Even an observance as significant as today's 10th anniversary of the Soweto uprisings often takes on a life of its own after a number of years. While we may remember that the death toll was 600 or that the injured numbered more than 1,000, we tend to forget the details of such events, especially in view of the unspeakable bloodshed, repression and turmoil now going on in South Africa.
But for Majakathata (Maja) Mokeona, the memories of that clash a decade ago are crystal clear. He was one of the South African teen-aged students who helped lead the demonstration in the crowded, sprawling black suburb of Soweto that resulted in that country's worse race riot since the Sharpeville massacre that had claimed 69 lives 16 years before. Soweto marked a new phase of defiance on the part of South African blacks.
Now 28 years old and a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, Maja recalled that he and the other student leaders had no inkling that their protest against compulsory use of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in black schools would produce the reaction it did from police in his race-tense country.
"The Afrikaans language belonged to the oppressor, so we hated it," said Maja, whose father ran a mom-and-pop grocery store in Soweto, explaining why that issue prompted young people to take matters into their own hands that fateful day. "But we thought we were safe because the police weren't supposed to come inside Soweto."
On that hot June 16, a Wednesday, the narrow, unpaved streets of the overcrowded black township were teeming with schoolchildren, some carrying signs that declared "We are Africans -- not Boers." They sang the black nationalist song, "God Bless Africa."
"I was leading the group from my high school," Maja, a thin, wiry man, recalled the other day. "We were marching two or three hours, coming from all over Soweto to converge at the West Orlando School.
"When they saw the police they got angry because of all the earlier harassment," he continued. "But I stopped them from throwing stones, saying we should not attack. We had decided no matter what happened, we weren't going to attack the police."
But the police had ideas of their own. Soon they threw tear gas. Then they opened fire, at first shooting into the air. Then they aimed their submachine guns directly at the schoolchildren.
"Small boys of 9 and 10 were being killed," Maja recalled, his narrow face contorting from the awful memory. "People were being hit and falling. We leaders stood up and told the students to disperse. Eventually they did retreat. But on the way back to our schools the anger spilled over, and anything belonging to the government was burned down." Later, in defense of why the police shot the demonstrators, a senior police officer explained: "The lives of my men were endangered."
As thick clouds of black smoke rose from the ruins of vehicles and stores, Maja and his fellow leaders went into hiding. "I couldn't go home. The police were detaining people for something as small as writing an antigovernment poem, so we knew we weren't safe. I slept in different places where people would accept me." In the days that followed, the rioting spread to many new areas of South Africa even as police intensified their efforts to quell the disorders.
One day Maja visited a morgue with Winnie Mandela, wife of imprisoned African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela. "It was so gruesome," Maja recalled. "The bodies of the people were piled into ice boxes."
Maja continued his work with the movement, but by Christmas 1976 it had been decided he was "too hot" to stay in the country, so he escaped to Botswana.
"Nineteen seventy-six was like a picnic compared to now," says Maja. "Today is a 10-fold multiple of what happened then. That uprising was overwhelming because there hadn't been anything else and it was doubly important because it was done by children. That hasn't changed -- children are in the forefront today."
Maja, who is persona non grata in his country and who hasn't seen any of his family in a decade, feels that the Reagan administration can still help halt South Africa's massacre of his people. "Even the threat of sanctions from Reagan would help," he said.