Soweto: South Africa on Thursday marked 40 years since the Soweto uprising, when white police officers gunned down black students in a massacre that ignited a new era of anti-apartheid resistance.
The 1976 protests, and the government's violent response, were a turning point in the struggle that eventually led to the fall of apartheid rule with Nelson Mandela's election as president in 1994.
The anniversary commemorated the youthful, unarmed protesters who gathered in Soweto township to demonstrate against an order that schools could only teach in the Afrikaans language used by whites.
At least 170 people were killed, with some estimates putting the death toll at several hundred over the following months as the uprising spread nationwide.
"The apartheid ideology espoused that whites were by nature superior and that blacks were inherently inferior," President Jacob Zuma said in a televised speech at a stadium in Soweto, south of Johannesburg.
"The struggle and sacrifices of the class of 1976 were not in vain.
"South Africa is indeed a much better place than it was when the students stood up and said 'enough is enough' in June 1976, but the struggle continues."
Images of poor, young black students shot dead by the police also brought the injustices of white-minority rule to the world's attention and spurred the global anti-apartheid movement.
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday placed a wreath at the memorial to Hector Pieterson, 13, who was one of the first victims.
The black-and-white photograph of Pieterson's body being carried away by a student in tears became the iconic image of the uprising.
Race injustice persists
Divisions along racial lines remain strong in South Africa, with most black people enduring worse education, housing and unemployment than white people.
Students have again been protesting in recent months over tuition fees that force some poor black youths out of education.
Racist Internet postings have also underlined long-standing frictions worsened by the country's dire economic performance and anger at politicians' failure to meet post-apartheid expectations.
Highlighting the country's unhealed wounds, a reconciliation event in Soweto last Saturday was sparsely attended.
The gathering had been intended to bring together black and white people, but it split some black activists, and white former policemen declined to take part.
Dan Montsitsi, a student leader of the uprising, told AFP that the 1976 march in Soweto had been planned for months.
The students, most of whom were in their school uniforms, carried placards reading: "Afrikaans stinks", "To hell with Afrikaans" and "Afrikaans needs to be abolished".
"We were amazed with the number of students that we had been able to put in the streets," he said ahead of the 40th anniversary.
He recalled that the police released a dog into the crowd, which was killed.
"The police were very angry obviously and they decided they would use teargas.
"(Soon after) they started to shoot."
The African National Congress (ANC) party, which was headed by Mandela, has ruled since the end of apartheid but it has fallen in popularity and faces difficult local elections in August.
On Thursday, it hailed the "courage that led the students to confront the bullets of the apartheid security forces."
16 June is a national holiday in South Africa marking Youth Day.
First Published On : Jun 16, 2016 20:14 IST