Among the worst atrocities and crimes against humanity of the 20th century was the implementation of the social and political system of apartheid in South Africa. The seemingly endless nightmare of racial segregation lasted from 1948 until 1994 severely restricting the rights, associations, and movements of the country’s majority of inhabitants.
The word “apartheid” means “apartness”. The large black population of Johannesburg was segregated to the “ghetto” of Soweto where the majority lived in overcrowded shacks. All but the most treacherous and menial jobs were allotted to white citizens.
Any form of protest against the regime was severely punished by imprisonment or death. Nevertheless, protests abounded; most peaceful, some violent. Among the peaceful protesters was Nelson Mandela who was imprisoned regardless for 27 years on Robben Island. Steve Biko, killed by his prison guards for his anti-apartheid activism, was emulated by the black youth who protested against the introduction of Afrikaans and English as the sole means of instruction in all African schools.
The June 16, 1976 protest turned violent and police killed at least 20 young students when they refused to disperse. Among the 20 was the innocent, 13-year-old Hector Pieterson whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. His untimely death was immortalized by photographer Sam Nzima, who captured the shot of Hector Pieterson dying in the arms of Mbuyisa Makhubo, an older student who was rushing him toward medical help with Hector’s horror-struck sister running by his side. It is an image that shocked the entire world.
Miraculously, in 1990, President F.W.de Klerk released Mandela from prison and his government drew up a new constitution effective in 1994 enfranchising all racial groups. Elections that year led to a coalition government and marked the official end of apartheid. In 1993 Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize for ending apartheid in a peaceful manner.
It is extremely moving and disturbing to visit the Pieterson Memorial and Museum two blocks from where he was shot. The red brick building “honors him and the youth who gave their lives in the struggle for freedom and democracy”. Inside the building is a garden of remembrance with the names of all who died in the uprising inscribed on loosed bricks. The photographic and audio visual displays ensure that we never forget the deadly struggle of these youth against the criminal injustices of apartheid.
8287 Khumalo Street, Orlando West, Soweto, Johannesburg 1800, South Africa
Tel: 27 11 536 2253
Hours: Daily: 10:00AM – 5:00PM
Admission: Adults: $3. Students & Seniors: $1.50