The Soweto trip brought to the fore, within our party, just how different we all are.
Whilst some of us were intent on seeing the sights of Soweto within the time stipulated by the tour guide, some just could not resist the lure of the massive shopping mall that laughed us into the historical points of the town.
Standing to the right and off the major road from the large hospital, someone wanted to let off some body steam and we all obliged. For another hour, we were stuck in the heat of the open park of the mall – waiting for some of our colleagues who decided shopping was better than traipsing around the stirring history of Soweto!
Raised voices and unhappy faces proceeded into the historical points finally and it was so easy to see how overweening suffering could help you forget your angst in a hurry!
In a while we drove into the Hector Pieterson (family insists this is the correct spelling) Memorial Arcade and immediately saw several buses of tourists – predominantly white – who had come from very far, obviously, to experience what everyone tried to get us from seeing.
The story of Hector Petersen is really a very sad one. From what our guide told us, Hector was a 13 year old boy student in one of the schools in Soweto. He had been part of a demonstration against the imposition of Afrikaans as the instructional language in the schools of Soweto and as is tradition in Soweto, there were processions and protests.
Unfortunately this turned violent and the Army sought to put the demonstration down by every means at their possession. In the ensuing tragedy Hector Pieterson was cynically cut down in his school uniform and of course this only served to escalate the tragic circumstances that followed his death.
This was an account by a publication, Der Afrikaner, the far-rightwing Herstigte Nasionale Party mouthpiece, of how the first shot was fired in Orlando West of Soweto:
"In the heat of the struggle, (Swanepoel) and his men are called in from leave to stop a mass of seething, threatening youths. The atmosphere is laden and then one of the blacks throws a bottle into the face of the Red Russian ("Rooi Rus"). "A war breaks out as the young men let loose on the seething crowds and the one responsible for throwing the bottle looks like chicken mesh after the automatic machine gun flattens him."
As we moved into the arcade, past the vendors who complacently competed for our patronage, and through a group of young men who beat some drums with fervor, we sensed the history that swaggered through these parts.
We saw the large framed photograph taken by photographer Sam Nzima, of the floppy dead body of Hector as he was carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo on the way to the clinic.
As I write and review some of the available material on this tragedy, I have goosepimples lacerating my body even as I stare at Hector’s broken body in the straining arms of Mbuyisa Makhubo. I can still feel how deeply pained the people were, and may still be, even though so many years have passed and a lot of healing has taken place. Dorothy Molefi, Hector’s mother still visits the boy’s grave till today.
Monuments have been erected in the honour of these fallen heroes of the South African struggle but the question that nagged at a mind like mine was: why must children suffer from the bigotry of a few people across the world? Bosnia, Serbia, Rwanda, Burundi – there are so many stories, pogroms we prefer not to remember.
Hector may be more popular than he would have liked to be today but I’m sure he would have happily exchanged relative obscurity for the death that ensured he never attained his full potential.
Our guide also informed us that Mbuyisa Makhubo – the man who picked up the body of Hector Pieterson was severely harassed by the police for a while until he was forced to go on exile to Nigeria. Our guide informed us that he was at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria to study sometime in the late seventies. Mbuyisa’s mother claimed to have gotten his letter from Nigeria in 1978 but since then no one has heard anything about him.
Hector’s sister Antoinette Sithole, 17 years old in June 1976, running alongside Makhubo as he carried her brother’s fallen body in the photo recounts the ordeal as follows:
"On the day, I was hiding in the second house next to my school PhefeniHigh School," Antoinette says. "There were younger children at the march who shouldn't have been there. I don't know why they were there – Hector was one of them. There were random shots, we were not familiar with teargas shots. I was confused, those first shots could have been teargas.
"I came out of hiding and saw Hector, and I called him to me. He was looking around as I called his name, trying to see who was calling him. I waved at him, he saw me and came over to me. I asked him what he was doing here, we looked around, there was a shot, and I ran back to my hiding place. When I looked out I couldn't see Hector, I waited, I was afraid, where was he?
"Then I saw a group of boys struggling. This gentleman came from nowhere, lifted a body, and I saw the front part of the shoe which I recognised as Hector's. This man started to run with the body, I ran alongside, and said to him: who are you, this is my brother? "
A car stopped in front of us, a lady got out and said she was from the press, and offered us a lift to the clinic. We put him in the car. I don't remember how I got to the clinic, but the doctor said Hector was dead so I gave his details.
"I was so scared of how I was going to tell my mother. Two teachers from a nearby school took me to my grandmother's house. A neighbour phoned my mother at work, and when she got home at 5.30pmmy uncle was standing outside the house with me. She said she had heard on the radio that children had died. My uncle broke the news – she was calm, she showed no emotion.”
Courtesy: City of Johannesburg
Apart from Hector, another boy, 15 year old Hastings Ndlovu was said to have been shot first even though he died later. Most don’t remember him but he was also a victim of the uprising which had arisen because some teachers refused to teach in Afrikaans.
After visiting the Hector Pieterson Museum, we also touched base with the house of Walter Sisulu, just off the museum. A small bungalow with calm fences, the rather contained building faced a colourful school and was ample demonstration of what African leaders must learn from. Instead of amassing wealth and properties, their thoughts should be centered on service to humanity that they sought to serve in the first place.
The legacy leaders want people to remember can not be about rigging elections, amassing wealth and properties but what they did to make the lives of their people comfortable! They can not be happy at upturned noses of disdain from a deeply deprived citizenry who would rather spit into the earth on seeing them than offer smiles of embrace.
It was difficult to believe this was the house of a man like Walter Sisulu – the powerful Secretary General of the African National Congress!
On the trip we also saw and took photographs at the house of Winnie Mandela-Madikizela. Funny thing was it was the same weekend we were there that the story broke that her relatives had made away with her jewelry worth about four million rand!
Next Up: Nelson Mandela’s House/Museum and a guide who regaled us with tales of violence and elicited only laughter from an appreciative audience.