Sam Nzima's famous image of Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying Hector Pieterson. Picture: South African History Online

In The News International South Africa

‘Soweto was on fire’: The student walkout that defied apartheid and left children dead

Hector Pieterson, a 12-year-old South African boy, was one of the first students to die.

On June 16, 1976, more than 10,000 black high school students in Soweto marched out of school, protesting an apartheid government mandate that they study in Afrikaans, the language of their oppressors.

Defying a law that banned “liberation protests” in a country where blacks were forced to live in segregated townships, denied the right to vote and subjected to an inferior “Bantu” education, the students marched to a sports stadium, singing songs and waving signs that read, “Afrikaans must be abolished.”

On March 14, tens of thousands of high school students across the United States are expected to walk out of class to protest gun violence in the aftermath of the school massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The student walkouts are planned to last 17 minutes – one minute for each student killed in Parkland.

While some students who participate in the protest could be defying school officials, none of them will be risking their lives.

In Soweto, a black township just outside Johannesburg, defiance came at a terrible cost.

South African police confronted the students, ordered them to disperse, then threw tear gas. Suddenly, police opened fire on thousands of unarmed students.

The photo of a teenager carrying Hector’s limp body as Hector’s sister ran beside him screaming in agony would ricochet across the world, changing the course of South African history and leading to the end of the racist apartheid regime.

But the uprising, which spread across the country, also left more than 566 students dead and thousands more injured.

The Soweto protest began about 7 a.m., when students filed out of Naledi High School. They marched along Soweto’s streets, picking up more protesters as they passed other high schools.

“While they were still waiting there for the students to come out, one of the students came running and he said, ‘Police are coming in a big convoy. Watch out.’ He was warning the other students,” Sam Nzima, who captured the famous photo of Hector, would later testify before South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Human Rights Violations in 1996.

Nzima, who was working for the World Newspaper, recalled that police arrived in a convoy of seven vans and a “hippo,” an armed military vehicle.

Nzima saw a white police officer in uniform carrying a stick tucked within his armpit. The officer warned the students to disperse immediately.

The students started to sing, “Nkosi Sikelele Afrika,” meaning “God Bless Africa.”

The officer issued a second warning, giving the students three minutes to leave.

The students continued singing in defiance.

“And it was hardly three minutes when he pulled out his firearm, and he shot directly at the students,” Nzima testified. “Now, all hell broke loose. All these policemen were shooting at the students randomly.”

Nzima saw one student fall, and another student pick him up.

“I rushed there to take a picture,” Nzima testified. “I took six sequence shots of that picture of that student, whom we later discovered that was Hector Pieterson.”

The teenager who carried Hector was Umbiswe Makuba, [sometimes spelled Mbuyisa Makhubo]. He was then 18, and did not know Hector but instinctively picked up the child to get help. The girl in the photo screaming with her hand raised as if to ward off any more bullets was Hector’s sister, Antoinette, who was then 17.

The photo shows Makuba, in overalls, running with Hector. Blood is coming out of Hector’s mouth. Hector is missing his left shoe.

“After taking those pictures,” Nzima testified, “I helped Antoinette and Umbiswa Makuba to put Hector Pieterson in the press car to be taken to the Pafene clinic where he was certified dead by the doctor.

“On this afternoon,” Nzima testified, “Soweto was on fire.”

Antoinette Sithole, the sister of Hector Pieterson, told the commission in 1996 that she remembered seeing Hector standing in front of a school as police fired.

“While we were standing outside, there was someone coming in front of the school, and who is this person. And I thought this is Hector. I called Hector,” Sithole testified. “I said to Hector he should not be there, and we [should] go back home.”

Then she heard gunshots.

“There was tear gas, and there was confusion. I saw people hiding themselves and then I hid myself, too,” Sithole said. “I was afraid because I didn’t know where Hector has gone and people were holding something. And then I moved forward and I could not see properly, and I saw Hector’s shoe.”

She ran beside Makuba.

She remembered asking him where he was going with her brother.

She remembered Makuba saying there was a clinic nearby.

“While we were running, someone stopped in front of us, this car,” Sithole testified. They put Hector in the car.

“When we arrived at the clinic, we found a doctor there,” Sithole testified. “When the doctor went on, he said there is nothing I can do. He asked me the names, who I am. After that, I stayed there in the clinic without knowing what to do.”

It was 10:30, only three hours after the beginning of the Soweto student uprising.

Sitole told the commission that the teenager who carried Hector was harassed by police.

“Mbuyiswa decided to go into exile,” Sithole testified. “He has not been seen or heard from since he wrote a letter to his mother from Nigeria in 1978.”

The photo of Hector Pieterson was published in newspapers worldwide. Nzima lost his job and was forced to go into hiding in Eastern Transvaal. He said he was never paid by the World Newspaper for the photograph.

“I was frustrated, I couldn’t be a journalist anymore,” he said. “Because had I stuck to journalism I was going to be shot or locked up in jail.”

The government would later conclude Hector “was killed by a shot fired directly at him and not by a bullet ‘ricocheting off the ground’ as police claimed,” according to a South African History Timeline report.

Twenty-six years after the Soweto uprising, the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum opened in Soweto on a street not far from where the 12-year-old student’s death sparked a revolution. The words read on the memorial read: “To Honour the Youth who Gave Their Lives in the Struggle for Freedom and Democracy.”

The Washington Post

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