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Iconic images help shape a proud nation
Graham Jenkins in Johannesburg
June 26, 2009
South African President Nelson Mandela presents the Rugby World Cup to Springboks skipper Francois Pienaar, South Africa v New Zealand, Rugby World Cup Final, Ellis Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, June 24, 1995
Nelson Mandela presents the Rugby World Cup to Springboks captain Francois Pienaar on a memorable day at Ellis Park in 1995 © Getty Images
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Rarely has a picture captured such a significant moment in history so perfectly.

The iconic image of South Africa's Francois Pienaar receiving the William Webb Ellis trophy from President Nelson Mandela, taken 14 years ago this week, capped a remarkable period in the country's history.

The Springboks' victory in the sport's third global showpiece appeared to draw a line under seemingly endless years of political, social and tribal unrest and a new 'Rainbow Nation' emerged.

For the casual observer it is easy to forget the events leading up to that day but South Africa's desire to record the battle against apartheid and honour the sacrifices made by those in the long battle for freedom ensures that difficult journey is never forgotten.

A visit into the heart of Soweto provides a fascinating insight into not only the township way of life but also some of the key moments in the country's troubled history. The city is home to an estimated four million people, spread throughout several suburbs, with small brick houses stretching as far as the eye can see. Amongst these modest dwellings are those once occupied by Mandela and his fellow anti-apartheid campaigner Desmond Tutu. However, the road on which they can be found, Vilakazi Street, carries even greater historical significance.

It was here that 13-year-old Hector Pieterson was shot by police during the Soweto uprising on June 16, 1976. The incident is widely-regarded as one of the defining moments in South African history and a museum dedicated to the tragic story and the events that unfolded afterwards can be found in the Orlando West suburb of the city.

A student protest over the use of Afrikaans in black schools was destined for Orlando football stadium - now an impressive 40,000 capacity venue - but police intervened and what was a peaceful gathering descended into violence. In the chaos that ensued shots were fired and Pieterson was killed. The image of a dying Pieterson being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubu whilst his distressed sister runs alongside sent shockwaves around the world and forms the centre piece of the memorial to him and the hundreds of others who died as the rioting escalated, spreading like wildfire across the country over the following days. As a result the death toll quickly rose with historical records detailing a total of 575 fatalities, thought to be mainly teenagers, while another 4,000 were injured.

Pieterson's death galvanised world opinion and would trigger a chain of events that would eventually see South Africa shake of the shackles of apartheid and the memory of those who died has been honoured on June 16, Youth Day, every year since 1995.

The museum itself claims to "preserve and interpret the memory, legacy and history of the 1976 national uprisings" and offers a powerful collection of personal testimonies, historical documents and artefacts including the placards carried by the children on that fateful day. The streets of Soweto on this particular bright and cloud-less days appear a million miles from the violence seen that day in 1976 and which continued into the 1980s. The smiles on the faces of the locals who greet us reflect the hope they have for the future.

Children run and play blissfully unaware of the bloodshed seen on these same streets some 30 years ago while their elders tell of the birth of the resistance on the streets of Soweto and a young population becoming politicised. Together they smile and pose for photos just yards from where Sam Nzima captured Pieterson's last moments of life. The famous photographer was later forced into hiding for conveying such a powerful message but today the authorities are more than happy for this vision of a welcoming Soweto to be carried around the world.

Our travels then took us to the impressive Soccer City Stadium that is undergoing a major renovation ahead of next year's Fifa World Cup when it will host several matches, including the final. The design, based on a traditional cooking pot, rises majestically out of its barren surroundings and will no doubt cement Soweto's place as a fascinating place of interest in Johannesburg.

The day ended with a visit to the superb Apartheid Museum that tells the enthralling story of, 'the triumph of human spirit over adversity and opression'. The museum itself, a fitting tribute to the battle against enforced racial segregation, occupies the same site as, and was largely funded by, the Gold Reef City amusement park and casino.

The contrast between the two could not be starker. There is nothing light-hearted about the Apartheid Museum from the moment you are randomly segregated on entry in order to pass through entrances for "whites" and "non-whites" to the remembrance garden at the conclusion of the tour where you feel bound to take a moment of reflection whilst casting an eye of the Johannesburg skyline of today.

Plenty of time is required to absorb the wealth of visual and audio material that is equalling distressing and illuminating. No punches are pulled, not in an attempt to shock you but merely to provide an accurate picture of the racial tensions that have blighted the country's past and still cast a shadow today.

After the gruelling and somewhat troubling trip back through history your spirits are lifted by recollections of the dawn of a true democracy. Mandela's election as the country's first black President is quite rightly celebrated as a joyous and miraculous moment.

Post-apartheid South Africa was invited back onto the international sporting stage after years of isolation. Taking their cue from their inspirational new leader, South Africa team manager Morne du Plessis and skipper Pienaar worked hard to unite the nation behind the Springboks as they embarked on their Rugby World Cup campaign in 1995.

The team's subsequent success is acknowledged as the museum draws to a close with the commanding image of Mandela and Pienaar shaking hands representing not only two men united by a common cause but a rejuvenated nation full of hope for the future.

© Scrum.com

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