On June 16, 1976, some 20,000 students in Soweto (a township southwest of Johannesburg, South Africa) gathered to march in peaceful protest against the implementation of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. The decree represented a significant attack from the apartheid regime on the already struggling education system available to students labeled “non-white.” Unlike white students, who received a free and mandatory education, parents of children classified as “non-white” had to pay tuition and for books send their children to non-compulsory schools where they were taught by teachers who were paid a pittance in appallingly poor conditions. The majority of students did not speak Afrikaans, nor did many of the teachers, so the transition to this new language would make it virtually impossible for many students to learn.
The students planned to march from the Orlando West suburb of Soweto to Shap Stadium for a rally, but they encountered police led by Colonel Kleingeld. Kleingeld fired the first shot, and violence erupted as students fled or threw rocks at police, who in turn loosed dogs and fired tear gas canister and bullets at the students. A young man, Hector Pieterson, was shot, and photographer Sam Nzima snapped what would become the iconic image of the uprising, in which Hector’s body is carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo as his sister, Antoinette Sithole, runs alongside.** The violence led to more than 150 deaths, and in the following days students across the city and notably from the University of Witswatersrand joined in the protest. The decree was eventually repealed in 1979, but the student uprising is credited with reinvigorating the anti-apartheid campaign by organizing youth against the regime. If you want to know more, Helena Pohldant-McCormick has an amazing digital book project on the student uprising that is well worth checking out.
I went to the Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial twice during my visit to Johannesburg, both times as part of township tours of Soweto. I had no idea what to expect because the museum does not have a website or much of an online presence, at least not that I’ve been able to find beyond a few short blurbs on wikipedia and travel websites. I was impressed with the museum, which interprets the events of 1976 and contextualizes against both what happened before and after, and most impressively, includes discussion of lasting impact of the events and their interpretation and commemoration.
The museum constructs its narrative using extensive oral history testimony from many sides of the conflict; students, parents, and police. One of the things that stood out most to me was that there was a real effort to convey what happened in all its confusion and nuance. Contrasting interpretations are offered, as is testimony that complicated ideas about innocence in guilt. In particular, I was struck by the inclusion of the story of a young man who took part in the looting of a shop, probably because of how such reports in the US have been used to discredit the acts of rioters in Ferguson. The museum presents the participants as human beings with agency, and there is no effort to cast them as passive victims in order to make it clear that the violence committed against them was criminal.
For me, this was the most important aspect of the museum. In the US, we have a tendency to want to paint our conflicts in the most black and white terms possible; we like our heroes to be paragons of virtue and our villains to be flawed and malevolent. The problem is that history is made up of the acts of human beings who are inherently flawed and rarely all good or all evil. When we perpetuate these ideas in our presentations of history, we encourage the spread of these ideas in our larger culture. It perpetuates the idea that the only real victim is one who is totally innocent, not just in the context of the crime committed against him or her, but of anything ever. It’s why Trayvon Martin was labeled a thug. It’s why the Ferguson Police felt the need to inform the public that Michael Brown was suspected in the theft of a box of cigars on the day he was shot by Officer Darren Wilson. It’s the reason people wonder what rape victims were wearing.
Our cultural institutions are often reflections of the values we hold as a society. While they cannot single-handedly reform attitudes, they are uniquely placed to encourage dialogue about the past and the issues of race, class, gender, and justice that we still deal with today. When we visit these types of sites, we bring with us values and ideas that can be upheld or challenged by what we see. These sites should be places where we are encouraged to embrace complicated ideas and stories, and then carry that willingness to be uncomfortable and uncertain into the rest of our lives.
*South Africa had a number of racial classifications under apartheid, each of which conveyed a different level of privilege (all subordinate to white, of course). I place “non-white” in quotations because it is the language of the regime; I only use it here to refer to the laws of that period, as I recognize that it is no longer acceptable, and to convey the arbitrary nature of racial classification under apartheid.
**This photograph is widely available online, but I have chosen not to show it here because I do not have the permission of Sam Nzima. The image has a long history of incorrect attribution and appropriation of which I do not want to be a part. You can easily find it by clicking the link above or simply typing “Hector Pieterson” into the search engine of your choice.