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Hector: the famous child whose face is unknown

​​memorial2.jpgThe museum opens on Youth Day, 16 June, but don't expect to come away with an image of what Hector looked like - the family do not have a single snapshot of their famous son.

Hector, 12, was one of the first casualties of the Soweto uprising of 16 June, 1976, when over 500 people were killed as they protested over the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in township schools. A news photograph of the dying Hector being carried by a fellow student, was published around the world. Shortly afterwards journalists approached the Pieterson family for pictures of Hector.
Photographs were handed over with a promise they would be returned - but they weren't. Now, 26 years later, the search for the photographs continues, with the chief curator of the Museum, Ali Hlongwane, saying: "We have the phone number of one of the photographers, now retired, who we hope will give us a photo."

So you won't see snapshots of Hector but what you will see is one of Sam Nzima's six photographs showing the unconscious Hector being carried by fellow student Mbuyisa Makhubo, with Hector's sister, Antoinette Sithole, running alongside. It's not the legendary one that was shown around the world, but the following one in the sequence of six.

And, when you visit the museum you will get to see Antoinette herself, as she will be working at the museum, giving guided tours.

Hector's father won't be at the museum opening - he died several months ago. Hector's mother, Dorothy Molefi, lives in nearby Meadowlands, but she won't be attending the opening on Sunday. She says: "Members of the family will be attending, so I won't go." She adds: "I'm very proud that there's a museum for Hector, and that children are learning about him in history. We still visit his grave every few months."

The museum is located two blocks away from where Hector was shot and fell, on the corner of Moema and Vilakazi Streets, in Orlando West. But there are houses on all four corners of that intersection, so the museum is located up the road, in Kumalo Street.

The museum is an impressive red-brick building, two storeys high, with irregular shaped windows in a haphazard pattern. The community requested that the building be in keeping with the houses surrounding it - small red-brick, semi-detached houses with iron roofs.

Walking through the large rust-red door, the immediate impression is of a cathedral, with its double volume ceiling, tall thin windows, stripped wood floors, concrete columns, and tall red-brick walls. The wall opposite the door is filled with an enlarged photograph of marching children, with banners and posters decrying the use of Afrikaans in township schools.

The museum follows the chronology of the build-up to 16 June, starting with the way tensions were building amongst Soweto's school children, with one school after another one going out on strike.

Hlongwane is sensitive to the differing accounts of why that day's protests exploded the way they did.

There is some debate about the extent to which several student organisations, in particular the South African Students Organisation and the South Africa Students Movement, were involved in the lead-up to the uprising. The role of the liberation movements - the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress - is also unclear.

"The re-representation of the story is an ongoing process," says Hlongwane. This means that even after the museum has opened and completed its displays, it will continue to record people's stories and add to its displays.

"We may get someone come into the museum, look at the photograph, and say: 'This is me', or 'I know that face'. We will then record and archive their experiences," explains Hlongwane.

There seems no doubt about the role of various cultural activists in building solidarity among the youth, inspired by Black Consciousness philosophy. Writers, poets, dancers, singers and painters captured the injustice of apartheid, and some of these works will be on display.

Build-up to 16 June

But i t is generally agreed that tensions in schools had been growing from February 1976 when two teachers at the Meadowlands Tswana School Board were dismissed for their refusal to teach in Afrikaans.

Students and teachers throughout Soweto echoed this sentiment, and the African Teachers' Association of South Africa presented a memorandum to this effect to the Education Department. From mid-May around a dozen schools went on strike, and several students refused to write mid-year exams.

On 16 June, students from three schools - Belle Higher Primary, Phefeni Junior Secondary, and Morris Isaacson High - planned to march from their schools to the Orlando Stadium, about one kilometre from the Museum, to hold a meeting. But before they got to the present Museum location, the police met them, in Moema Street.

There are conflicting accounts of who gave the first command to shoot, but soon children were turning and running in all directions, leaving some children lying wounded on the road.

A little known fact is that another boy, Hastings Ndlovu, was actually the first child to be shot on that fateful day, but Nzima, a photographer from The World, was on the spot when Makhubo picked up Hector and ran with him in his arms towards a car. Hector was taken to a nearby clinic and pronounced dead on arrival. Hastings died the same day.

The photograph Nzima took came to represent the anger and tragedy of the day and the months of clashes that followed between police, schoolchildren and protesters.

A major part of the museum's presentation of the story of the day will be done through TV monitors, recording the world's footage of the events, as South Africa had only just got television. Text panels scattered throughout the museum give eye-witness accounts and background viewpoints.

Inside the museum

The museum is arranged in a series of interleading spaces joined by ramps, moving you closer to Nzima's photograph. The photograph is enlarged and waits for you at the top of the second ramp, on the wall.

The interior is dominated by pleasing red brick walls, with some areas plastered and painted white and black, and others left in grey concrete. Large square windows at the top of the ramps give views of significant sites around the suburb - Orlando Stadium, the Orlando Police Station, Moema Street, and several of the schools in the suburb. Combined with black steel banisters and high ceilings, the effect is stunning.

One of the few walled-in rooms in the museum is the Death Register. This room will record the names of the children who died over the period from June 1976 to the end of 1977.

There were positive consequences that came out of the day and the events that followed. The thousands of students who joined the broader liberation movement ensured that resistance to apartheid was maintained and escalated. International solidarity movements added to the pressure put on the apartheid government.

Furthermore, the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction was dropped. More schools and a teacher training college were built in Soweto. Teachers were given in-service training, and encouraged to upgrade their qualifications by being given study grants.

And most importantly, urban blacks were given permanent resident status in South Africa. Previously they had been considered "temporary sojourners" with permanent residence only in the designated homelands, often inferior pieces of land far away from industrial centres and jobs.

Like the recently-opened Apartheid Museum at Gold Reef City, this much smaller museum - the first museum in Soweto - has a simplicity which allows the drama of the story to have maximum impact. But unlike the Apartheid Museum, this museum is in the township, with the landmarks visible from the museum windows, and two short blocks from where Hector was shot and fell.

​Image by Gauteng Tourism
Hector: the famous child whose face is unkno wn