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Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Updated: June 18, 7:46 AM ET
The memories come flooding in

By Chris Jones
Special to ESPN.com

SOWETO, South Africa -- The crowds had gathered near the Hector Pieterson Memorial, and a group of schoolboys stood together on the street, in their iron-crisp uniforms, singing at the top of their lungs. Through our open van windows, it sounded like a song of celebration, a joyous song. But our driver, a 45-year-old former soldier named Jan, felt the hair on his arms go up. He had not been back to Soweto since his military service ended in 1994, when the apartheid regime fell and the soldiers were told to go home. Now that song brought him back to the freedom riots here, the burning tires and the bricks. The memories came flooding in.

"I've had two or three thousand people standing in the street in front of me, singing that song in my face," he said. "I don't like this place."

He decided to stay in the van. "I will get my Sudoku book and remember my time in Soweto," he said with a wink. He was smiling when he said it, but there was no moving Jan from the van. It was enough for him to have driven here.

Wednesday is Youth Day in South Africa, a commemoration of a terrible day in South African history: June 16, 1976. On that day, 15,000 schoolchildren gathered in Soweto, set to march in protest of their mandatory schooling in Afrikaans, the language of the white minority who had confined them to their townships. Soweto was the biggest township, and it was fertile ground for black resistance. Before he was sent to prison, Nelson Mandela lived down the street from the schools, and so did Desmond Tutu. The schoolchildren knew who their fathers were.

They marched, and the police opened fire. More than 20 schoolchildren were killed. Among them was Hector Pieterson, a 12-year-old boy who was shot near the corners of Vilakazi and Moema Streets. Before he died, he was carried away by another boy, named Mbuyisa Makhubu; behind him, Hector's sister, Antoinette, gave chase. A photograph of the fate-struck trio circulated around the world. In South Africa, the death of Hector Pieterson is remembered as the beginning of the end of apartheid. That photograph awakened the rest of the world to what was happening here.

At the memorial, there is a large carved stone. It's in memory of Hector Pieterson "and all other young heroes and heroines of our struggle who laid down their lives for freedom, peace, and democracy."

Today, hundreds of people gathered around it, laying flowers and wreaths in front of it and sprinkling rose petals on top of it. Many of the people who came were children. They had dressed in their school uniforms -- in their dress pants and pleated skirts, their shirts and blazers and carefully knotted ties. They were dressed the way Hector Pieterson was dressed that morning 34 years ago.

A giant reproduction of the photograph was nearby. There was Hector, a trickle of blood coming out of his mouth. His shoes had come off, and he was wearing his little wool shorts and a schoolboy's sweater. Mbuyisa is wearing overalls, his face a combination of shock and determination. Antoinette has her hand raised, her own face already frozen with grief. In the photograph, Hector is not dead yet, but he is dying. It is almost over.

Hector Pieterson
The iconic image of the infamous day is enshrined in stone in Soweto.

It's a photograph that's impossible to forget, and that's the miracle of South Africa. Despite such an immediate history, despite so many divisions even within the whites and the blacks, let alone between them, this country remains one country.

"It's amazing that there was no war," Jan said on the drive to Soweto. Under apartheid, to keep the system in place, military service was compulsory: two years of full service, followed by 10 years in "camps," the U.S. equivalent of the reserves. Prison was the other option. By accident of birth, Jan's opening two-year stint coincided with the riots that rocked Soweto throughout the mid-1980s. He graduated from high school and was put into the back of a Samil 100 and sent into the middle of an uprising.

He can remember that first day, the bottom dropping out of his stomach. "I can remember being in the back of that truck, staring at my R1 rifle," he said. The riots weren't daily. There were quiet stretches. But then a fire would be lit, and the bricks would start raining down.

"All of a sudden, it would just hit you," Jan said. "They didn't know of booby traps. They knew of stones. They knew of bottles. They knew of fire bombs."

Jan and his fellow soldiers were cycled in and out of Soweto. They would live in a base here and then be sent to Cape Town or somewhere in the bush to settle their nerves, and then they would be sent back in. For eight years after his full-time service, Jan would take a 30-day leave from his job as a policeman and become a soldier in Soweto once again.

Then, one day in 1994, the telephone rang at the base. It was a woman, Jan remembers, from somewhere on high. She said she had good news and bad news. The good news was that Jan's military service was over, two years ahead of schedule. The bad news was, he wasn't going to get paid for the time he'd just done.

What was that day like?

Jan smiled and looked out the window at the pitted streets and the tuck shops and cars. "It was a lovely day," he said, and that was all that he said.

This morning was a lovely morning. The sky was blue. The schoolchildren gathered around the memorial and sang their songs. Inside the nearby museum, they looked at more photographs and read accounts of a time that seems almost impossible now. Today, Soweto is still black, but it's not a hotbed of dissent anymore. It's a suburb, with tidy brick bungalows and tree-lined streets. Nelson Mandela's house has been renovated and turned into a museum; vendors outside sell T-shirts with his face on them and World Cup scarves.

Jan asked what it was like out there, out on the streets he used to patrol, but he would not get out of the van to see for himself. Maybe one day he will, but not today; today was just his first step. It was part of a process. Sixteen years is a long time in some ways; in other ways, it's not much time at all.

He has changed like the neighborhood -- a miraculous transformation, a South African transformation. He didn't flee like so many of his fellow soldiers, choosing Australia or Canada over the threat of reprisals. ("If I live, I'll put out the lights," he told them.) He didn't flinch when suddenly his boss was black. His 18-year-old daughter knows nothing of apartheid, apart from what she reads in her history books. "Today, the blacks go and braai with us. They go and fish with us," Jan said.

But none of that has changed his memories of this place. It doesn't change the fact that certain songs can still stand his hair on its end. Most days, people forget. But today, people remembered, and they aren't good memories. A happy ending doesn't change the middle.

Inside the museum, granite bricks have been scattered across a field of gravel. There are hundreds of them, each bearing the name of a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, who had died sometime on these streets.

Ellen Makulusa.

Eric Ngcobo.

Samuel Ntuli.

Zaliswa Tiyo.

Christopher Gobile.

Mandy Yuba.

Hector Pieterson.

And parked outside, a former soldier named Jan sat in his van, working on a Sudoku puzzle. Soweto unfolded around him, in the dips of the Klipspruit Valley. The landmark cooling towers rose in the distance. Men walked between the cars, selling drums and wooden giraffes. A primary school named for Mbuyisa Makhubu was quiet for the holiday. The schoolchildren ran by, kicking a ball, laughing and smiling into the sun.

"That was 10 years of my life," Jan said. "For what?"

Chris Jones is a contributing editor to ESPN The Magazine and a writer-at-large for Esquire.