David O’Sullivan in conversation with Hector Pieterson’s sister
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David O’Sullivan in conversation with Hector Pieterson’s sister Antoinette Sithole

20 Jun 2019 TRAVEL

David O’Sullivan

On Wednesday last week, in preparation for my breakfast show on Kaya FM tomorrow morning during which we will commemorate the 43rd anniversary of  the Soweto uprising, I met up with Antoinette Sithole in Soweto.

Her name might not be too familiar, but her image is known to many South Africans. In the most famous photograph taken on June 16 1976 in Orlando West, Soweto, Antoinette is the 17-year old schoolgirl running alongside a tall youth, Mbuyisa Makhubo in denim dungarees, their faces contorted in anguish. Mbuyisa is carrying a schoolboy who has blood dribbling out of his mouth. The boy is 12-year old Hector Pieterson, Antoinette’s brother. The photographer was Sam Nzima. The photograph was taken on a side road off Moema Street in Orlando West, less than 100m from where Hector had been shot by police that infamous day at the height of the Soweto student protests.

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I had interviewed Antoinette last year and she had mentioned that the memorial site outside the Phefeni Junior Secondary School on Vilakazi Street, where Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu both lived, which purports to be the site of Hector’s death is not the place. I took her up on an offer to show me where the events actually happened.

We met at the Hector Pieterson Museum, which features a huge enlarged print of the famous Nzima photograph. Tourists were mingling with two school groups – a contingent of  toddlers from a nearby crèche, and a crowd of young boys from St John’s Prep who were carrying a banner saying “St John’s supports Youth Day.” No one was paying any attention to my famous companion, and why would they? Antoinette is now 60 years old, but the resemblance to the distraught 17-year old in the photograph is still there.

Antoinette took me to a spot outside a nondescript house about 100m from the museum, down Moema Street. That’s where her brother was shot. The police were lined up on an open plot of land where the museum now stands. The memorial to Hector stands on the site from which the police shot him dead.

She recounts the events methodically and with stark clarity. She says she has played the event in her mind almost every day. She used to feel “very miserable”, but now she realises that she has a role to play in educating people about June 16 and feels “honoured” to do so.

She is clear about the site because the people who lived in the house where Hector was shot kept one of his shoes. In the photograph, Hector is missing a shoe. The people kept it for a few years and then threw it away. She only found out they had kept and then discarded the shoe about 10 years later.

On June 16, Antoinette was with a group of protesting children further down the road. She saw Mbuyisa pick up a child and turn to run down the road towards her. She couldn’t see the child’s face but saw the lone shoe on Hector’s foot. She knew that was her brother. As Mbuyisa ran past her, he didn’t say a word. She realised her brother was in serious trouble and that Mbuyisa was running in the direction of a nearby clinic. She ran with him. That’s when Sam Nzima took the famous photograph.

A lady got out of a car in front of them. It was journalist Sophie Thema, who was with Nzima in his car. She told Mbuyisa to put Hector in the car to transport him to the clinic. Mbuyisa broke his silence, saying: “He’s dead”. Antoinette had never met him before and had never spoken to him before. That was all he said the entire time.

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They drove to the Phomolong Clinic in Sisulu Street, Orlando West. Antoinette hammered on the clinic doors and windows. People were hiding inside, but quickly opened up. A white doctor, Dr Tim Wilson, examined Hector and confirmed that the little boy had died. When Antoinette looked around for Mbuyisa, he had gone. She never saw him again.

Today Antoinette gives walking tours around Soweto, focussing on Orlando West. She says it gives her great pleasure to teach people about the tumultuous events of the past. She goes to schools to give talks and finds the young people are very interested in her stories.

It’s remarkable to listen to Antoinette as she stands on the spot where great personal tragedy occurred and recounts the story as if it had happened just the other day. She gets a little emotional, but as she says she’s come to realise “this was the way history was supposed to be written”. She sees it as her mission to keep telling the story of her brother and the events of June 16, 1976.

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If anyone wants to contact Antoinette to go on one of her walking tours, send me details on david@kayafm.co.za, and I’ll put you in touch with her.

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