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Clinton Visits Townships, Honors Apartheid Victims

S. Africa: President pays tribute to youth, others slain in 1976 and joins in round-table discussion at a school.

March 29, 1998|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SOWETO, South Africa — President Clinton journeyed to the sprawling black townships outside Johannesburg on Saturday to pay tribute to the courageous South Africans who suffered and died in the struggle against apartheid and to offer encouragement to the millions still fighting the vestiges of white minority rule.

Clinton's motorcade drove down narrow streets past shanties and tiny brick houses on his pilgrimage to a memorial for Hector Peterson, a black 13-year-old whose death in 1976 shocked the world.

"We remember the historic events of this decade, and we remember that none of them could have been possible without the bravery of the young men and women of the townships who took to the streets in protest," Clinton said to a small gathering of South African dignitaries, most of them black, at the memorial.

On June 16, 1976, Peterson, like thousands of other students, left class to protest the imposition of Afrikaans, the language of the early Dutch settlers, on black schools. Students threw stones, and police fired bullets. Hector was the first to die. A photograph of the boy's limp, bloody body came to symbolize for the world the injustice of the South African regime.

That protest--the beginning of months-long violence that killed hundreds--marked the start of the transformation of pockets of black resistance into a mass movement that peacefully toppled the apartheid government and four years ago put a black freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela, into the presidency.

The famous photo of Peterson was taken by Peter Magubane, a Soweto native who went on to chronicle the anti-apartheid struggle, and Clinton viewed a selection of his work on display in cargo containers at the memorial.

The president's trip to Soweto came in the middle of his landmark 12-day tour of Africa, during which he has been praising Africa's successes and offering apologies for the United States' long neglect of the continent.

On Saturday morning, Soweto was abuzz with anticipation of the visit by the leader of the free world to the poor community, one of dozens of townships across the country where blacks were forced to live for decades because they were not allowed to live in the real cities, such as Johannesburg.

Seeing a busload of reporters, residents eager to catch a glimpse of the president mouthed through the windows: "Where's President Clinton? Is he here?"

When his motorcade finally showed up, people rushed to stand along the route and shouted and waved as it passed them. One woman was so excited that she ran down the street while balancing a huge plastic container on her head.

Clinton's first stop was a round-table discussion with young South African professionals at a school in another township in the sprawling slum of Thokoza. He was greeted at the school by a chorus of about 40 children singing songs in Zulu that had a clear message.

"This burden is heavy. Come and help us to carry the burden," one of the songs went. "If we work together, the burden will be lighter."

The president then sat down with eight young South Africans to hear about the troubles their country still faces and to offer them a little hope--if not any pledges of the kind of financial aid that could raise the meager living standards of most blacks.

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Soweto's formidable problems include an unemployment rate that is at least 40%, higher than during apartheid; growing crime and violence; shanties multiplying at warp speed; substandard education; and a lack of the basic infrastructure that modern cities need. Many residents still use coal for heat and cooking; it is still delivered by horse-drawn wagons.

One of the biggest concerns voiced by the group at the school--which included teachers, politicians and activists--was the lack of obvious candidates to take the place of Mandela and the other top South African leaders.

"If we don't fill in the boots of President Mandela and others, if we don't consciously fill the leadership that will step in, we are going to fork over the vision that we have of the reformation," said Bongi Mkhabela, who works in the office of Vice President Thabo Mbeki.

Clinton agreed that building a core of new leaders committed to the mission of a democratic South Africa is essential.

"I wanted to come to this neighborhood so badly, and I admire you all so much," he said. "But I can only say, when you get discouraged, just remember, nature abhors a vacuum. Bad things will happen when you don't have good leaders, good structures and a good mission; good things will happen when you do."

The president offered them advice based on what he has seen work in America: Put police on the streets, replicate programs that prove effective, and give people the materials and guidance to build their own homes. He also pledged to host a summit of African leaders in Washington before his term ends.

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