16 June 1976: the day Hector Pieterson died

“I saw a child fall down. Under a shower of bullets I rushed forward and went for the picture. It had been a peaceful march, the children were told to disperse, they started singing Nkosi Sikelele. The police were ordered to shoot.”

(Image: South African History Online)

Brand South Africa reporter

These are the words of Sam Nzima, recalling the events of 16 June 1976, when over 500 people were killed as they protested over the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in township schools.

Nzima’s photograph of the dying Hector Pieterson being carried by a fellow student was published around the world, and came to represent the anger and tragedy of a day that changed the course of South African history, sparking months of clashes between police, schoolchildren and protesters.

Hector, 12, was one of the first casualties of what came to be known as the Soweto Uprising.

Hastings: June 16’s forgotten hero

Fifteen-year-old Hastings Ndlovu was probably shot before Hector Pieterson, although he died later. But no photographer was on hand to record the moment.

Another boy, Hastings Ndlovu, is believed to have been the first child to be shot on that fateful day. But Nzima, a photographer for Johannesburg newspaper The World, was on the spot when Mbuyisa Makhubo picked Hector up and, together with Hector’s sister Antoinette, ran towards a press car, into which he was bundled taken to a nearby clinic, where he was pronounced dead.

“I was the only photographer there at the time”, Nzima says. “Other photographers came when they heard shots.”

A few months after that, The World was banned and shut down.

Hector Pieterson Museum

When you visit the Hector Pieterson Museum in Orlando West, Soweto, you’ll see Nzima’s legendary photograph showing the unconscious Hector being carried by Makhubo, with Hector’s sister – now Antoinette Sithole – running alongside.

You might also get to see Antoinette herself, who works at the museum, giving guided tours.

But don’t expect to come away with an image of what Hector looked like – the family do not have a single snapshot of their famous son.

Soon after 16 June, journalists approached the Pieterson family for pictures of Hector. Photographs were handed over with the promise they would be returned – but they weren’t. Thirty years later, the search for the photographs continues.

The museum, which opened on 16 June 2002, follows the chronology of the build-up to 16 June 1976, starting with the way tensions were building among Soweto’s school children, with one school after another going out on strike.

The museum stands two blocks from where Hector was shot and fell, on the corner of Moema and Vilakazi Streets in Orlando West, Soweto. There are houses on all four corners of that intersection, so the museum is located up the road in Kumalo Street.

Hector’s mother, Dorothy Molefi, lives in nearby Meadowlands. “I’m very proud that there’s a museum for Hector, and that children are learning about him in history,” she says. “We still visit his grave every few months.”

Hector’s father died not long before the opening of the museum.

The museum is an impressive red-brick building, two storeys high, with irregularly shaped windows in a haphazard pattern. The community asked that the building blend in with the dwellings around it – small red-brick, semi-detached houses with iron roofs.

Walking through the large rust-red door, the immediate impression is of a cathedral, with its double volume ceiling, tall thin windows, stripped wood floors, concrete columns and tall red-brick walls.

The wall opposite the door is filled with an enlarged photograph of marching children, with banners and posters protesting the use of Afrikaans in township schools.

The musuem’s chief curator, Ali Hlongwane, is sensitive to the differing accounts of why that day’s protests exploded the way they did.

There is some debate about the extent to which several student organisations, in particular the South African Students Organisation and the South Africa Students Movement, were involved in the lead-up to the uprising. The role of the liberation movements – the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress – is also unclear.

“The re-representation of the story is an ongoing process”, says Hlongwane; the museum continues to record people’s stories and add to its displays.

“We may get someone come into the museum, look at the photograph, and say: ‘This is me’, or ‘I know that face’. We will then record and archive their experiences”, Hlongwane explains.

There seems no doubt about the role of various cultural activists in building solidarity among the youth, inspired by Black Consciousness philosophy. Writers, poets, dancers, singers and painters captured the injustice of apartheid, and some of these works are on display.

Build-up to 16 June

But it is generally agreed that tensions in schools had been growing from February 1976, when two teachers at the Meadowlands Tswana School Board were dismissed for their refusal to teach in Afrikaans.

Students and teachers throughout Soweto echoed this sentiment, and the African Teachers’ Association of South Africa presented a memorandum to this effect to the Education Department. From mid-May around a dozen schools went on strike, and several students refused to write mid-year exams.

On 16 June, students from three schools – Belle Higher Primary, Phefeni Junior Secondary and Morris Isaacson High – planned to march from their schools to the Orlando Stadium, about a kilometre from the museum, to hold a meeting. But before they got to where the museum stands today the police met them, in Moema Street.

There are conflicting accounts of who gave the first command to shoot, but soon children were turning and running in all directions, leaving some children lying wounded on the road – among them Hector Pieterson and Hastings Ndlovu.

A major part of the museum’s presentation of the story of the day is done through TV monitors, recording the world’s footage of the events, as South Africa had only just got television. Text panels scattered throughout the museum give eye-witness accounts and background viewpoints.

Inside the museum

The museum is arranged in a series of interleading spaces joined by ramps, moving you closer to Nzima’s photograph – enlarged and waiting for you at the top of the second ramp.

