The Anglican priest remembers well that bloodstained Wednesday morning.
The Rev. David Nkwee was standing at the door of St. Paul's Church on Moroka Street when thousands of black youngsters streamed by. They had walked out of school and were on their way to Orlando West High School to join thousands of others for a march to the soccer stadium for what was billed as a peaceful protest against their segregated education.
They never made it. Halfway down Vilakazi Street, about a mile from the stadium, they were confronted by a small group of armed white policemen. Tear gas was fired, rocks were thrown and shots rang out.
When the smoke cleared, two youths lay dead. The first to die was Hector Petersen, 13, a member of Nkwee's congregation, who was shot in the back. While no one knew it at the time, the Soweto uprising had begun.
Before it ended, the flames had spread to at least 160 communities. Within little more than a week 176 people were dead, within a year at least 600. Among the casualties were the complacency of South Africa's ruling white establishment and the docility of its black majority, both shattered forever.
The echoes of that Wednesday, June 16, 1976, still haunt this white-ruled land. The young militants who have conducted the current two-year campaign of protests against white rule take inspiration and lessons from the Soweto uprising in the same way that the Russian revolutionaries of 1917 looked back to the abortive rebellion of 1905.
The government, too, views Soweto Day as a powerful symbol. Last week officials risked international condemnation by imposing a nationwide state of emergency and rounding up hundreds of activists in an attempt to short-circuit their plans to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the uprising with a general strike and mass street protests.
Nonetheless, on Monday most blacks are expected to stay away from their jobs to honor a day that for many South Africans, black and white, has never really ended.
"It has left an indelible mark on the minds of so many of us," said Nkwee today as he stood upon the same spot where he had watched Soweto's youth march off to their encounter with history. "It is a sad occasion, but people also look up to it with pride. Because of June 16, 1976, South Africa can never be the same."
Many of the players who are now integral to South Africa's new political crisis had their roles drastically altered by the events of that June morning and its aftermath.
The Black Consciousness movement, which held that blacks must be responsible for their own liberation and rejected white involvement in the struggle, was the driving force behind the uprising. But within 17 months, its spine was broken and its leaders jailed or killed or decided to flee in a massive police crackdown.
Instead, the black organization that most benefited from the revolt was the outlawed African National Congress, which preached multiracial cooperation to a small but faithful audience before 1976. The young exiles of what is now known as the "Soweto generation" brought new blood and fresh ideas to its extensive but dormant international network. Within a few years the congress reasserted itself as the prime resistance movement, a role it has not surrendered.
The white community was altered, too, by the seemingly sudden reemergence of black anger. The monolithic facade of white rule cracked as the corporate community for the first time stepped forward to criticize government policies and the rigid apartheid system of racial segregation.
The government began to reexamine apartheid and many of its thinkers came to the conclusion that the ideology needed modernization if not a complete overhaul. Think tanks and commissions were formed, old myths were reexamined and some were discarded. The government ultimately embarked on a program of reform that has splintered its ranks and whose outcome is uncertain even though its goal, sharing power with other racial groups while maintaining white control, seems clear.
But perhaps the biggest impact of the uprising was on the Sowetans themselves, the youths who led this modern-day children's crusade and their elders who were stunned, frightened and, eventually, radicalized by their fiery youngsters.
Many of those most involved in the school protest and its aftermath will not be here Monday to commemorate it. Hundreds died in the resulting violence, and between 8,000 and 10,000 fled South Africa. Many others are in jail or have gone underground in recent days to elude the new police crackdown. As a result, a visitor seeking to understand the pain and the meaning of Soweto Day must see it mostly through the eyes of parents, teachers and clerics, not those who led and fought in the uprising.
The ostensible reason for the protest that day was anger about a state requirement that black high school students study and take some of their courses in Afrikaans, the language of South Africa's ruling white minority, in order to graduate. Behind the protest was an untapped but bitter rage at the inferiority of their segregated education and anger at their parents for not doing something about it.
Tamsanqua Kambule, a mathematics professor who then was the highly respected principal of Orlando High School, said he knew for weeks that his students were planning protests.
"I knew what they were doing, but I pretended that I didn't see it," he recalled. But, he added, no one expected the march to end in violence.
"There was never any intention of assaulting anyone," said Nkwee, the Anglican priest. "But the atmosphere was so charged that when the police attacked, a small thing just set it off."
The youths first reacted to the police gunfire by scattering into back alleys, recalled Harry Mashabela, the first reporter on the scene. Then they regrouped and began to attack virtually anyone and anything that could be identified with the apartheid system.
Police vehicles were stoned and set ablaze. A black policeman's wrists were locked together with his own handcuffs and he was beaten until he was able to flee. Delivery vans belonging to white businesses were destroyed; so were buildings and vehicles belonging to the township's administration board. Two white officials from the board were killed.
The violence spread quickly to other black townships and lingered for nearly a year. In many ways it presaged the unrest of the past two years. Blacks identified with the apartheid system such as policemen and administrative officers were singled out for attack.
To put down the rebellion, the authorities not only used their own forces but encouraged certain sections of the black community to help. Migrant workers in Soweto, who resented the students' heavy-handed tactics in issuing and enforcing calls for a general strike, eventually helped to crush them, just as black vigilantes today are battling militants for control of some townships.
But although the students failed in their goal of bringing down white rule, they succeeded in forever changing the consciousness of their community.
"Before 1976 we were so timid that a white policeman of 19 could order around 20 or 30 grown men and we would say nothing," says Kambule. "Now my 12-year-old son thinks nothing of a policeman with a gun. It's an absolutely new attitude. I didn't think I'd live to see it."
Parents first reacted to the uprising by wishing their children would drop it and return to school, he recalled. It was only later, after they had seen the ruthless way that the state dealt with the youths, that they themselves became involved. Kambule was among 503 school administrators and teachers who resigned their posts the following year to protest what they called "gutter education."
Others drew different lessons. Retired brigadier Theuns Swanepoel, the white police officer who ordered his men to open fire that fateful day, said last week that the police should have been allowed to kill more protesters at the beginning of the trouble.
"With the blacks when they are out of control, they are completely out of control," he told The Weekly Mail newspaper here. "The only way you can get them under control is to use force, more force than they can take."
For some parents of those who led the Soweto uprising, June 16 has a poignant and double-edged meaning. Virginia Mashinini's son Tsietsi, then 19, was president of the Soweto Students' Representative Council and one of the best known of the young radicals. He fled to Botswana in September 1976 and within a few months two of his brothers also left. She has not seen them in nine years.
It has not been easy. She was detained in 1977 for 197 days and lost her job. Last year someone -- she suspects the police but cannot prove it -- threw a rock through her front window.
"I'm expecting a visit tonight," she said. "Every June 16 they do something to us."
Mashinini said she is committed to the struggle and understands why her sons left South Africa. But at night sometimes she dreams of having them all home again.
"When all this started, I thought it would only be a few months or a few years," she said. "I didn't think it would take so long.
"I know that someday I'll be sitting with them at this table. It could happen any day, even tomorrow."