Hector Pieterson Museum

It’s almost hard to believe that it was only 33 years ago that the apartheid struggle came to its boiling point. It started as a peaceful protest. Frustrated with the policy that black education would be in Afrikaans instead of English, students from Orlando West Junior Secondary School took to the streets of Soweto in peaceful protest. On June 16th, violence broke out, marking the first day of what is now considered the Soweto Uprisings. The first student to be killed was Hector Pieterson, a 13-year-old student who was shot dead by a police officer. With Pieterson’s death, the situation exploded, resulting in the deaths of many more students. In the days following, unrest spread to other townships and cities around South Africa. Students responded with the burning of public buildings and any other property that might have been associated with “the system”. While there are no exact figures, it is estimated that between 700 – 1,200 students were killed.  The international community was quick to condemn the actions of the South African police. Many whites in South Africa also spoke out and demonstrated against the violent response to the protests. To control the media coverage, white journalists were banned from covering the unrest and uprisings.

Today, South Africa looks back at these events as what led to the struggle against the apartheid. While there had been violence, unrest, and protest before 1976, the student uprisings mark the beginning of the serious march towards a free and democratic South Africa. The 16th of June is now a national holiday in South Africa, National Youth Day, which remembers this day and the ever-important role of the youth South Africa has. 

The Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial commemorates this significant and tragic day in South Africa’s history. Opened in 2002, the Soweto museum sits at the center of the uprisings. It even features many windows that overlook where it all took place. The outside of the museum invokes serious contemplation of the tragic event. It features stone pillars, representing those who were killed and the stones that were thrown in retaliation. It features a water fall, representing the blood spilled and tears shed on the historic day. The water also runs under visitor’s feet, symbolizing how the event is all “water under the bridge” for the new South Africa. At the center of it all is the most well-known photograph taken at the uprisings, a student holding the limp body of Hector Pieterson.

While we have been to many museums in our time here at South Africa (five, including Robben Island), I found this one the most striking and profound. The inside of the museum gives visitors a thorough understanding of the situation. It features explanations and photographs detailing what led up to the uprisings, chilling photos and testimonials of the unrest in Soweto and throughout South Africa, as well as a courtyard with bricks in memory of the names of those who perished. While the museum is in honor of only a few days of history, they are days filled with great significance and emotion, days extremely important to better understanding the apartheid struggle. It allowed for the apartheid, as a whole, to be seen through a narrow scope. In a sense, the uprisings are understood as a microcosm for everything that was wrong and unjust about the apartheid.

The apartheid dealt with ideological concepts. The whites in South Africa wanted to prevent integration amongst races. While this is a simple concept on paper (albeit an incredibly racist and immoral one), the implementation of this ideal proved to be impossible for the whites. With pass cards, impossible ways of drawing the line between what made someone white or black; it proved impossible for the oppressors to implement. Looking at the situation though the microcosm of education in South Africa, you can see clearly how twisted and impossible of an ideal the apartheid was. Education was far from equal in South Africa. In 1976, R644 was spent annually on a white student. For blacks, only R42 was spent per student. This is a great example of how damaging the apartheid was for blacks. It promoted inequality, especially in education, what should be the ultimate equalizer and opportunity for social mobility. It also shows how powerless blacks were in the implementation of laws during the apartheid. Education taking places in Afrikaans made sense to the whites, but for the blacks it was detrimental and impossible to adapt to. Imagine a student in his last year of school, being taught subjects like algebra and science in a completely unfamiliar language. It was only 33 years ago when this all came to a boiling point. When most of our parents were around our age, attending school and starting their adult lives, the world looked on as the unjust apartheid began its collapse. Given how recent all this history is, I think the museum does an excellent job memorializing the event, a memory that has the potential to salt the wounds of  those directly effected. I don’t think we have such a tragic event to compare to in the United States. The civil rights struggle, the heart of which took place much longer ago, we still sometimes find difficult to memorialize in an appropriate way that doesn’t place blame or invoke negative feelings. While I think that the Hector Petierson does this incredibly well, how do you create a museum about such a divisive moment in recent history? How do you commemorate such a tragedy without offending those on either side at the time of the event?


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