The Africa Journals
The Street of lions
We are not going to intimidate anybody, we are not going to loot, we are not going to do anything wrong. We are just going to march and demonstrate and sing and then go back home.—Jon-Jon Mkhonza, student marcher,
June 16, 1976, Orlando West, Soweto.
The students were excited. Not even the cold and smoggy winter morning of June 16 could dampen their enthusiasm. All their illegal, covert planning was centered on this morning and, against all odds, they had kept their plan secret even from their own families.
At the appointed time, an estimated 15,000 students aged 10 to 20 gathered from several Soweto township schools at an Orlando West secondary school on Vilakazi Street. The mood was one of victory.
They would march down Vilakazi Street, symbolically pledge their solidarity and demonstrate against the apartheid system that demanded all lessons be taught in Afrikaans, a language not known by most students and despised as the language of the oppressors. They would protest, acting the opposite of their submissive parents.
|The student memorial at Vilakazi and Moema Streets.|
Repression, incarceration, torture, and deprivation by the apartheid government culminated in a perfect storm on this day. The demonstration caught the security forces unaware but they quickly mobilized and demanded the students disperse.
They unleashed police dogs and shot tear gas into the crowd. The students panicked and chaos ensued. Then, a policeman fired into the crowd of children, followed by many more shots.
Thirteen-year-old Hector Pieterson, crossing between the students and the police at Vilakazi and Moema streets and trying to go home, was hit in the head by a bullet. Another student lifted Hector in his arms and, with Hector’s sister running alongside, took the boy to aid.
Sam Nzima lifted his camera and took this photo. It quickly became a symbol of the apartheid atrocities.
|Sam Nzima's photo of Hector Pieterson being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo, with Hector's sister Antoinette. Nzima went into hiding afterward, Makhubo into lifelong self-exile.|
Hector died. Estimates say more than 200 died that day, others claim more than 500. The government clamped a sheet of secrecy on the township.
Soweto erupted in riots that would continue on and off for more than a year, as did similar black communities throughout South Africa. Repression was brutal. Many hundreds more died, with the majority of them under 23. Thousands more were injured and maimed.
The photo of the fatally-wounded boy galvanized the oppressed blacks and world opinion, leading to democratic elections in 1994 and the election of Nelson Mandela as president of South Africa.
Today, at the corner of Vilakazi and Moema streets there is a memorial to those students. It is two blocks from Nelson Mandela’s house. Another two blocks away along from where Hector died is the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, opened in 2002. The exhibits, the photographs, the written quotes are difficult to look at, but necessary if one strives to understand what happened here. No photos are allowed inside the building.
|The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum and courtyard.|
|Rock on which the plaque below is mounted.|