Sam Nzima's famous pic of June 16
Mbuyiso Makhubo carrying Hector Pieterson (orig. Pitso)
and his sister, Antoinette running alongside.
It was cold and overcast as pupils gathered at schools across Soweto on 16 June. At an agreed time, they set off for Orlando West Secondary School in Vilakazi Street, with thousands streaming in from all directions. The planned to march from the school to the Orlando Stadium.
"By 10.30am, over 5 000 students had gathered on Vilakazi Street and more were arriving every minute," say Bonner and Segal. In total, "over 15 000 uniformed students between the ages of 10 and 20 [were] marching that day".
Once at the stadium, the plan was to agree on a list of grievances, and then possibly to march to the offices of the Transvaal department of education in Booysens, in Johannesburg's southern suburbs. But this didn't happen. Police formed a wall facing the pupils, warning them to disperse – an order met with resistance. Teargas was fired into the crowd and police dogs released. In the chaos, children ran back and forth, throwing stones at the police – who fired more teargas.
Bonner and Segal quote a student leading the march, Jon-Jon Mkhonza: "Students were scattered, running up and down ... coming back, running ... coming back. It was some kind of game because they were running away, coming back, taking stones, throwing them at the police ... It was chaos. Whenever the police shot teargas, we jumped the wall to the churchyard and then came back and started discussing again.
Then came the first shot – straight into the crowd, without warning. Other policemen took up the signal and more shots were fired. Twelve-year-old Hector Pieterson fell to the ground, fatally wounded. He was picked up by Mbuyisa Makhubo, a fellow student, who ran with him towards the Phefeni Clinic, with Pieterson's crying sister Antoinette running alongside.
The World photographer Sam Nzima was there to record Pieterson's last moments. "I saw a child fall down," he says. "Under a shower of bullets I rushed forward and went for the picture." The photo went around the world and Pieterson came to symbolise the uprising, giving the world an in-your-face view of the brutality of apartheid.
Then all hell broke loose. Students targeted apartheid symbols: administrative offices, government buses and vehicles and municipal beer halls, which were first looted and then set alight. By the end of the day thick clouds of black smoke hung over the township, and the streets were littered with upturned vehicles, stones and rocks.
Anti-riot vehicles poured into Soweto, roadblocks were erected at all entrances, the army was placed on alert and helicopters hovered overhead, dropping teargas canisters and shooting. The injured pupils were taken to Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, some dying in its corridors, some dying at its gates before they could be admitted, according to Bonner and Segal. As night fell, the unlit township became even more terrifying: blinded by the night, police simply fired into the blackness. The students returned the fire with their own weapons: bottles and stones. The looted liquor was taking effect – people wandered the streets intoxicated, in a celebratory mood, raising clenched fists and shouting "Amandla!" (power).
The next day revealed the carnage: dead bodies and burnt-out shops and vehicles. The clashes continued, between police and students, joined by street gangs. Violence spread to another volatile Johannesburg township, Alexandra, and then across South Africa. By 18 June, all schools in Soweto and Alexandra had been closed by the authorities. Most of the victims were under 23, say Bonner and Segal, and shot in the back. Many others were left maimed or crippled. By the end of the year about 575 people had died across the country, 451 at the hands of police, according to SA History Online. The injured numbered 3 907, with the police responsible for 2 389 of them. About 5 980 people were arrested in the townships that year.
International solidarity movements were roused as an immediate consequence of the revolt. They soon gave their support to the pupils, putting pressure on the apartheid government to temper its repressive rule. This pressure was maintained throughout the 1980s, until resistance movements were finally unbanned in 1990. School principals were almost immediately allowed to choose their own medium of instruction, a major victory for the pupils. 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.
The most significant change, however, was that urban blacks were given permanent status as city dwellers. They ceased to be temporary sojourners in the cities, expected to return to the homelands, often inferior pieces of land far away from industrial centres and jobs, where they held permanent residence. The law banning blacks from owning businesses in the townships was abolished. Doctors, lawyers and other professionals were now also allowed to practise in the townships.
But there was a sting in the tail of these measures: the police were given powers to detain people without trial. The result was the detention of hundreds of people in the coming months. They were subjected to torture in a desire to confirm the government's version of events: that the unrest was caused by a number of agitators. Thousands of young people left the country, disillusioned with the government crackdown and harassed by the police. They never finished their education, choosing instead to go into military camps and receive training. Some were then infiltrated back into South Africa over the next decade, to perpetrate acts of sabotage. This was part of the steady onslaught against apartheid that finally broke its back towards the end of the 1980s.
Most of the exiles returned home in the early 1990s, to celebrate the birth of democracy in 1994.
Lest we forget the day, there is a museum to keep the memories fresh. The Hector Pieterson Museum, in Orlando West in Soweto, is just a few blocks from where students and police first began their violent confrontation.
words: Lucille Davis, jacked from SA Info