Remembering Soweto

Remembering Soweto

This article looks at the infamous uprising of Soweto in 1976 through the prism of Sam Nzima’s harrowing photograph of the death of Hector Peterson.

It is a photograph that stunned the world and disgraced a nation. Captured in black and white by photographer Sam Nzima, the picture reveals the lifeless body of a young African boy being carried in the streets by a distressed friend. The boy’s sister walks beside them. Her face is contorted by grief and she holds her right hand forward as if the pain of her loss has sent shock waves through her body.

Unlike so many other pictures taken during historic civil unrest, the photographer of this image had taken the time to identify the victim in the photo. His name was Hector Peterson, an eleven year old boy who was killed on 16 June 1976 during the famous student uprising in Soweto, a black district outside Johannesburg, South Africa. The photo of his death made international headlines and became the world’s most memorable image of the racial problems under South African white rule.

Hector was the first victim of an uprising that began as a peaceful protest by 10,000 black students opposed to the government’s introduction of Afrikaans as the language of teaching in schools.

Fearing the start of a revolution, local police responded with violence, firing bullets at unarmed demonstrators and killing over 20 people. Hundreds were seriously wounded. The bloodshed spread across the country and at least 500 more people were killed in the events that followed. 

Like Nelson Mandela and Reverend Desmond Tutu, Hector became a symbol of the civil rights struggle for many South Africans.

The thirtieth anniversary of his death marks the beginning of the Soweto uprising, an event that will be celebrated throughout the country this weekend as a turning point in history. 

The memory of Hector’s short life is preserved at a museum dedicated to him in Soweto. The building is situated only a few yards away from where he was killed. Antoinette Sithole, aged 46, is Hector’s sister and the girl in Nzima’s photo. She offers tours at the museum.

Earlier this week Antoinette told the British press that she had finally forgiven the apartheid government for the loss of her brother but she will never forget what happened. 

”Its part of me I cannot run away from, but I want to move forward in life,” she explained. “I always say those who died did not die in vain. Obviously there are going to be a few hiccups before we get there, but we are now in a process of change and I am hoping for the best. If we come together as we did in 1976, singing one song, South Africa will be the best country.”

Albert Oupamoloto, aged 48, shares Antoinette’s optimism. He was an 18 year old student at the Soweto uprising in 1976. Albert remembers singing freedom songs and holding revolutionary placards during the long walk to Orlando – the Soweto district where the students were gathering for the protest. Upon arrival he saw police men shooting randomly at the protesters, many of whom were panicking and trying to hide from danger.

“The death of Hector Peterson and the uprising must always be remembered because they were a catalyst for the liberation of our country,” explained Albert from the offices of the 16 June Foundation in Soweto- a charity set up by students of the uprising to preserve the memory of that fateful day. “After the incident in Soweto, students across the land began to fight against apartheid by uniting with political groups that wanted to provide us with equality. The Soweto uprising marked the beginning of the end of South Africa’s oppressive apartheid era,” he said.

Apartheid means “apartness” or “separateness” in Afrikaans, the language of South Africa’s white colonialists.

It was a policy of consistent racial segregation that was enforced in the country from 1948 to 1991. Under apartheid all races were prevented from interacting with each other. Marriages and love relationships between members of different racial groups were forbidden and non-white people were not allowed to vote or to have any political voice. Education, medical care, and other public services were also separated by race, with the best facilities offered only to the white minority.

Any opposition to these oppressive policies were met with violence and imprisonment.

During apartheid South Africa’s blacks were allocated less than 8 percent of the country’s land, despite making up over 70 percent of the population. This land, referred to as townships, was relegated to the outskirts of South Africa’s main cities. 

Soweto is the country’s most famous township and the second biggest tourist attraction in South Africa.

The name is an acronym for South West townships, an area outside Johannesburg that makes up 32 districts. Together they create the largest black urban residential area in South Africa with close to a million inhabitants. Soweto is regarded as the most metropolitan township in the country and a vital hub for politics, music and dance. It is here where Nobel peace prize winners Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu was born and where the Nation African Congress (NAC) – the country’s ruling party, was established.

Apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994, when Nelson Mandela, the leader of the NAC, became president. However, the country’s new found freedom has not ended the struggle for a better life among blacks. According to statistics published by the South African Labour and Development Research Unit at the University of Cape Town, unemployment has increased steadily in the post-Apartheid era. Over 40 percent of the country is unemployed, up from 31 percent in 1994.

Among blacks the jobless rate is over 70 percent in some townships.

Soweto remains one of the poorest places in South Africa. Many of its inhabitants suffer from overcrowding and housing shortages as well as insufficient medical and educational services.

Nevertheless, there is continued hope for a better future. “We are starting to see more investment in the township,” said Albert. 

”There are new shopping centres, better drainage facilities and infrastructures. Many people think their lives are better because they are free citizens and I agree with them. I love this place because it is vibrant and has a history. I was born and raised in Soweto and it is here that I will stay until the end of my life.”