/ 30 June 2009

Free to walk history’s streets in Soweto

My day began on a cold morning in June.

There were five different ways I could walk — five different ways to repeat the routes that the students who marched on June 16 1976 had taken.

I chose to start at Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto because my father was once a learner there. As I walked, I thought of how long this would take and how cold the morning was.

Unlike the youth of 1976, my issues were trivial. I worried about the weather– something that was there; they worried about freedom — something that was not.

When I arrived at the June 16 Memorial Park just across from the school — a site I have driven past countless times without stopping — I remembered the story of Tsietsi Mashinini, one of the students who mobilised thousands of Sowetans to walk that day.

I looked inside the school and watched the children in their scarves and hats, standing outside and looking jovial. I walked on, thinking of what it must have felt like for those students on that day 33 years ago. ‘There are other struggles out there now, other walks to walk,”

I thought as I got to Mshenguville, an informal settlement in Mofolo. Back in 1976 Mshenguville bustled with shacks, was cowed by poverty and oppression. I imagined the smoke that must have constantly choked the air — tear-gas smoke, the smoke from cooking fires and smoke from fires made for warmth.

Now the only smoke I saw came from the cigarettes of a few young men standing at the corner barber shop. I walked along my paved pathway, ate my vetkoek and my fresh fruit; I had no pressure to speak Afrikaans or to present my ID upon demand.

I met two friends who are part of the ANC Youth League and we spent a good 30 minutes talking about politics, press freedom and our new president.

As I said my goodbyes, I walked further thinking of those students who, back then, could not meet in groups of more than three because they would have been seen to be conspiring, especially if they mentioned politicians’ names.

And, suddenly, I became conscious of my own liberty and of the lives lost so I could walk my Soweto streets without fear.

And I felt grateful. And I felt free.