Hector Pieterson


Hector Pieterson

This photo by Sam Nzima is displayed on Hector’s memorial outside the Hector Pieterson Museum in Orlando West, Soweto. Mbuyisa Makhubo is carrying the dying Hector and Hector’s sister, Antoinette, is running beside him.

In the winter of 1976, at the instigation of the its minister, M C Botha, the Bantu Education Department had introduced a regulation requiring Afrikaans be one of the languages used for instruction in secondary schools. On 16 June 1976, in what became known as the Soweto Uprising, some 20,000 schoolchildren and sympathisers began a peaceful protest march against the regulation in Orlando West, Soweto. They were mainly from Soweto but some were from further afield. Within hours, police and youths were engaging in running battles. During the fracas the 12-year-old Hector Pieterson was shot by the police. Sophie Tema, a journalist, saw him being carried away from the scene. He was covered in blood. She rushed him to hospital in her car but he died before they got there. To quote from the Long walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela:

"The events of that day reverberated in every town and townships of South Africa. The uprising triggered riots and violence across the country. Mass funerals for the victims of state violence became national rallying points. Suddenly the young people of South Africa were fired with the spirit of protest and rebellion. Students boycotted schools all across the country. Bantu education had come back to haunt its creators, for these angry and audacious young people were its progeny."

Mbuyisa Makhubo was at the time a train pedlar of about 18 years old who had been observing, or maybe participating in, the uprising. After the photograph was released, he was harassed by the security services. Amongst other accusations, they suggested that he had posed for the photograph. As a result of the harassment, Mbuyisa was obliged to leave South Africa. In 1999, DRUM, a Magazine of Africa for Africa, reported that Mbuyisa’s mother Nombulelo Makhubu "has been searching for Mbuyisa for more than 20 years, torn apart by the pain of not knowing whether he’s dead or alive." She had left Soweto early on the morning of 16 June on a shopping expedition to the city centre but, when she returned by train in the evening, she found the township in distress. On seeing the photograph of her son carrying a smaller boy, she at first thought that boy to be her younger child, Raul. As it turned out, Raul was safe – but not so Mbuyisa. In the ensuing weeks the family endured many visits from the security police until Mbuyisa finally fled. In 1978 Nombulelo received a letter from Mbuyisa who was apparently in Nigeria. That was the last that Nombulelo heard from her son.

On 22nd of July 1996 Hector Pieterson’s sister, Antoinette Sithole, and Sam Nzima appeared as witnesses before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Antoinette testified to the interrogator, Ms Sooka, that when she arrived at the protest the police were already there throwing tear gas at the schoolchildren. She did not come with Hector but she saw him there. She told him he should not be there and that he should go home. Then there was a gun sound, tear gas and confusion. Soon after she saw Mbuyisa – who she called Mr Makhubo – carrying something and she could see Hector’s shoe. Mr Makhubo was running. When she asked him where he was going he just said, "there’s a clinic just nearby". She said to Ms Sooka that while they were running a car stopped in front of them and that her mother came out of the car and said, "put him inside the car". But Mr Makhubo said, "Hector is dead". "When we arrived at the clinic," she said "we found a doctor there. He said that there was nothing he could do." When asked whether Hector was a member of any student organisation, Antoinette said that he was not. She thought he had only come out of curiosity. She said that she was 17 at the time, that she got married soon after Hector’s death but that it didn’t last and she was now married again. Then Ms Sooka asked Antoinette how she felt about the fact that so many years after June 1976 there is now a new government and whether she felt that Hector’s death in any way contributed to what we have today. "Of course it did," replied Antoinette, "it did contribute very, very much".

After the museum was set up, Antoinette’ became one of its curators and her account of that day in 1976 is also on YouTube.

Michiel Coenraad Botha (1903-1993) was the member of the National Party representing nearby Roodeport from 1953 to 1977 and served in the governments of Henrik Verwoerd and John Voster between 1960 and 1977. He started off as Assistant Minister in the Department of Bantu Administration and Development, was promoted to Minister in 1966, and ended his days as the Minister of Bantu Education. His background was such that he could have anticipated the trouble in 1976. When the National Party was in opposition in 1943 he was secretary of a special Afrikaner Broederbond education committee. As such he had put in place an directive that urged ‘churches to encourage parents to refuse to send their children to schools where government policy had been introduced’. The government at the time was the relatively liberal United Party of Jan Smuts. ‘Where a minister is unsympathetic’, Botha’s 1943 directive continued, ‘a strong personality in the church council or congregation should take the lead; each member of a school committee should undertake responsibility for 10 or so parents and children and persuade them to be ready to strike at a given moment’.

When Botha became a cabinet minister in 1976 he chose to overcome opposition to government policies not by persuasion, as he had been permitted to do when he was in opposition, but by kragdadigheid*. In the final two or three years of his long life he saw Apartheid scrapped, the National Party opened up to all races and suffrage extended to all South Africans. But, by the time what he would doubtless have regarded as the final humiliation took place, he was dead. That was the election in 1994 of a new government headed by Nelson Mandela. That would have spared him the humiliation of a possible appearance before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

At the time of the uprising, Sam Nzima was employed by The World, Johannesburg’s black daily newspaper. When the South African government closed that publication down in 1978, the Rand Daily Mail and The Star (South Africa) both invited Nzima to work for them – but he declined the offers for fear that the security police would kill him. After The World was closed down, ownership of the photo was probably transferred to The Star, although Mbuyisa Makhubo’s brother, Raul, has also claimed the rights to it. Nevertheless, it’s widely reproduced on the Internet, including Wikipedia who suggest that it can now be regarded as being in the Public Domain.

Sources: Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela; the Records of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; Illustrated History of South Africa by The Reader’s Digest; DRUM, a Magazine of Africa for Africa; various Wikipedia articles.

*Kragdadigheid does not readily translate into English. Efficiency – in the Nazi sense – comes close and the use of brute force would not be excluded from the achievement of objectives through kragdadigheid.

Posted by Robert Cutts on 2008-06-18 18:33:48

Tagged: , Saga , World in One Country , photo , photograph , Picture , Hector Pieterson , Nombulelo Makhubu , Mbuyisa Makhubu , MC Botha , Soweto Uprising , Antoinette Sithole , Banto , Soweto , Orlando , Bob Cutts , Robert Cutts

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