SOWETO, South Africa (AP) _ Hundreds of singing and dancing young South Africans joined President Thabo Mbeki on Saturday as he retraced the steps of a protest march thousands of Soweto schoolchildren staged 25 years ago.
The march, known as the Soweto uprising, became a turning point in South Africa's history. It brought a new era of intensified opposition to the apartheid government, both at home and abroad.
On Saturday, many of the marchers wore T-shirts emblazoned with a photo of Hector Petersen, a 12-year-old demonstrator killed by police in 1976. The widely published photo of the dying boy being carried away by another demonstrator sparked an international outcry against the apartheid government's brutality.
Mbeki, wearing sneakers, walked about 2.5 miles from a Soweto high school to the Hector Petersen memorial, where he laid a flower wreath. The memorial, which is being rebuilt to include a museum, is situated where the shootings took place.
Nobuhle Zondo, 18, said she joined Saturday's march because she wanted to honor those who died in the struggle for a free South Africa.
``Marching gives us identity of ourselves,'' she said. ``I'm proud to be African.''
Later, speakers at a soccer stadium urged the youth to continue the struggle of the 1976 protesters. Speeches were interspersed with kwaito music _ South Africa's answer to hip-hop, and shouting of slogans such as ``Viva the youth of this country! Viva!'' and ``Long live the spirit of Hector Petersen! Long live!''
Matthew Morobi, who took part in the 1976 march, said young people today face even tougher problem than his generation did.
``In fact, your task is more difficult than our task,'' he said. ``AIDS is finishing our youth. It was easy to defeat apartheid, but our challenge is to defeat HIV and AIDS.''
South Africa recognizes June 16 as a public holiday, Youth Day, and concerts, speeches and rallies were held nationwide.
This year, the day's theme was promoting racial harmony. But noting that the Soweto audience was largely black, Mbeki said he hoped celebrations in coming years would attract audiences more reflective of South Africa's population.
Citing several recent violent racial crimes, including a case in which nine white rugby players are accused of beating a black boy to death in March, Mbeki said South Africans must continue to fight for the ``nonracial South Africa for which Hector Petersen struggled and died.''
Mbeki also urged young South Africans to defend their hard-won democracy, to stay away from crime, to vote and to protect themselves from HIV, which has infected 11 percent of the population.
``The youth of our country has itself a responsibility to look after themselves,'' he said, adding youth were ``a very valued resource of our country.''