What these three photos can tell us about 16 June 1976

This image from an unknown photographer captures a youthful exuberance not generally associated with the student uprisings of 1976.
This image from an unknown photographer captures a youthful exuberance not generally associated with the student uprisings of 1976.

On Monday morning, 25 May 2020, Derek Chauvin, a police officer in Minneapolis, pinned George Floyd to the ground with his knee on his neck, for eight minutes and 46 seconds, until he stopped breathing. In South Africa, soldiers entered Collins Khoza’s home in Alexandra, poured the beer he was having over his head. An altercation broke out and he died, according to news reports, in front of his children. All around the world, from London to Paris, Black Lives Matter protests broke out. On June 16, South Africa commemorated the student march, organised Studying the images from that day, amidst all of the loss of black life today, and during the worldwide protests, leaves one with a sense of defeat, if not exhaustion. The timeline, from then to now, tells of the precarious loop that is black life, death always hovering, to befall at any moment. 

Black South African schoolchildren The iconic phot
Black South African schoolchildren The iconic photograph by Sam Nzima of the injured Hector Peterson being carried by Mbuyise Makhubu is the centrepiece of the memorial. (Photo: Gideon Mendel/Corbis via Getty Images)

Sam Nzima: Hector Pieterson. 

There’s a sequence marking time and trauma in the Sam Nzima photographs of Hector Pieterson, taken on 16 June 1976, during the student uprisings in Soweto. In the photographs, Mbuyisa Makhubu is carrying Hector Pieterson in his arms, with Antoinette Sithole, Hector’s sister, running along them. In the outbreak of chaos, they are seeking a car to rush the young Hector to hospital, after he was hit by a bullet. The photographs are iconic and, in every way, are a recording the history and trauma of the day. Sam Nzima was on assignment for the ‘The World’ newspaper, which he had joined in 1968, shortly after freelancing for them. He made six photographs of Mbuyisa carrying Hector. In 1976, shooting on his Pantex 35mm film camera, Nzima would have had to advance the film spool whilst running, keeping track of Hector, Mbuyisa and Antoinette, then focus the camera, whilst keeping distance. 

The progression of time, on Mbuyisa and Antoinette, remains the same, part horror, part trauma. To them, at the time teenagers, they are aware of the terrifying eventuality that confronted Hector. Recalling the moment for the Time Magazine,  Antoinette said, “The first thing that I spotted was my brother’s shoes,”.  She goes on to tell how her questions to Mbuyisa, whose name she got to know only two years later, were lost in the chaos that had broken out. Instead of answering Mbuyisa kept running, holding Hector, so he does not drop into his death. 

 “I saw blood coming from the side of the mouth. I panicked. ‘Can’t you see he’s hurt?’” she shouted at the man. “Who are you, where are you taking him?”, Antoinette recalls.

 It is in the 13-year-old young Hector Pieterson’s arm that the progression of time, of life itself, is frighteningly unmistakable. In one exposure, his arm is raised, slightly bent at the elbow, held in the air, closer to his body, by whatever will he had, a proof of some life still, there, barely. In another frame, Hector’s left arm has dropped, dangling in the air, even, god forbid, lifeless. At that moment, the arm seems to be a limb of its own, not that of a boy. Though this progression, amongst the chaos of bullets wheezing through the thick smoke of teargas, children running into each other, is physically imperceptible, the magnitude of the trauma it captures, is in the small details, the shifting of the arm, the sudden heaviness of Hector’s light body. He was at only thirteen, barely a boy, and yet, in that moment, he was as heavy as the rest of the world. 

It is unclear how the six exposures differ in framing, and size. The images must have gone been chopped. Some of them are captured from the side, others clearly from the front, in half, in full. The image that ‘The World’ chose was of Hector’s arm still up in the air, lifted by the will of a boy. There is nothing to the decision, is one assumption, the other, is that there is everything to it. Everything to that small gesture of complete will that still existed. 

The next day, after much argument between The World editors, the photograph was published in the evening Extra edition. The argument that there was no better illustration of what happening in South Africa won over that it would spark a civil war.  The effects of publishing the photograph were immediate. It was re-published around the world, launching Sam Nzima and the Apartheid struggle, the increasingly dire plight of black people in South Africa, to the world’s consciousness. 

