Hector Pieterson Museum

Thursday, January 24, 2008, 01:07 AM
Posted by Charles Griffith


Yesterday, our final full day in South Africa, we visited the Hector Pieterson Museum. I cannot say I really knew what to expect from this visit, because I had not heard anything about Hector Pieterson before, but I can definitely say now that the museum honored what proved to be one of the most important events of the push to end apartheid. Having read Kaffir Boy, I knew a little bit about the Soweto riots and the subsequent student protests in other townships in the Johanessburg and Cape Town regions. Mark Mathabane’s depiction of these incidents would leave a sour taste in anyones mouth, so I did know that going to Soweto would be yet another eye-opening part of our trip.

Still, once we arrived at the Hector Pieterson Museum, I was once again at a loss of words over the images in front of me. The photograph of Hector Pieterson, thirteen years old at the time, having been shot and killed during the first of the many riots to follow in Soweto, being carried in the arms of Mbuyisa Makhubo, an older child participating in the protest, was as moving as anything we have seen on our trip through South Africa thus far. It really made me reflect upon all the examples of bravery and heroism involved in the movement to end apartheid we have come across so far. Attached to the image, however, was a quote from Makhubo’s mother, which read “Mbuyisa is or was my son. But he is not a hero. In my culture, picking up Hector is not an act of heroism. It was his job as a brother. If he left him on the ground and somebody saw him jumping over Hector, he would never be able to live there.” Whether she wants to recognize it or not, I believe that Hector and Mbuyisa were both heroes in the movement, but I had not looked at it from the perspective of the actions being a responsibility or a job until I saw this image. Yet, it was this same brotherhood, this same determination, this unyielding care, that eventually led oppressed to their freedom in South Africa.

I left the Hector Pieterson Museum with many questions. Primarily, I wondered why it took so long for the students to rebel and what finally broke down the gates and caused the students to protest. Again, I thought back to Kaffir Boy, remembering Mark Mathabane’s reflection of his life during these times as a student. One of the main motivators was the mandatory use of Afrikaans, the white man’s language, in black schools, although this was simply one problem along with a much greater, long term frustration. “The World” magazine, on February 25, 1976, noted that the true cause of the protests was the students anger because “God like decisions by white officials- even cabinet members- on matters of ultimate importance are just not enough. The old dictum that whites know what is best for blacks is no longer acceptable.” Quite simply, the black students, as a microcosm of the entire black population, were finally ready to fight back to regain the freedom that had alluded them for their entire lives.

The riots were brutal, to say the least. Other than Hector Pieterson, according to Mark Mathabane, about 800 students were murdered during the riots. The police officers retaliated with what could be considered guerilla tactics, opening fire and emitting tear gas in all parts of the ghettos. The modern weaponry was simply too much for the black students to physically overcome, but there was no doubt that the rallies had made an impact towards the future. While the riots continued, the government used the media, which it had full control over, to downplay the intensity of the havoc in the ghettos, so as to hide their own murderous sins. As we have learned throughout this class, not all whites in South Africa during Apartheid were racist, however, because whites were so attached from the blacks at the time, the white citizens who did not stand for Apartheid had no idea how bad the treatment of non-whites really was. These riots opened the eyes of many whites in South Africa as well as throughout the world, and although freedom would not be granted for more than a decade longer, the determination shown by the black students, beginning in 1976, would open the doors for the final push which eventually led to a free South Africa.

Naturally, my reflection on our visit to the Hector Pieterson Museum forced me to relate these incidents to everything I have seen in the past three weeks. I must admit that before I came to South Africa, I was blind in a sense because I had no real notion of how horrible the treatment of non-whites during Apartheid was. Having witnessed the effects of Apartheid, I feel as though it should be remembered as another Holocaust. I am dumbfounded as to why we are not educated more in America on the history of this country. My high school had an exchange program with another high school from Cape Town and I was good friends with one of the exchange students, yet I knew nothing of the intensity of Apartheid. Why did I not know of this? Why do we not look at the plight of the oppressed in South Africa and see how hard the community has worked to overcome their past? Why can we not show the same forgiveness that Modise spoke to us about? Why had I never heard of Steve Biko, a true hero and a Martin Luther King, Jr. type figure in his own right, before this trip? Why is a majority of the poor population dying because of HIV-AIDS, when everyone knows there is a problem? Why am I in one of the most beautiful places in the entire world, but I feel like people here are too depressed because of their oppression to even recognize the beauty we were so lucky to see during the past three weeks?

I do not have answers to these questions, but I do feel like my eyes have been opened to a problem that I never would have recognized if it were not for this trip. Maybe it is best that we leave with our eyes open, yet still wondering what can be done. I would love to come back to South Africa sometime in the future and witness the continued progress toward the empowerment of all of its citizens. It breaks your heart to see the hope on the faces of children, only to be outweighed by the face of hopelessness on the faces of their parents, knowing that it may be a long time before the happiness of youth is maintained for an entire lifetime for too many South Africans. The pieces are not yet in place for everyone here, but I hope they continue to come into formation. Education is being pushed, but the supplies, teachers and funding simply are not in sight. Children aspire to achieve great dreams, but the necessary steps are not yet in reach. Still, I will leave South Africa this evening knowing that there is still a chance and that this is a very young movement. The progress that has been made in the brief time since the end of Apartheid reassures me that the determination to overcome is still present. South Africa is truly a beautiful place, as are its people, and although it will surely be a struggle for many more years, I am confident that true freedom for all people will exist in the future.

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