The Power of Imagery: The Death of Hector Pieterson

by on December 10, 2008 at 6:15 am


Hector Pieterson in the arms of Mbuyisa Nkita Makhubu, his sister, Antoinette Musi, running alongside. Photo by Sam Nzima, 1976.

My good friend Sameer at WITNESS is leading an online conversation in commemoration of today’s 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Here’s the question: What image opened your eyes to human rights?

Last week, as part of the We Blog the World tour in South Africa, we visited the Hector Pieterson Museum in Orlando West, Soweto. If you have never cried at a museum before, here’s your spot.

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Street behind Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum.

Hector Pieterson was 12-years-old on June 16, 1976 when he joined his fellow students to protest Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in the South African townships. As they were singing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, refusing to stop their approach, police open fired. Today it is known that Hastings Ndlovu was, in fact, the first student gunned down by police, but it was Hector who became the martyr and icon of South Africa’s liberation struggle because he was captured in the above image by photographer Sam Nzima.


Nzima wasn’t the only person to take photographs that day, but he was the only one to get them out without being confiscated by the police. (He stuffed the rolls of film in his socks.) His photographs were immediately published in The World, which led to widespread riots and protests all over South Africa. Hector Pieterson was, largely, South Africa’s Rosa Parks. Just like the Civil Rights Movement in the US didn’t begin with Parks, neither did South Africa’s liberation struggle begin with Pieterson. But both icons mark the tipping point when built-up pressure exploded into movements that would never step back.

I highly highly recommend that one day you make the trip to South Africa and spend at least an entire day in Soweto. There is nothing like being there, surrounded by all its history, for yourself. When we were outside the museum our guide pointed to a woman walking down the pathway. It was Hector’s sister, Antoinette Sithole, the very same person screaming in Sam Nzima’s famous photograph.


Antoinette Sithole walking through Orlando West, Soweto.

It’s amazing to see such history walking around in real life. But … in the meantime, Babak and Ismail have put together a truly incredible map mashup of the events that took place on June 16, 1976. Before you start clicking around on the map, however, I’d recommend that you read through their blog as well as the online book, “I Saw a Nightmare …” Doing Violence to Memory: The Soweto Uprising, June 16, 1976 by Helena Pohlandt-McCormick.

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Bonus: Check out this video by Ray Lewis of Graeme Addison, a South African journalist who was on the scene at the Soweto uprising of June 16, 1976.