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A trip to South Africa provides painful reminders of the protracted struggle to establish democracy, how the United States propped up the White minority-rule government and the courage Black South Africans demonstrated to win their freedom.
A key aspect of the struggle is vividly captured in the Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum in the heart of Soweto, not far from the homes of Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu. The name of the museum itself is steeped in unforgettable history. The most compelling image of the Soweto student protest of 1976 is a photo taken by Sam Nzima.
In the foreground of a crowd of Black student protesters is a tearful Mbuyisa Makhuba, a high school student, running with the small, limp body of 13-year-old Hector Pieterson and his screaming sister, Antoinette, running beside them.
The teenager’s story is told inside the museum under the heading, “An individual life can change society.” It begins: “Hector Pieterson lost his life under police fire on June 16, 1976 during a student march protesting Afrikaans as the language of instruction in African schools. He was thirteen years old. News of his death and the violence that subsequently erupted in most African townships in South Africa spread rapidly across the world. In his death Hector Pieterson became a symbol of the plight of the black South African youth under the yoke of Apartheid.”
It continued, “His public funeral commemorated, as does this museum, all those who died as a result of the tragic events of June 16, 1976 – a turning point in the struggle towards a true South African democracy.”
Hector Pieterson became one of many martyrs of the fight against apartheid, a rigid system of racial segregation designed to keep the White minority in control of the country’s political, economic and social system.
In fact, Pieterson’s last protest march was prompted by the ruling National Party’s decision to force Black schools to use Afrikaans – which Bishop Desmond Tutu called “the language of oppression” – and English in equal measure.
On April 20, 1976, students at Orlando West Junior High School went on strike, refusing to go to school. The protest quickly spread to other schools in Soweto. On the morning of June 16, an estimated 20,000 students started walking from the junior high school to Orlando Stadium, where they had planned to hold a mass rally before continuing to the regional office of the Department of Bantu Education.
Instead of allowing the students to walk peacefully, police barricaded the march route and unleashed dogs on the crowd. According to some news accounts, students stoned the dogs and police soon began opening fire on the students, killing 13-year-old Pieterson and 22 others that day, all but two of whom were Black. At the end of a series of protests, called the Soweto uprising, estimates of those killed ranged from 176 to more than 600.
The violent attack on the children thrust the African National Congress (ANC) to the forefront of Black political protest and ignited international protests. But that did not curb the all-White police force’s appetite for violence.
A quote from Steve Lebelo, a student at Madibane High School, describes the violence that was inflicted on the community in the immediate aftermath of Pieterson’s death. The quote, which also hangs in the museum, recalls:
“It was on the 17th and 18th, when police went out and systematically were killing people. I do know that suddenly there was the infamous green car. It was a 3800 Chev, it was a green car, and at the time they were used mostly by the police. We suspected that they had a sniper in there who picked up people at random and shot and killed them. I do know a friend of mine who was killed on the 19th of June, under the same circumstances. He had gone to the shop, and as he came back from the shop carrying a litre of milk, he was shot by a sniper and killed.”
Above the quote is a photo of a green Chevrolet, loaded with White men, with rifles sticking out of the windows.
There are other reminders throughout the museum. There is a picture of a small, naked child being drenched in a bottle of water to soothe her pain in tears. Another photograph contains student protesters, with one holding up a sign reading, “To hell with Afrikaans.”
Erected in 2002, the museum honors the memory of the students who died in the uprising. A brick bearing each name is built into the ground just steps from the entrance of the museum, which is only two blocks away from where Pieterson was killed.
The inscription about Hector Pieterson in the museum ends by noting, “When National Youth Day is celebrated each year on June 16 at the Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum, it becomes a national site of commemoration, also reflecting current changes in the articulation of the South African democracy.”
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.