Hector Pieterson Residence (formerly Letaba)

Young activist, anti-apartheid icon
Birthplace: Soweto

By 1976, students had had enough.

Few images capture as powerfully the courage of student anti-apartheid activism than the grainy, black-and-white photograph of dying Soweto school boy Hector Pieterson.

Taken by news photographer Sam Nzima during the Soweto Uprising on 16 June, 1976, it has become a global symbol of resistance – and a sobering reminder of the sacrifice and bravery of thousands of pupils and students dedicated to upholding their basic rights to freedom and education.

One of the first casualties of the uprising against the enforced use of Afrikaans in African schools, investigations revealed that 13-year-old Pieterson, despite claims to the contrary, was killed by a police bullet aimed straight at him.

Tragically, Pieterson was one of the youngest protestors involved in the uprising – an explosive mass action movement driven by the youth and brutally resisted by security forces.

Agents for change

Records show that around 566 schoolchildren died during the protests, with another young boy, Hastings Ndlovu, reportedly the first child to be shot.

What started as a peaceful protest, observers said, soon snowballed into violence.

The decision to introduce Afrikaans – perceived as the ‘language of the oppressor’ – as a medium of instruction at African schools, triggered resistance among the youth, many of whom were inspired by anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement.

The Bantu education system, enacted in 1953, was branded by many as ‘gutter education’ and labelled as a direct attempt to create subservient Africans in an apartheid South Africa.

By 1976, students had had enough.

Fateful day

June 16 is now observed as ‘Youth Day’ – a public holiday in South Africa – in honour of the children and teenagers who rose up against their government.

In the 1990s, a memorial to Hector Pieterson was erected in Orlando, Soweto – just two blocks from the place where he was shot.

Several years later, the Hector Pieterson Museum was opened behind the site and houses Sam Nzima’s photograph.

For those who were there, the heartbreak of witnessing Pieterson’s martyrdom is a bitter memory.

“I saw a child fall down. Under a shower of bullets, I rushed forward and went for the picture,” Nzima was quoted as saying.

“It had been a peaceful march, the children were told to disperse, they started singing (Nkosi sikilel ‘iAfrika). The police were ordered to shoot.”

His photograph told a thousand stories – not least the bravery of 18-year-old high school pupil Mbuyisa Makhubu, who picked up the dying Pieterson and rushed him to safety, Pieterson’s devastated sister Antoinette Sithole at his side.

Always in our hearts

The students of Letaba Residence unanimously chose Hector Pieterson’s name during the naming and renaming process.

His strength of character, sense of responsibility, unswerving commitment to change and unflinching resistance to oppression made him a natural choice, they said.