Closing Arguments

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GARRISON: And a Dying Child led Them

This picture, in this case, is worth millions of words, brought to light and to the world’s attention by the plight of South African blacks and the murderous, barbarian misconduct of the country’s government.  First they drove thousands of blacks from their homes in Johannesburg, then they tore down every last residence, out-building, and vestige of black society (except for the churches—even the English and their goons apparently feared something).  Back in the 1950s white leadership became dissatisfied with the close proximity and interwoven nature of the city of Johannesburg, particularly those areas in the central part of the growing city.

Time to evict tens of thousands of black citizens, they decided, and in 1954 the governing parliament passed the “Native Resettlement Act,” the result of which was the mass eviction from central city to what eventually became known as SOWETO, the “South Western Townships.” 

What is so inexplicable about that whole set of events is that by most all accounts things between the various races in that now-destroyed area were going well and had done so for decades prior to the destruction of the black settlement. 

We visited SOWETO under the tutelage of a wonderful young black woman whose knowledge of the history and the events in the whole country was spectacular.  Thousands of so-called “matchbox houses” spoke testament to what awaited the blacks as their existing homes were destroyed.  Tiny, full to overflowing with people, no running water and only outside sanitation, they were the lucky ones.  Woven in among the matchboxes were—and still are—thousands of shanties constructed (if one can apply that term to these hovels) of cardboard, corrugated metal roofing scraps and an occasional brick wall.  Life for thousands today in SOWETO.

Move forward in time to 1976; apartheid leadership made the decision to cease teaching English as the second language in all schools and to replace it with Afrikaans, the language of the street but a language with no practical application to work, education and life in general for the blacks who eagerly learned English as a method of getting ahead and progressing after school.  In June of 1976 the students in SOWETO decided to organize a peaceful march through the area to express their protest to the white government’s decision regarding English. 

Thousands of kids walked together along the sidewalks and through the areas of each of the schools they attended.  Things went to hell in a hurry.  In a moment reminiscent of Kent State where students were gunned down by National Guardsmen, the police opened fire against these junior and senior high kids, none of whom were armed.  And of course a 13 year old boy, there to watch the festivities (his older sister was involved in the demonstration and march), was fatally shot.  Stray bullet probably, but who knows; the child was Hector Pieterson, and the image here is of a young man running with Hector in his arms with the boy’s sister beside him. 

Hector died—probably before this picture was even taken—and when the photo began to surface it and Hector instantly became symbols of the atrocities committed that day.  And all this because the Parliament sought to stop the practice of teaching English in the schools. 

Turns out that English was a true gateway to betterment and achievement following graduation; English by then was the common international language that filled business, industry, politics and even diplomacy.  Afrikaans was, instead, a very parochial and relatively worthless language beyond the streets of South Africa.  A mix of Dutch, tribal languages from the 9 tribes that inhabit the region and a smattering of English, being required to stick to Africaans was a recipe for continued repression of the black population.

But that ain’t all. . .from the stark, raw truth of the appalling squalor blacks endure in so many places in South Africa to the discrimination that still haunts many areas of the country, it is true that the separation between them has been the ugly handiwork of the white leadership, now for decades.  And while we can look at the situation in our own country with relief, knowing that it’s not like that here (we are a long ways from being through that woods, but better is still better than worse), we have every reason to work hard and perpetually to see that, as individuals and groups, doors are open and potential is there.

Of course our brothers and sisters of color have huge roles to play as well, attacking the reality of teen births, a climate of deadly violence coming from black-on-black incidents, and a too-oft visible aversion to academic excellence, the whole picture is one that can be successfully painted and completed for the benefit of all.  We just have to do the work.