Thursday, July 19, 2012

Day 2 - Hector Pieterson Museum

After we changed out of the clothes we were in since Tuesday(!), we had travelled to Soweto for lunch and a tour of the Hector Pieterson Museum.  Soweto is a region of Johannesburg that may sound 'African', but is really an abbreviation for "South western townships".  During the late 1940, as the white government began evicting black residents from areas designated as 'whites-only', townships in the southwestern section of Johannesburg were formed.  Many evicted blacks migrated to this new area, which, by the early 1960s, ultimately came to be known as Soweto.

Soweto is remembered for a mass student demonstration in 1976, where police fired upon a crowd and killed about 200 unarmed citizens.  Hector Pieterson, only 13 years old, was one of the first  to be killed.  Why were the students demonstrating?  The government had decreed that most school instruction had to be done in only English and Afrikaans, the language of the white South Africans.  Black South Africans would no longer receive most of their schooling in their native langauages.  Police arrived on the scene, over-reacted at the size of the crowd (estimated at about 2000) and fired to disperse the protestors.

This museum, not far from the spot where Pieterson was killed, commemorates that day and the demonstrations that followed. 

Since the restaurant was close to our destination, we decided to walk through the neighborhood to the musuem.  The walk turned out to be somewhat of a surreal experience, as we encountered street vendors hawking souveniers, people playing drums and dancing; basically a very 'festive' atmosphere.  Granted, it was 'Mandela Day' in South Africa, but I just wasn't expecting this type of commercialism and off-hand attitude as we approached the site of a memorial to a slain child.  
Things did quiet down as we turned the last block and walked a long street to the Museum.  Along the way, simple stone plaques were erected that told each piece in the story of that fateful day (June 16, 1976).  This is one of them:

As we made our way to the museum building, two things caught my eye.  First, a large granite memorial to Hector Pieterson:

It says:
"In memory of Hector Pieterson and all other young heroes and heroines of our struggle who laid down their lives for freedom, peace and democracy"
Second, there was a very large version of the famous image of Hector being carried away from the scene:

Hector Pieterson being carried away (sister Antoinette on the left)
As we entered the museum, a large glass window lets you look out onto an inner courtyard. 
This is what I saw:

You'll notice the glass contains an inscription.  It is a poem by Mazisi Kuene called 'Congregation of the Story-tellers at a Funeral of Soweto Children'   The first verse is:
We have entered the night to tell our tale
To listen to those who have not spoken
We who have seen our children die in the morning
Deserve to be listened to
We have looked on blankly as they opened their wounds.
In the background, all around the grounds of this courtyard, are bricks.  These represent the victims of the Soweto demonstration as well as victims from subsequent demonstrations that took place in the aftermath of the Soweto tragedy.  The woman at the front desk told me that, in all, there are about 500 memorial bricks in the courtyard.  Each is inscribed with a name and the date that the person lost their life.  Here are just two:

It is a simple, but powerful memorial that is made even more dramatic by the way the bricks are positioned.  They follow no pattern or order, they are everywhere, in a variety of positions - in essence, just as the victims probably were at the time of their death.

The rest of the musuem provides evidence in visual, written and audio format that illustrates the tension and oppression in South Africa from the white government.  There are TV screens showing clips from resistance leaders, eyewitness accounts from those on the scene, as well as perspectives of the protest from white leaders.  (Sorry, the museum only allowed photography in the courtyard, so I can't share any other images)  

In reading the comments from white leaders, you get a sense of what the blacks were up against.  This 1963 quote, from H.F. Verwoerd, who was the Minister of Bantu Education, is a perfect example of the elitist attitude adopted and, when posible, enforced by white leaders: 
“When I have control over native education, I’ll reform it so that [non-whites] will be taught from childhood that equality with [white] Europeans is not for them.” 
Through many laws and decrees, Blacks in South Africa were left with extremely limited educational opportunities.  It is no wonder they protested - it is unthinkable that the response they received was violence and death at the hands of police.

The museum is a moving tribute to Hector Pieterson and the protests that followed.  It is not, however, for the squeamish.  There are several graphic accounts of the violence, including one in particular that recounts the details from the autopsy report of an eight year-old girl killed in Soweto.  Her name was Lily Mithi, but she was known in the coroner's report simply as "Body #2498". The large 10-foot display has excerpts from the report, describing the entry and exit of the bullet that took Lily's life.  

While I was struck by the gruesome details, it was clear that those in charge of this memorial did not want to simplify what was a horrific and tragic event.  The story, in all its gory details, needs to be told and in such a clear way that there are no doubts as to what happened and how.     

1 comment:

  1. Long live the spirit of Hector Peterson long live!