Belfast and Derry.
Our hearts and heads were with the school children challenging the apartheid regime.
The Soweto confrontation between school children and young students, and an apartheid regime renowned for its brutality, arose because the south African regime– not unlike the British colonial power in our own experience – decided to destroy the language and culture of the native peoples.
In 1974 it made the language of Afrikaans alongside English compulsory as the medium of instruction in schools. This decision was in keeping with an educational system that was an integral part of an apartheid system that included ‘homelands’, pass laws and structured discrimination based on race. It was a system of segregation intended to keep black south Africans in a subservient position.
H.F Verwoerd, who was its architect said: “Natives (black people) must be taught from an early age that equality with Europeans is not for them” … “There is no place for [the African] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour. It is of no avail for him to receive a training which has as its aim, absorption in the European community”.
On June 16th 1976 thousands of students organised a peaceful march to Orlando Stadium in Soweto to protest against this new educational directive. The marchers were confronted by heavily armed police who fired on them. The result was the beginning of a revolt that spread across the state.
News film and photographs of distressed parents and students carrying the bodies of those killed flashed around the world. Official figures of casualties on that first day say that some 23 people were killed but other reports put the figure much higher.
The uprising escalated. 300 predominantly white students marched in protest at the killing of schoolchildren and workers joined in the protests. By the end of 1976 it was estimated that as many as 600 had been killed.
The Soweto Uprising was a pivotal moment in the struggle for freedom in south Africa. It changed the political landscape and renewed international interest in a struggle that had largely slipped off the media agenda. The images of school children facing up to heavily armed south African police and soldiers, and being killed and injured in their hundreds, captured the attention of the world. The Soweto Uprising also filled the prisons with teenagers and young men and women who were determined to break the apartheid system forever. It also led to an increase in the number of young men and women joining the liberation movements inside south Africa and travelling to the training camps in other African states.
One small postscript. During that memorable visit to south Africa we also visited Soweto. There we met ANC activists who had participated in the uprising, joined the struggle for freedom, and were now in the government of a free south Africa. In celebration they took us to the grave of Joe Slovo. When the ANC decided to adopt armed struggle as a means of struggle in 1961 Joe Slovo was recruited by Madiba and Walter Sisulu to form the High Command of Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation) or MK – the ANC’s armed organisation. He rose to become Chief of Staff of MK.
Joe died six months before our visit. As we made our way through the huge Soweto cemetery to his graveside we were accompanied by hundreds of local ANC activists, mainly women. They sang and danced. At the graveside I made a few remarks about Joe Slovo’s life and example and the crowd sang Nkosi Sikelele, the South African National anthem.
Soweto was the ANC’s hunger strike moment. An event that changed the shape and dynamic of their struggle. Just as we remember those who died on hunger strike in 1981 so too are the heroes of Soweto remembered.