1976 – A Country Re-Imagined (Series)

Imagine. The 1976 uprising never happened. Mandela was never released. 1994 never happened. Freedom never came. My name is Hector Pieterson, I am 48 years old and this is what happened…

June 16 1976
I was 13 years old on that day. It had been a chilly winter morning and I had struggled to wake up. I was now late for school. I was trying to tie my shoelaces while stuffing my mouth with bread and tea at the same time. I could hear a helicopter in the distance. It had become a normal sound. “Hector, Hector, hurry up! I’m not going to be late again because of you”, my older sister, Antoinette, shouted as she walked out the house. So I decided to put away the remainder of the buttered bread, I’ll deal with it after school. I sprint out the door, after my sister.

On our way to school, two of Antoinette’s friends join us. The girls chatter on and one mentions the marches that were supposed to take place on that day. “Apparently a lot of schools were going to march today. I’m so excited. I’m sick of this Afrikaans thing”, she laments.

“Haven’t you heard?”, one of the girls asks. “The police were tipped off. They’ve been arresting people since two days ago”. As she speaks, two police vehicles hurtle from a nearby corner at high speed. They roar past us, filling the street with dust. Instinctively, the girls dart into the nearest house to take cover. My sister must have thought I was coming behind her, I wasn’t. To this day, I’m still not sure why I didn’t run. I just froze. A helicopter flew past and hovered in the next street, creating more dust. I could hear a commotion coming from that direction. Policemen shouting and the sound of dogs barking madly. Through the cloud of dust, I spotted a young man running through the yard in one of the houses a few meters from me. He had jumped the back fence and was now sprinting towards the front gate. It was locked so he jumps the fence. Barely. He stumbles as he lands on the street and balances himself with one hand on the ground so he doesn’t fall. He is running towards me. He regains his balance and realizes I’m there and grounds to a halt, looking straight at me. He’s in bad shape. Swollen eye, sweat mixed with blood and completely out of breath. A moment passes and we just stared at each other through the whirling dust. Suddenly, he dashes off across the street. Towards the house opposite the one he just came from. He begins scaling the wall of the fence, holding himself up trying to get one leg over. I didn’t hear the gunshot, the blades of the helicopter thundered too loud, nor did I notice the sniper sitting in the flying machine. I just saw the young man’s chest explode, him jerking backwards and landing on the dirt road, right in front of me.

I also didn’t notice the two police vans drive up and stop behind me. I just felt a strong hand grab me by the arm. The hand turned me around violently. It was a tall, sunburnt white policeman in khaki uniform. “What are you doing here? Are you one of them?” he asked ferociously. I couldn’t
bring myself to answer. He was raising his right hand when, out of nowhere, my sister shouted, “NO, he’s not one of them! He’s not one of them. We were just walking to school”. She said this as she was frantically walking towards me. The policeman lowered his hand and clutched me by my uniform, nearly lifting me off the ground.
“Is she telling the truth, huh?” he barked.
“Y, y, yes!” I answered.
“Then listen here, my boy. You better walk from here straight into your classroom. You hear me? Otherwise, you see this scum here lying with his bloody lungs out?”, he grabs my chin and forces me to look at the dead body, “that will be you next time. Now, fokof!” he flings me to the ground. My sister lifts me by my hand and we did just as we were told.

As we walk away one of the policemen was on his radio, reporting on the incident, “yah, we got that little troublemaker, Tsietsi Mashinini. We got him good jong”, he says, chuckling.

Most of the student leaders were arrested that day. As a result, with no clear direction and not sure what to do, most students went to school as normal. After school, my sister and I walked back home. We didn’t say a word to each other. There was an ominous, eerie silence in the townships.
Apart from the mass arrests and police cars prowling the dusty streets of Soweto, not much else happened on the 16th of June 1976. The people were gripped by a certain kind of defeated anxiety. Finally, I got home and went straight for the bread bin. As I took a bite of my bread my hands were
trembling. Tears flooded my eyes. I looked outside and saw another police van packed with students driving past our house. I started thinking of Tsietsi lying on the bloody mud, imagining how it would have been if I were one of those who didn’t make it home that day.

To be continued …

Part 2, Part 3End