In the foreground of a crowd of Black student protesters is a tearful Mbuyisa Makhuba, a high school student, running with the small, limp body of 13-year-old Hector Pieterson and his screaming sister, Antoinette, running beside them.
The teenager’s story is told inside the museum under the heading, “An individual life can change society.” It begins: “Hector Pieterson lost his life under police fire on June 16, 1976 during a student march protesting Afrikaans as the language of instruction in African schools. He was thirteen years old. News of his death and the violence that subsequently erupted in most African townships in South Africa spread rapidly across the world. In his death Hector Pieterson became a symbol of the plight of the black South African youth under the yoke of Apartheid.”
It continued, “His public funeral commemorated, as does this museum, all those who died as a result of the tragic events of June 16, 1976—a turning point in the struggle towards a true South African democracy.”
Hector Pieterson became one of many martyrs of the fight against apartheid, a rigid system of racial segregation designed to keep the White minority in control of the country’s political, economic and social system.
In fact, Pieterson’s last protest march was prompted by the ruling National Party’s decision to force Black schools to use Afrikaans—which Bishop Desmond Tutu called “the language of oppression”—and English in equal measure.
On April 20, 1976, students at Orlando West Junior High School went on strike, refusing to go to school. The protest quickly spread to other schools in Soweto. On the morning of June 16, an estimated 20,000 students started walking from the junior high school to Orlando Stadium, where they had planned to hold a mass rally before continuing to the regional office of the Department of Bantu Education.
Instead of allowing the students to walk peacefully, police barricaded the march route and unleashed dogs on the crowd. According to some news accounts, students stoned the dogs and police soon began opening fire on the students, killing 13-year-old Pieterson and 22 others that day, all but two of whom were Black. At the end of a series of protests, called the Soweto uprising, estimates of those killed ranged from 176 to more than 600.
The violent attack on the children thrust the African National Congress to the forefront of Black political protest and ignited international protests. But that did not curb the all-White police force’s appetite for violence.