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Activist’s Autobiography Reflects on the Children’s March That Challenged South African Apartheid

Caroline SetsibaFebruary 16-28, 2008.-In apartheid South Africa of the 1970s Caroline Setsiba became part of a generation of students who directly challenged apartheid rule in South Africa. However, for many years Setsiba did not reflect on her own story at all. “It was painful to remember about those things happen to you. Also, as dramatic as my story might be, I didn’t think anyone outside my family would be interested” she told audiences at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York and at the Pingry School in New Jersey.

Ms. Setsiba's trip the US was sponsored by the Global Literacy Project (GLP), a New Jersey based non-profit organization that establishes libraries and promotes literacy in the developing world. In the introduction to several of her public presentations, Dr. Edward Ramsamy, Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Rutgers University and Secretary of the Global Literacy Project, described how the organization got involved in South Africa and met Ms. Setsiba, Speaker of the Randfontein Municipality, a developing site of one of GLP’s High Literacy Clusters.   Ramsamy, a South African himself, mentioned that one of the major challenges facing South Africa is overcoming its legacy of unequal education. While the country had made impressive gains since its transition to democratic rule in 1994, the effects of apartheid continue to plague South African society, according to Ramsamy.  For example, 9 out of 10 African township high school libraries are inaccessible, empty, or have been closed down.  In response to this dire need, the Global Literacy Project saw Setsiba's story as a useful tool in their "Campaign for Literacy.".

Under the apartheid system, Setsiba said she was told: "You have no rights, you have no future and you have no dreams." However, by the early 1970s students had had their consciousness sparked because of the leadership of people like Steve Biko. This was the incipient generation of black consciousness.

One day the government decided that every subject would be taught in Afrikaans. African students like Setsiba were now forced to sit through incomprehensible lessons. Whole classes failed. This policy mobilized the entire school generation because it represented everything that the oppressors stood for. On June 16, 1976, without telling her parents what they were going to do, the 15-year-old Setsiba arrived at school in uniform at 4:00 a.m. to meet with other student leaders and by 8 a.m. thousands of students were gathered at the schools. That morning, instead of the Lord's Prayer, they sang "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika," "God Bless Africa," which was the signal tune to head out of the school premises to begin the protest march. This protest by children in the poor township of Soweto would become a watershed moment in the fight to dismantle apartheid in South Africa. What followed is now known as the Soweto Student Uprising.

"It was a cold and misty morning,” Setsiba recalled. “You could sense the pain we were feeling inside. We were troubled … we walked silently. All you could hear was the sound of our shoes." She went on to note that the students had planned for a peaceful protest. What they got shocked them all.

The students were quickly met with resistance by the military police. Without warning, the police released tear gas and dogs on the students. "We were just children who were crying out for our rights [but] they did not see us as children because we were black," she said. With no other means of defending themselves, the students threw bricks, stones and empty tear gas canisters back at the police. Police then opened fire on the student protesters, killing 23 and injuring hundreds. “I saw hundreds of students just running in every direction. We knew there might be some trouble, perhaps water canon or even maybe rubber bullets. We never imagined it possible that people would actually die on that day.”

Of the students killed that day, one was the brother of one of Setsiba's friends. The government claimed its forces were wholly victorious, but Setsiba highlighted the students' efforts to fight back, injuring some policemen. Unrest would spread across the country and more than 500 people would be killed over the next eight months, and it is estimated that a quarter of them were under age 18.

After the uprising, Setsiba became an ardent anti-apartheid activist, facing detention in prison several times. This would include periods of seclusion with some six months in solitary confinement on one occasion. Despite challenges, she persevered, for instance, helping establish the Congress of South African students and giving birth to her second daughter by herself while hiding from the police.

Setsiba said that even years later, the images of that morning in Soweto were always at the back of her mind. “The fear that ran through us when we realized that they didn’t see us as students but as obstacles to be removed. I can even still smell the tear gas.”

On her last day of presentations, she concluded her talk at the Pingry school by telling the audience, "Don’t let my visit just be about a story. You are the inspiration of our future. I decided to make a difference at your age, now it’s your turn." The audience responded with a standing ovation.

A “Campaign for Literacy”

Anne DeLaney, Peter Setsiba, Lebo Setsiba, Caroline Setsiba, Hobart and William Smith Colleges President Mark Gearan, Edward Ramsamy-GLP Board Secretary
Anne DeLaney, Peter Setsiba, Lebo Setsiba, Caroline Setsiba, Hobart and William Smith Colleges President Mark Gearan, Edward Ramsamy-GLP Board Secr

Setsiba's visit to the U.S. was sponsored by The Global Literacy Project, Inc., a New Jersey-based non-profit organization that establishes and promotes literacy in developing countries. This sponsorship, under GLP’s “Campaign for Literacy,” allowed the apartheid survivor to come to the States and thank the organization and its many volunteers for their ongoing commitment towards supporting excellence in education for South African children and adults. On learning of her visit to the USA, Hobart William Smith College extended an invitation for her to speak as part of their Presidential Lecture series.

The journey to the USA actually began in the winter of 2006, when The Global Literacy Project, a non profit organization which donates books and establishes High Literacy Clusters to residents in parts of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, came to the Randfontein area of Gauteng Province in South Africa. They created only a small children’s library at that point but promised community members that they would return to develop more projects in the community.

In the summer of 2007, over two dozen GLP volunteers did return, bearing with them some 58,000 books for local schools and community learning centers. This GLP trip came out of the work of a team headed up by four high school students: Emma Carver and her sister Chloe, along with Christina Vanech and Charlotte Steele. They were part of a multi-school spring semester effort that saw their families, friends, classmates, and neighbors, all working together to collect some 58,000 elementary to high school books.

With that success, the students decided that they wanted to see where the books actually ended up in Africa. Arriving in South Africa, they met Setisiba, currently the Speaker for the Randfontein Municipal Assembly, when the municipal government recognized the group for their efforts. After hearing her story, the GLP team leaders decided that she would be a perfect speaker in GLP’s “Campaign for Literacy,” an ongoing effort to sensitize American students and the general public about the value placed on educational access by peoples from around the world.

Links of Interest
Read about the New Jersey Book Drive that collected the 58,000 for Randfontein:

Read about Caroline Setsiba's visit to the Pingry School in New Jersey:

Read about Caroline Setsiba's visit to Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, NY:

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