[From the Toronto Star, June 12, 2010]
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA—Gloria Pikitsha stands at the corner of her old high school and recalls the moments before the first gunshot. It was June 16, 1976, when white police officers came to Orlando West High School in Soweto to stare down several thousand black students who’d had enough. One side was armed with rocks and recklessness, the other lethal artillery and the imperviousness apartheid allowed.
Voices escalated, the rocks exchanged fire with bullets and Gloria ran home to hide under a bed. The fighting ratcheted up, the army joined the police and before the Soweto uprising was beaten down a day and a half later, hundreds of children had died in one of the grimmest episodes of South Africa’s bleak and bloody era.
“No one thought it would ever go that far,” Gloria says of the confrontation, which was inevitable once the students from several schools across the most famous township in the country organized what was intended to be a peaceful march. They were protesting the government’s insistence they study Afrikaans, the Dutch dialect that was the language of the ruling National Party.
“We thought we should be learning English,” says Gloria, who aims to start a business giving tours of Soweto and its landmarks. “What good was Afrikaans going to do us? And the teachers didn’t even speak good English, so we were upset about that.”
The school is on Vilakazi St., possibly the most remarkable 900-metre stretch of asphalt on the planet. Named after the first black lecturer at Johannesburg’s University of Witwatersrand, Vilakazi St. is the only thoroughfare in the world that’s home to two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Mandela’s house at 8115 Vilakazi is now a museum and a restaurant bearing his name is adjacent.