Monday was Youth Day here in South Africa. At first, I just thought it was sort of a “yay, youth!” kind of day, celebrating youth the same way we celebrated fathers just the day before. Then I realized that it is a commemoration of the Soweto schoolchildren’s riots which took place in 1976. Oh.
You can read about the events here.
People said there was going to be a parade at 9 am, so we made plans to be there. It was a misty morning when we left, but the clouds started burning off and it turned into a fine day.
When we went where the parade was said to be starting, nothing was happening there, but we met a woman who took us to the rugby field that also serves as a fair ground. People were gathering there, in the stands. There were military vehicles, a tank and an armored personnel carrier, and police vehicles ringing the rugby field, and in the center of the rugby field there was a large tent, and several rows of chairs facing the tent.
It was a confusing couple of hours, as we watched the tent and corresponding chairs get moved into new positions not less than three times, and the tent that was there (sponsored by the local funeral parlor) was abandoned for a larger, sturdier military canvas open-walled tent. The crowd kept growing.
We walked around the perimeter of the field, to see the displays that the military and other entities like the agriculture department had set up. There were tables with giveaway pens and applications for bursaries (scholarships). There were recruiting stations for the South African Defense Force, and many impressively uniformed young men and women were in attendance. There were displays of rocket launchers and rifles and other weapons that people were free to pick up and aim at their laughing friends, all mugging for the camera.
At one point, the military and police vehicles left the field, turning on sirens and going around the town. We assumed that was to drum up interest in coming to the event. Maybe the crowd wasn’t big enough.
Soon, a helicopter was seen in the sky, and red smoke started rising from a nearby field. It was alarming-looking, but I was told it was for the helicopter pilot to see the direction and speed of the wind at ground level. The people rushed out of the stands to watch the helicopter land, and some dignitaries were rushed to a waiting car.
Then, overhead, four fast military show planes began a thrilling series of airshow tricks–formation flying, barrel rolls, the whole bit, complete with smoke trails. It was the South African version of the Blue Angels, and every bit as impressive.
Now remember, this is a small town of about 5,500 that is surrounded by miles and miles of farmland. This isn’t some big place where you’d expect to see an airshow.
Soon, we were asked to take our seats, and the crowd was encouraged to move into the seats on the field, in front of the tent which had reached its final position. Then, we listened to speeches by several local dignitaries, as well as the Minister of Defense and Military Veterans, Ms. Nosiviwe Noluthando Mapisa-Nqakula.
You can read the text of her speech here.
Members of the ANC (African National Congress, the ruling party) were in attendance, veterans in uniform…this was a Big Deal.
Then, there was a police dog demonstration. The crowd was encouraged to form a huge ring around where the dogs were already. Some of the children were asked to sit in two long rows for the first demonstration, which was testing the powers of a dog trained to sniff out items. The trainer dragged the prize along the ground to create a scent trail and hid the item and the dog was released and was able to find it.
The next part of the demonstration featured four large German Shepherds, on leashes, on one end of the ring enclosed by people. Lots of children, the same ones that had been on the field for the first demonstration, sat along the edges of the ring to get a good view of the next proceedings. The German Shepherds were approached by men, called agitators, who did exactly that. They approached the dogs aggressively, shouting and waving sticks. The dogs, understandably, responded by lunging at the agitators and barking. After several minutes of this, it was announced that the demonstration would begin. The agitator made one final leap toward the snarling dog, then ran across the field and turned. The dog was released and went running as fast as it could toward the agitator, who had a padded arm cover, where the dog attacked. And often, would not let go. Even when the trainer had both arms around the dog, was yelling at the dog, and pulling on it’s collar. The dogs would hang on, until at last, unwillingly, they were coaxed to let go. This went on repeatedly, over and over. Then, rottweilers were brought out and the padding changed to full-body padding, and the rottweilers, when released, would bring down the padded man and bite furiously at the padding until they could be coaxed back to the leash and the trainer.
Several times during this display, a person on the microphone reminded the crowd to stay still while the dogs were off the leash. This gave me nightmare visions of one of those dogs, who did not appear to be fully under the control of the trainers, veering off course and mauling one of the children sitting at the edge of the crowd, instead of the intended target, the man in the padding. It made me sick and I needed to get out of there.
I know there’s a lot that went on that day that I don’t understand. Given the significance of the day, the strong presence of the military and police, and especially the police dogs, which have been used against people of color both here and in my own country, made me uneasy and feeling vaguely threatened. I don’t know what the message intended to be sent by the police dog demonstrations was, but I know it made me scared and sick.
But that may just be me. No one else spoke about it in this way. The teens took video of the police dog demonstrations and were re-watching them in the living room when I went to bed that night. They were hooting and laughing. Maybe they didn’t see the same menace I did. I really hope not.
My sleep was uneasy and full of dreams. Still processing.