Soweto, 22 years after the killings

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NOWANDI AND her friends, Monica and Lucy, did not glance at Hector Peterson's memorial as they hurried past on their way to school. They were in danger of being late for the mid-year exams.

This is the cold, dry season in South Africa's high interior. A thick pall of smoke from coal fires hangs over Soweto, just as it did 22 years ago today, when Hector Peterson died. He was at Orlando West High School, as Nowandi is now, but in 1976 he and thousands of other pupils boycotted the exams and marched in protest against an education system designed to keep blacks down, beginning an uprising which eventually carried away white rule.

Hector is the most famous victim of the events of 16 June 1976, thanks to the photograph of his body being carried away after the police opened fire. It is reproduced in granite on the memorial to him "and all other young heroes and heroines of our struggle who laid down their lives for freedom, peace and democracy".

Since South Africa attained majority rule, 16 June has been a public holiday, Youth Day. "We have learnt about Hector in school," said Nowandi, "but I don't know many of the details. Maybe on Tuesday they will be organising something here."

Her headmaster, who did not want to give his name, remembered the day of Hector's death all too well, saying: "I was a teacher here in 1976, when pupils from all over Soweto marched to this school." Pain creased his face as he pointed to the school yard. "The police were standing at the top of the hill, firing down, and people were dying in this yard."

I forbore from telling him that I had been in an aircraft circling overhead, reporting on the events, or that I spent the following day at Orlando police station, watching the bodies being brought in.

For educators of the headmaster's generation, it has been a constant struggle to maintain standards, first against the hostility of the white authorities and after 1976 against the contempt of the younger generation. They risked being denounced as "sellouts" by activists who sought to make the townships ungovernable.

While the worst of the radicalised "comrades" descended into the kind of murderous thuggery epitomised by Winnie Mandela's "football team", many thousands more yielded to the slogan, "Liberation first, then education". Now into their forties, unemployed and unemployable, they are known as the "lost generation".

According to the 15-year-old daughter of Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, however, today's children face a more difficult struggle. In her day, says Ms Fraser-Moleketi, welfare minister, the goal was clear - the right to a proper education, untainted by racism. Among people her daughter's age, the battle lines are more blurred. The education system is beset by drugs, teenage pregnancies and lack of funds.

Education is the largest area of government expenditure, accounting for nearly 30 per cent of the budget, but that is not enough to overcome the legacy of the apartheid years, when 10 times more was spent on a white pupil than a black one. The government, complaining that 90 per cent of the budget goes on teachers' salaries, has been trying to cut their numbers so that more can be spent on books and buildings. Last week, however, it was forced to back down by the threat of the first-ever national teachers' strike.

While better-off black parents send their children to formerly all-white suburban schools, and the wealthiest whites set up private schools to educate their offspring, Orlando West has to struggle with low funding and parents "trapped by their low incomes", as one teacher, Veli Ndhlovu, put it.

His headmaster said he believed relative normality began to return to the school around 1986, but for the younger and more outspoken Mr Ndhlovu, that was the year "the quality of education collapsed completely". He had been due to complete his schooling in 1976, but had to wait until he was 22. Most of his schoolmates left South Africa to join the armed struggle; some now hold high government positions.

But for everyone with a curriculum vitae like Murphy Morobe's - an organiser of the 16 June 1976 march and a leader of the South African Student Movement; six months' hard labour for refusing to testify against Tokyo Sexwale, another African National Congress luminary; three years on Robben Island for sedition; now chairman of the Financial and Fiscal Commission - there are thousands of others just trying to get along and give their own children a decent education. They would be disillusioned if they could hear Mr Ndhlovu.

"The problems we have had over the past decade result from a total breakdown of the culture of learning and teaching," he said. "... In many ways, education in the townships is starting from the beginning, and we are no further than we were in 1976."

If this is what their own teachers think, Nowandi and her fellow pupils in Orlando West are entitled to wonder whether the cause for which Hector Peterson and so many others died has yet succeeded.