Soweto, South Africa, 16 of June, 1976 Memories of the Old Struggle - Challenges to the New Democracy
"I have lived
in Soweto for the past 33 years. I grew up in a location called Endeni,
which was regarded as the South African version of Beirut.
I was 10 years old when the Soweto uprising took place. I was a student at the primary school. I remember the morning of the 16 of June We went to school, but we were told to go back to our homes, for there would be no school that day. On our way home, we could see the police troops, hippos (water throwing police trucks), helicopters, as well as policemen in private cars. Students were scattered all over the place running for cover, they had their faces covered with clothes to avoid the teargas. There was smoke everywhere. Ambulances were speeding, crossing streets towards the different locations.
I was scared as my home and my school were very far from each other. I used to travel 30 km from my home to school. But that day I could not understand exactly what was happening. In the end, I managed to reach my home safely. My sister - who was a political activist - explained that I should be inside the house, because children like me were being killed in the streets by the Apartheid regime. The area around my house was in complete chaos.
Many families were helpless, shocked and in terror when the news came that the first student - Hector Petersen - had been shot dead by the Apartheid regime police during the protest march. My sister ran away from home for the whole week, because the police were after her. My parents were panicking and felt helpless for they could not protect her from the police, a police force that was regarded as "killers". I recall my neighbours visiting my mother to give her support. And I also remember how my sister had to wear boys' clothes to disguise herself. This helped her to escape from the police on several occasions.
Since that time, every year that the uprising in Soweto is commemorated, my mother cries because she feels that many children died because of random gun shooting. She feels that the Apartheid government did not take a position to stop the killing and protect innocent souls. She always prayed to God to stop the blood shed or give power to those who could not protect or defend themselves. She still remembers how my sister had to live during those days.
As a woman, my mother sometimes realises her strength in keeping her family together, even during difficult times. She also thanks God that none of her immediate family members died during the riots. Even with these sad memories in our minds, many people in the area still support and commemorate this day together. Some of the youth feel strongly that the community should come together, pray together and go to visit the Hector Petersen memorial.
Life has changed for the Soweto residents in the past 25 years. Now people live in fear of terrorism, in fear of each other. Crime is rife in the area as people were initially armed with guns to fight the enemy, the Apartheid government. Unfortunately, the same guns are now used in murders, hijackings, rapes, and robberies. Before the freedom, women were suffering violence at all levels, at the hands of police, gangsters, their own husbands and partners, with oppressive laws as well. For the past 25 years Soweto has become unruly, the violence has escalated in such a way that African people are fighting each other It is the survival of the fittest. The unemployment rate has increased dramatically and violence against women has increased proportionately.
The 1976 Soweto uprising has unfortunately influenced tolerance in a negative way. Women and children are victims of violence. Men have learned from the 1976 riots that violence is the solution for their problems.
During my high school years, I was involved in the COSAS organisation (Congress of South African Students), as the area secretary. I had to undergo the same life style that my older sister had gone through. It was very difficult as corporal punishment was practised in the school. Even students who could not afford to pay the school fees because the parents did not have money, were punished. The school management would not look at social issues such as unemployment, poverty, and violence in the family, which led to the parents divorce. The single fathers or - in most cases - the single mothers, then had to work really hard to raise their children and meet the basic needs of the household.
During those times I would sometimes feel that somehow I had to take away all the pain that most of my fellow students were undergoing. I was feeling that pain myself, for my parents did not have stable jobs to support the family. The experiences of this time had a strong influence on my life, and that is when I decided to become a social worker. A social worker who would help women to deal with the pain and other emotions born out of their responsibility of being role models to their children, help women who shoulder the pain of the whole family, help women who provide for the most basic needs for the family.
After Freedom in 1994, many laws affecting women's lives have been passed, amended and improved to protect women from violence. Women have started to reclaim their spaces. The voices of women and children have started to be heard from all over the community. Power is in the hands of women, but it needs to be acknowledged by men. Men must accept that women have strength and power and that they can do the same jobs and can have the same skills that they have, even the skills that many men do not have.
The issues that Soweto women are confronting nowadays are complex. Many of these issues are related to traumas experienced by the women and their families in the past 25 years and during the uprising. To bring back moral principles such as respect for each other and "ubuntu", helping to raise awareness about the value of human life are difficult tasks, particularly when men feel threatened by loosing power at the hands of women who deserve it.
The Government - on the other hand - has started the process of assisting the communities to deal with the attitudes and myths that portray woman as second class citizens. But government officials still need to be trained to be sensitive towards women's issues. The policemen and police women in particular need special training, for they are the ones that are confronted on a daily basis by women victims of all forms of violence. The Government still needs to include or accommodate a gender perspective into the work of the different departments, to have effective service delivery.
Personally, and as a mother working in the field, I am filled with fears and threats and wish I could protect myself and my two children aged 10 and 2 years from the 'evil' called violence. Sometimes I wonder whether I am saying what women and children like to hear and know. My work is very challenging and fulfilling, however lack of appropriate resources contributes to the gaps in delivering an effective and efficient service.
I also feel that both women and men should be equally involved in the struggle to fight violence against women. Therefore programs to educate men should be developed and implemented in our communities, but men should initiate this struggle.
I have fulfilled my dream of becoming a social worker, and today I work at the Nisaa Institute for Women's Development outreach office located in the Protea Magistrate Court in Soweto. We have designed strong awareness campaigns, which we conduct in the community to raise awareness, educate and empower women on their rights, violence against women and gender issues and the interface between violence against women and HIV/Aids.
One of my jobs is to offer counselling to women survivors of violence, to let them know that they are not the only ones and that they should not blame themselves for what is happening. We also have a support group for women survivors of violence, where they can help each other in dealing with the pain, trauma and emotional scars that they suffer from being trapped in abusive relationships. Along with this more direct work with women survivors of violence, we also offer training to the community on basic and advance counselling skills. The training empowers community members and equips them with skills to utilise in their home environment, with friends, work environment and in their neighbourhoods.
The Soweto office also refers women survivors of violence and their children to our shelter for accommodation when their lives are endangered, and we also provide counselling and court preparation for women victims of rape.
So, after 25 years since the Soweto uprising against the Apartheid regime, it seems a new uprising is necessary: the uprising of women and men against the 'evil' called violence, especially violence against women.