Days after the image was published, Sam Nzima’s life was threatened, such that he fled Johannesburg to Mpumalanga, opened a bottle store, settled into a life of a different cadence, away from photojournalism, until his death on 12 May 2018, at the age of 83. 

Gugulethu, 1976. Cape Town. The 1976 Soweto riots
Gugulethu, 1976. Cape Town. The 1976 Soweto riots (uprising reaches Cape Town). The police have shot this man and are dragging him away from the mob some 100 or so yards out of frame. The idea being not to let the enemyA certain newspaper would not publish this picture. "The only complaint from Pretoria regards the picture usage was the cigarette in the mouth of the policeman dragging the unfortunate man". (Photo: Juhan Kuus/ Supplied)

Juhan Kuus: Langa, police dragging a man. 

This photograph appeared in the newspapers under deception. The photographer, Juhan Kuus, lied to his editors, telling them that the policeman in the photograph was trying to drag the man to safety, to help. In fact, the men had been shot by the police, in the 1976 uprising in Langa, Cape Town. In the photograph, he was being dragged like some kind of wounded prey out in the wild. When the image was published in a newspaper, the then Apartheid government, according to reports, only complained that it was unfortunate that the police was captured with a cigarette in his mouth. 

The photograph is a perfect representation of two worlds, colliding, collaborating, into a single image. In the background, the streets are empty, telling of another layer to the image. The background says that the crowd has dispersed, it does not tell you how, but from the man lying on the ground, his top being pulled off from him, his legs covered in blood, one can assume that it was not by congenial means. The other layer, far horrifying, is that the black man lying on the ground has been isolated and is being dragged away from his fellow country man. He is, at the moment the image is taken, terrified. Even much worse to think of the hours that would follow in the hands of racist police. 

The demeanor of the policeman and the man on the ground is another layer to the image. The layer is off extreme emotional opposites. The policeman, with his lit cigarette, is evidently triumphant, a man returning from his hunting expedition with his prey, dragging it as his trophy. There is clear terror on the eyes of the man on the ground. There is too, a familiarity to him. He is every black man, that appeared in the images in 1976. The man is clearly wounded, though it is not clear how much. His legs look as if they had been incapacitated. In the frame, his legs, bloodied, are dragging across the floor. They are not carrying him, they are instead, slowing him down, unable to perform their simple task of carrying him, this time away from his pending hostile interrogation, if not his death. That he is wounded, in pain, unable to walk, is no importance to the policeman. The man would have to try being human first, to the policeman’s eyes, and then perhaps, only then, might he be afforded any consideration. 

This image from an unknown photographer captures a
This image from an unknown photographer captures a youthful exuberance not generally associated with the student uprisings of 1976.

Photographer unknown: Euphoria

In the ongoing protests against the death of Floyd George and here in South Africa, Collins Khoza and others, at the hands of police, something else that has stood firm is the spirit of black people. In several videos, black people can be seen dancing, breaking into song and even committing their lives to one another. What, if any, joy can be found on the images of 16 June 1976? Not much, perhaps, but there must be. 

Not even the framing of a photograph can contain the kind of shared excitement that exists in its subjects. In this image, a group of children, all in school uniform, are marching on June 16, 1976. Hugging the edges of the frame are two women. With his back turned to the camera, a student, in a white shirt, appears to be leading the march. His feast is halfway through the air, at least, it seems like it is still travelling, elbow bent, but still to elongate, until the feast thrusts into the sky, breaking through the walls of heaven, if you believe. In contrast, to other images, this image has a different emotionality, even contrast to the spirit of the day. 

Scanning the faces in the image, there is no trace of fear, only euphoria. On the timeline of the day, it is clear that this image was taken before Sam Nzima’s image, before all hell broke loose, and thick teargas filled the skies with smoke, before bullets disturbed the sound of protest, and Hector Pieterson was hit by a bullet. 

There is something else in this image, something far more encompassing of the spirit of black people, something more than the terror inflicted by racist white police. It has the joy that black people biologically have, the fervour of every protest, the undulating emotionality of protests, how it can quickly shift from peace to chaos, though all equally important, in a minute. 

This photograph is important, in the recording and remembering of June 16, it tells the story of the students before they became caricatures of white police violence and assault. This is too how they should be remembered, as jubilant, like any child, full of abundant spirit. 

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