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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 June 2006, 11:14 GMT 12:14 UK
How Soweto changed everything
Thirty years ago rioting broke out in the South African township of Soweto and set off a wave of disturbances in other townships in a country still firmly in the grip of apartheid. Hamilton Wende, a pupil in a white South African school at the time, says this uprising proved to be a significant step along the road to democracy.

Soweto residents warm up over a fire in the street
This month Soweto will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the uprisings

"Riots in Soweto". The words tumbled anxiously across the country on that cold southern winter morning.

No-one knew what to believe at first.

I was 14 years old and at boarding school in Grahamstown, in the eastern Cape province, nearly a 1,000 miles (1,600 km) away from Soweto.

As the day wore on, the fear of what might happen grew.

The teachers tried, I suspect, to rein in the worst of the rumours, but they too had little or any idea of what was happening.

Refracted through the narrow prism of guilt and fear that defined our isolated, teenage world of white privilege, the gossip became more and more frenzied.

"Tonight is 'kill a white night'," somebody began saying.

Soon it had spread through the classrooms and rugby fields: "Every black in the country has been told to kill one white."

Wave of rage

In the dormitories that night, arguments broke out among the boys.

The rumours were exaggerated, but the riots and bloodshed were real

Those who had liberal views said that the story was nonsense. Many others went to bed clutching cricket bats or hockey sticks, ready and eager to spring awake and fight the blacks.

There was breathless talk of the shooting team being put on "special alert" in case the blacks came sweeping down on us in their hordes from the nearby township.

Morning came and the cricket bats were returned sheepishly to their lockers.

The front page of the newspaper carried a picture of a plume of dark smoke across the Soweto skyline.

The rumours were exaggerated, but the riots and bloodshed were real.

Map of South Africa

The government death toll was 23 but many people on the streets of Soweto said it was much higher.

That day saw a wave of black rage that swept across the country.

Late the next night we were woken by army trucks driving through the streets of white Grahamstown to set up a cordon around the black township.

The violence lasted for almost a year and nearly 500 people were killed.

It was the beginning of the end for apartheid... and our lives had changed forever in South Africa.

Rocks and bricks

A day or so later, my housemaster summoned me to his study.

There was a phone call from my parents in Johannesburg.

I knew something was wrong.

I had not understood on the phone just how close she had come to death, but now I could see it for myself

My mother's voice was calm but I could tell she was holding back her feelings.

Suddenly I felt dizzy, as I remembered that she and some of her friends worked as volunteers at a creche in Soweto.

She told me that she had been in Soweto on the morning the riots broke out, and that she had been confronted by a crowd of angry young students.

However, one of the student leaders had taken control of the situation and had prevented the others from attacking her.

Her friend Jen, the mother of my friend Chris, was not so lucky.

She and two other white women were trapped by a crowd.

The students started pelting the car with rocks and bricks. They smashed the windscreen, but in an act of extraordinary courage, Jen hunched herself over the woman who was driving to protect her from flying debris.

Jen was hit by many missiles but the driver remained unhurt and managed to steer the car out of the crowd.

They were finally rescued by the police.

Faced with reality

Hector Petersen is carried away by Mbuyiswa Makhubo after the riots
The people of Soweto fought for equality, education and democracy

A few weeks later our parents came down for half-term.

Jen and my mother sat us boys down in the seaside cottage where we spent the weekend.

I was shocked at the deep bruising that still disfigured Jen's face. Both her arms were in plaster casts.

I had not understood on the phone just how close she had come to death, but now I could see it for myself.

It might easily have been my own mother who was so bruised and shattered.

I did not know what to think.

I no longer recall the precise details of what Jen and my mother told us that day. But I remember that their voices were measured.

They talked of the injustice of apartheid and why it had led to such violence. And of how, too, there were black people there that very morning who had tried to protect them.

Personal inspiration

Jen and my mother were not heroes of the struggle against apartheid, but ordinary middle-class women who, 30 years ago, unexpectedly found themselves faced with the terror of an ugly death at the hands of a crowd.

It was the courage and wisdom of what they told us that set the tone in my life to hope for reconciliation between black and white in the future and not a cycle of violence and counter-violence.

It would have been so easy for them to retreat into the angry cliches of defending white privilege, but instead, they chose to show their children the possibility of looking beyond their fears.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 10 June, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: South Africa
26 May 06 |  Country profiles
Timeline: South Africa
09 May 06 |  Country profiles
How South Africa has changed
13 Apr 04 |  Africa


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