The interior is dominated by red brick walls, with some areas plastered and painted white and black, and others left in grey concrete. Large square windows at the top of the ramps give views of the suburb’s significant sites: Orlando Stadium, the Orlando Police Station, Moema Street, and several schools. Combined with black steel banisters and high ceilings, the effect is stunning.

One of the few walled-in rooms in the museum is the Death Register, the room that records the names of the children who died over the period from June 1976 to the end of 1977.

But the day, and the events that followed, had positive consequences. Thousands of students joined the broader liberation movement, ensuring that resistance to apartheid was maintained and escalated. International solidarity movements added to pressure on the apartheid government.

The use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction was dropped. More schools and a teacher training college were built in Soweto. Teachers were given in-service training, and encouraged to upgrade their qualifications by being given study grants.

And most importantly, urban blacks were given permanent resident status in South Africa. Before, they had been considered “temporary sojourners” with permanent residence only in the designated homelands, often inferior pieces of land far away from industrial centres and jobs.

Like the Apartheid Museum at Johannesburg’s Gold Reef City, this much smaller museum – the first museum in Soweto – has a simplicity which allows the drama of the story to have maximum impact.

What became of them?

What became of some of the chief protagonists of 16 June 1976?

Sam Nzima

Nzima, who took six sequence shots of 12-year-old Pieterson in those brief moments, left Johannesburg for Limpopo – then the northern Transvaal – about a year later, when it became clear that his safety in the city was under threat. “The security branch phoned me and told me to go to John Vorster Square, but I went into hiding for three weeks,” he says.

The harassment didn’t stop after he left the city. “In 1978 the security branch from Nelspruit phoned and told me that they knew of my whereabouts and what I had done.”

Nzima set up a bottle store after he settled up north, and later served as a member of parliament in the homeland Gazankulu government. He opened a school of photography in Bushbuckridge after being donated a black and white enlarger by The Sowetan newspaper.

“There is an art to developing black and white pictures”, he says.

When the Independent Group bought Argus newspapers in 1999, he was given copyright to his Hector photographs.

Theuns ‘Rooi Rus’ Swanepoel

The police commander who is believed to have given the command to fire on the schoolchildren on the day, Theuns “Rooi Rus” Swanepoel, was described by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1998 as a policeman “who already had a long history of human rights violations as chief interrogator of the security branch”.

Swanepoel told the TRC: “I made my mark. I let it be known to the rioters I would not tolerate what was happening. I used appropriate force. In Soweto and Alexandra where I operated, that broke the back of the organisers.”

Die Afrikaner, the far-rightwing Herstigte Nasionale Party mouthpiece, gives the following version of how the first shot was fired in Orlando West: “In the heat of the struggle, (Swanepoel) and his men are called in from leave to stop a mass of seething, threatening youths. The atmosphere is laden and then one of the blacks throws a bottle into the face of the Red Russian (“Rooi Rus”).

“A war breaks out as the young men let loose on the seething crowds and the one responsible for throwing the bottle looks like chicken mesh after the automatic machine gun flattens him.”

Swanepoel allegedly lost his right eye in the incident. He died of a heart attack in 1998 at the age of 71.

Mbuyisa Makhubo

Mbuyisa Makhubo, the schoolboy who picked up Hector, was harassed by the police after the incident and eventually went into exile. His mother, Nombulelo Makhubo, told the TRC that she received a letter from him from Nigeria in 1978, but that she had not heard from him since. She died in 2004.

Antoinette Sithole

Antoinette Sithole, Hector’s older sister and one of five sisters, still lives in Soweto. She was 17 in June 1976.

“On the day, I was hiding in the second house next to my school Phefeni High School,” Antoinette says. “There were younger children at the march who shouldn’t have been there. I don’t know why they were there – Hector was one of them. There were random shots, we were not familiar with teargas shots. I was confused, those first shots could have been teargas.

“I came out of hiding and saw Hector, and I called him to me. He was looking around as I called his name, trying to see who was calling him. I waved at him, he saw me and came over to me. I asked him what he was doing here, we looked around, there was a shot, and I ran back to my hiding place. When I looked out I couldn’t see Hector, I waited, I was afraid, where was he?

“Then I saw a group of boys struggling. This gentleman came from nowhere, lifted a body, and I saw the front part of the shoe which I recognised as Hector’s. This man started to run with the body, I ran alongside, and said to him: who are you, this is my brother?

“A car stopped in front of us, a lady got out and said she was from the press, and offered us a lift to the clinic. We put him in the car. I don’t remember how I got to the clinic, but the doctor said Hector was dead so I gave his details.

“I was so scared of how I was going to tell my mother. Two teachers from a nearby school took me to my grandmother’s house. A neighbour phoned my mother at work, and when she got home at 5.30pm my uncle was standing outside the house with me. She said she had heard on the radio that children had died. My uncle broke the news – she was calm, she showed no emotion.

“My father lived in Alexandra – my parents are divorced – he saw the picture in the paper and recognised me and wondered why I wasn’t at school.

“My mother’s strength – she was stronger than my father – helped me come to terms with death. I can accept now that we are all going to die.

“My mother is still alive and still very strong. She still lives in the same house in Soweto. Hector was her only son, and since the uprising she has lost one of my younger sisters in a car accident.

“To me and my family, Hector did not die in vain.”

Source: City of Johannesburg

Would you like to use this article in your publication or on your website? See Using Brand South Africa material.