39 Years: Soweto, ’76

hector pieterson

Thirty-nine years ago, Hector Pieterson, 12 years old, was carried by Mbuyisa Makhubu, 18.

On June 16, 1976, high school learners had walked out of their classrooms in Soweto, a sprawling township outside Johannesburg, to protest lessons taught in Afrikaans, the language of the apartheid government, rather than English. Hector wasn’t supposed to be out there in the middle of the protest; he was too young. His older sister, Antoinette, who was 16, spotted him. She tried calling out his name, ready to corral him and march them both home to safety. But he didn’t hear her over the din of thousands of students rallying for their right to learn.

The first shots rang out. Canisters of tear gas exploded. Everyone, including Antoinette, hid behind anything they could find. She lost sight of Hector. Then she saw his shoe lying on the ground. A moment later, she saw him lying in Mbuyisa’s arms.

The South African police force had opened fire, shooting into the crowd. Estimates are that between 200 and 600 people were killed, and thousands more wounded, over the days of riots that followed. The event became known as the Soweto Uprising.

Hector was one of the first students shot and killed. Photographer Sam Nzima captured the image of Hector’s limp body carried by Mbuyisa, as Antoinette ran alongside them. Their faces are contorted in shock and horror.

In 1976, I was 7 years old. I didn’t learn about Soweto, or South Africa, or apartheid, until high school, when Ms. Davis, my English teacher, had us read novels by Nadine Gordimer and a biography of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko — another life lost in South Africa’s struggle. I wanted to know more.

When I finally visited South Africa for the first time in 2002, I met a woman named Tiny Leshika, who was director of the poverty eradication department for the South African Council of Churches. My traveling companions and I accompanied her to an Anglican church service and then a tour of Soweto, where she grew up. She was in school on June 16 and hid with a friend in the girls’ toilets, listening to the gunfire unleashed on her schoolmates, until things grew quiet and they ran home to safety. She told this story on our stop at the Hector Pieterson Memorial in Soweto.

Today in South Africa, June 16 is a national holiday—Youth Day.

Now, Youth Day brings to my mind the young women of the writing club Amazw’Entombi, who I’ve grown to know so very well over the last five years. I want you to know them, too.

In this blog, I’ll be writing about what led me to South Africa, how I came to write The Born Frees: Writing with the Girls of Gugulethu, the research, writing, and publishing process (hint: it’s complicated), and what I’m doing now to make sure this story finds its readers.

Because I want everyone to get to know these girls.

Now, your turn: When did you first hear about Soweto? Or, for that matter, South Africa, and apartheid? I love stories, and I hope to hear yours on this site. Please share in the comments – and stay tuned for much more from The Born Frees and me!

Youth Day '13

Sharon, Ayanda, and Annasuena, writing on Youth Day 2013

published on June 16, 2015

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