Caroline Setsiba has shared her story with few people; it was a rare honor for the HWS community to recently hear her talk about life under apartheid rule in the Soweto area of Johannesburg, South Africa.
Setsiba was encouraged to share her story by Anne DeLaney and her husband, Trustee Chip Carver ’81. They met Setsiba through their work with the Global Literacy Project, which began with their daughter, Emma’s, volunteer work with the organization, which donates books to residents in parts of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Prior to Setsiba’s talk, DeLaney explained how her daughter promised to donate 10,000 books to the project and ended up donating 56,000 to a total of ten libraries. (See below for the full story on the Global Literacy Program.)
Led by Emma’s enthusiastic interest, DeLaney and her family wanted a deeper, “human connection,” so they went to South Africa to help build libraries with the Global Literacy Project and met Setsiba who told them her story for the first time.
“I'm delighted to give Caroline the opportunity to tell the story of her struggle and also bring attention to the Global Literacy Project—it went from an idea by my daughter to collect and ship books to hearing Caroline's story and bringing her here,” said DeLaney.
Under the apartheid system, Setsiba said she was told: “You have no rights, you have no future and you have no dreams.” Setsiba and many of her fellow students recognized the need for change and planned a protest that “marked the beginning of the end of a passive system.” On June 16, 1976, thousands of students gathered at 4 a.m. at their schools to begin to march. 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.”
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.
Twenty-three students were killed that day, including the brother of one of Setsiba's friends, and hundreds were injured. Over the next eight months, unrest spread across the country and more than 500 people were killed. The government claimed its forces were wholly victorious, but Setsiba highlighted the students' efforts to fight back, injuring some policemen.
After the uprising, Setsiba was detained and sent to prison several times due to her anti-apartheid work, including six months in solitary confinement. She also helped establish the Congress of South African students and gave birth to her second daughter by herself while hiding from the police.
She concluded her talk by telling the audience, “Let my story be an inspiration. You are the architects of your future. I fought and I lived to see freedom in my lifetime.” The audience responded with a standing ovation.
Worlds of Knowledge
Setsiba's visit to the U.S. was co-sponsored by the Global Literacy Program, a New Jersey-based non-profit organization that establishes and promotes literacy in developing countries. This sponsorship allowed the apartheid survivor to come to the States and thank the Global Literacy Program and its many volunteers, including Carver, Delaney, and their family.
The DeLaney and Carver family became engaged with the program when Emma Carver, their daughter, attended a lecture where Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Rutgers University and Secretary of the Global Literacy Project Dr. Edward Ramsamy spoke about the upcoming literacy project. Emma volunteered on the spot. Enthusiastic and eager to make a difference, Emma soon recruited her friends and family to collect books from donors. Her sister Chloe, Christina Vanech and other dedicated volunteers joined Emma in traveling with the Global Literacy Program to South Africa to convert an old barn into the newly established “Thelma Tate” community library, which, when finished, housed 6,000 of the total 56,000 books. The rest of the collection books were distributed to nine schools in the Randfontein area to help established school libraries. Thus, the impact of the program went far beyond the one community library but also addressed the dire need for books in South African schools.
At the lecture where Emma was inspired to act, 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 got involved in South Africa to support citizenship in that country through literacy.
Setsiba's talk at Hobart and William Smith Colleges was part of William Smith College centennial celebration and was sponsored by the President’s Office in cooperation with the William Smith Centennial.
To make donations or find out more about the Global Literacy Program, click here.