Tour of Soweto, Part II: The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum
After touring the Nelson Mandela home at No. 8115 Orlando West, Cheryl, Corrien and I continued on foot up the street just a few blocks past Orlando West High School, the site of the 1976 riots. I missed this historical moment in student upheaval against racial segregation. I don't ever remember hearing about it in the news or learning about it in school - not even the African history course I failed in college. It happened on June 16, 1976. Maybe Americans were too wrapped up in red, white and blue stars and stripes in preparation for the bicentenial celebrations that peaked on Independence Day a little over 2 weeks after the riots. Maybe Americans didn't care much what happened to black Africans on the other side of the world. Or maybe I was just too young to be paying attention to world events. Regardless, I'm glad I know now.
To understand the riots, one must understand Apartheid, a series of legistative policies initiated in the 1940s and 50s by white Afrikaners to separate racial groups. Afrikaners are descendants of the original Dutch settlers who were pushed out of Capetown and the eastern Cape by the British and established settlements in the western parts of what is now the Republic of South Africa. Afrikaners speak Afrikaans, a language derived mostly from Dutch. Apartheid labeled all South Africans by race: white, Indian, coloured, and black. Whites included Afrikaners, British, Dutch and other European descendants and immigrants. Indians had long been migrating to South African from their nearby homeland across the Indian Ocean. Coloureds are mixed race people, many of whom are descended from Afrikaners and their black slaves, and speak both English and the Dutch-derived language of Afrikaans. Blacks are native Africans and speak English as well as a variety of African languages such as Xhosa and Zulu.
Throughout Apartheid, laws were continually instituted that further divided these four groups. Some laws forced people to sell their homes for a pittance to the government and move into all black townships or all coloured communities. Several of the Come Back Mission staff, most of whom are close to me in age, can remember having to be forced to move from nice homes or beautiful farms, to small, often run-down houses in cramped neighborhoods. I can't imagine! It's all quite similar to the reservations set up by the American government for Native Americans, but it all happened in the late 20th century AFTER Nazi Germany rounded up Jews in concentration camps. Unfortunately, history does continue to repeat itself.
In 1976, the Apartheid goverment decided to force the already failing black schools to use Afrikaans as the primary language for instruction of maths and sciences. Black children spoke English and some were lucky enough to be able to read and write in English. They would only fall further behind in their education if, all of a sudden, instructors had to teach in Afrikaans. While their parents' generation was grateful to the whites for education and employment, these young black men and women knew how important education was and had grown angry with Apartheid. On June 16, 1976, an estimated 20,000 Soweto middle and high-school students boycotted classes and peacefully gathered in the middle of the school day in front of Orlando High school, just a few short blocks from the Nelson Mandela home. I read a street sign that described the day:
"June 16, 1976 began as a cold winter's morning like any other in Soweto. The signature pall of smoke hung over the dusty township streets. Parents waited patiently for buses and trains to take them to their jobs in the 'white' city. Inside the morning assemblies, however, someting very different was happening. Students began singing the banned national anthem, 'Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika', instead of the usual Lord's Prayer. Spirits were high as thousands of uniformed students then marched out of their school gates and threaded their way through the streets of Soweto carrying simple cardboard banners that they had hidden rolled up in their blazers with slogans such as 'To Hell with Afrikaans' and 'This Is Our Day'. As planned, the students converged in front of Phefeni Junior Secondary School to pledge their solidarity with this school that had been on boycott the longest. They had planned to proceed in a column to Orlando Stadium where...students leaders would address the students and break off the march.
"Between 5,000 and 6,000 students had gathered their by 10:30am. The throng of youngsters blocked the entire Vilakazi Street. More were on their way. 'The placard and stick-waving pupils outside the school's meshed fence converged like two rivers of protest in an emotional embrace' said journalist Lucy Gough. There was excitement in the air and the students smiled with determination as they sang songs of defiance. The 19-year-old leader of teh South African Students Movement...jumped on top of a tractor outside Orlando High and shouted to the assembled crowd: 'Brothers and sisters, I appeal to you - keep calm and cool. We have just received a report that the police are coming. Don't taunt them, don't do anything to them. Be cool and calm. We are not fighting'."
It wasn't long before white police officers were on the scene. While opinions still differ as to who started the violence, the police were armed with guns and tear gas and began using both on the unarmed students. In the melee more than 400 black students* were brutally shot and killed dead in the streets of Soweto by white police officers wielding their Apartheid power. Thousands were wounded and thousands more were detained, tortured, charged and imprisoned. Thousands more are said to have fled the country, fearing for their lives or for spending their lives in prison.
One 13-year-old boy named Hector Pieterson became the martyr of the riots. While not the first child to be killed nor the youngest, a photograph of Hector's limp and bloody body being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubu, an older black student, and accompanied by Hector's emotionally distraught sister was printed in newspapers and made its way around the world. Cheryl led me and Corrien down the same street that Mbuyisa carried Hector's lifeless body from Orlando High School to safety. The buildings that were on the site where Mbuyisa sought refuge are no longer present and have been replaced with a beautiful marble memorial with a river of water running underfoot to represent the tears and blood shed on the streets of Soweto on that fateful date in 1976. The Hector Pieterson Memorial was created "To honour the youth who gave their lives in the struggle for freedom and democracy" and stands next to the Hector Pieterson Museum, a collection of historical photos, documents, and videos that gives a better understanding of not only the events of that day, but also contextualizes them in a presentation on racial segregation and discrimination under the Apartheid rule.
*Internet research shows that death toll estimates greatly vary ranging from 23 to 700.