Black students in parts of South Africa were required by law to be taught in a mix of Afrikaans, English and native languages. On June 16, 1976 thousands of Students fed up with having to learn, what they viewed as the language of their Apartheid oppressor, Afrikaans, spilled out onto the streets in protest. Police tried to block the protest and events spun out of control leading to the police opening fire on the unarmed students. One of the first to be shot was Hector Pieterson. As his sister screamed in horror another student Mbuyisa Makhubo picked him up and carried him to a nearby car. A moment which was captured when photographer Sam Nzima took this iconic shot. Pieterson was pronounced dead on arrival when he got to the hospital.
According to the South African constitution the two official languages of South Africa were English and Afrikaans, a form of Dutch used by white South Africans. In 1974 it was ordered that Black schools in Soweto would have to teach part of their subjects in Afrikaans because as described by the South African education minister
“A Black man may be trained to work on a farm or in a factory. He may work for an employer who is either English-speaking or Afrikaans-speaking and the man who has to give him instructions may be either English-speaking or Afrikaans-speaking. Why should we now start quarreling about the medium of instruction among the Black people as well? … No, I have not consulted them and I am not going to consult them. I have consulted the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa …” — Punt Janson, the Deputy Minister of Bantu Education
This caused incredible friction in the school system as the students would have preferred to learn English and their native tongues rather than the language of their Apartheid oppressors. Protests started to spring up Soweto area, and students formed committees who secretly planed to stage a mass walk out on June 16, 1976. Secretly planned the walkout surprised teachers and police alike. While marching the mass of young students came upon a police barricade. While organizers tried to move the protest in a different direction stones were thrown, in response the police let their dogs attack the students. The students responded by stoning the dogs and then the police opened fire with live ammunition. The full number killed in the resulting riots is thought to be in the hundreds while over a thousand more were wounded, one of which was Hector Pieterson. Pieterson is often quoted as being the first killed but almost at the same time another child was shot and killed, Hastings Ndlovu.
The Pieterson family was originally the named the Pitso famiy but the their father changed their name to Pieterson in hopes of passing as colored, which in Apartheid South Africa allowed for more job opportunities. Born Zolile Hector Pitso, Hector Pieterson, wasn’t even supposed to be in the protest that day. At 13 years old and an elementary student the student planners didn’t want the young students to be involved. Yet he snuck out of school and followed his older sister, 16-year-old Antoinette Pieterson, in the march. After the police started shooting it was choas. Antoinette remembers what happened next:
“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. I asked him what he was doing there … 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.” — Antoinette Sithole
After the picture spread world wide the Pieterson family were harassed by the apartheid authorities. They wouldn’t even let the Pieterson’s body out of the government possession.
Hector died on the 16th of June 1976 but he was buried on the 3rd of July because the police didn’t allow us to bury him. They would give funny and stupid reasons … Anyway my grandmother knew Afrikanns very well, so it was easy for her to to talk to them … “So you’ve killed my grandson, now you’re giving us rules, it’s better to kill us all.” That is how the day came for us to bury Hector. — Antoinette Sithole
Antoinette was married off a year later, by her family, to offer her more protection but the marriage didn’t last. She remarried to Meshak Sithole and after Apartheid fell found a job at the Hector Pieterson museum giving tours around where her brother was famously killed.
The boy who picked up Hector was 18-year old Mbuyisa Makhubo. Nzima captured on film Makhubo carrying the boy to Nazima’s car where Nazima and another journalist raced Hector to a clinic where he was pronounced dead. After the photo became famous Makhubo was harassed by Apartheid officials and he was forced to go into exile. First to Botswana, then spending time in Nigeria from which he wrote his mother a few letters. In one letter from Nigeria he said he would go to Tanzania because he was very sick and the situation in Nigeria was deteriorating. The last letter his mother got was in 1978 after which he simply disappeared off the face of the earth.
Journalist Sam Nzima started his photojournalism career traveling and taking pictures while he bused around the South Africa. He sent his photo essay to the black newspaper, The World, who were impressed by his work and offered him a freelance position at their paper. In 1968 he was offered a full time position and was working for The World in ’76. He arrived in Soweto early that morning in June 1976 to find students peacefully making signs that denounced the apartheid system. When the protests started to turn ugly and police opened fire Nzima took six pictures of Makhubo carrying Hector. Knowing he had important shots he hid the roll of film in his sock.
“So I quickly gave the film to our driver and told him to go straight to our office. By the afternoon the image had been transmitted worldwide.”
Later he was stopped by police and forced to open his camera and expose other photos he had taken of the protests. Later after multiple police threats and fearing for his life he fled to his hometown Lillydale, close to the Mozambican border. There he opened the Nzima Bottle Store even though he was offered multiple journalist jobs he turned them all down out of fear the Apartheid police would kill him. In 1998 after years of legal battles The Star newspaper, who had ended up with the copyright, gave him the rights to his image.
In 2011 he was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga, an award for those that excel in the arts, by the South African government.