A living memory
She wasn’t really political, she says, but she was involved in the shattering political events of 1976 — and the famous photograph of a youth shot dead by police flashed her face around the world.
Antoinette Sithole is the elder sister of Hector Pieterson, the young man killed on June 16, 1976 — the start of the Soweto Uprising.
Their father changed the Tswana family name Pitso to Pieterson (conventionally spelled “Petersen”) to seem more “coloured” and therefore enable him to earn a better salary under apartheid law. “I don’t mind how people write it,” says Sithole. “It’s got its originality,” she laughs.
The Pieterson family, says Sithole, was not involved in politics and did their best not to attract the attention of the authorities. “We didn’t want to get involved in things that would cause harassment,” she says. They were a church-going family. But word about the planned march was passed on by schoolchildren, and Sithole felt strongly about having to study in Afrikaans. Her brother, she says, was never meant to be there. “He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Sithole is the figure to the left in the background photograph (opposite), taken by Sam Nzima, showing her dead brother in the arms of student Mbuyisa Makhubo. The way the photograph became the most striking symbol of the uprising and the brutal state response to it took Sithole by surprise, and thrust her into the spotlight. It was, she says, “like a bombshell that came out of the blue”.
That moment changed her life. “I can’t run away from that,” she says. “For me it’s a big change.” Now Sithole works as a guide at the Hector Pieterson museum in Soweto.
The eldest of six children, she lived with her grandmother. Pieterson, the only son, alternated between living with his mother and his grandmother. Their grandmother, says Sithole, was very strict.
Their father was a carpet-fitter in Johannesburg. Their mother worked at a butchery. Years after Pieterson’s death they divorced. Her mother has since remarried, her father died earlier this year, and Sithole says proudly that her younger sister is in the police force.
Sithole is now married to her second husband, Meshack, and is in the process of learning his home language, Zulu. They have two children, aged 15 and 11. Sithole’s eldest child (22) from her deceased first husband is named after his posthumously famous uncle.
Meshack works as a warehouse manager and together they lead a peaceful life. Sithole says she is not a celebrity; her life is very normal. At home she “sometimes reads, watches telly and sleeps late” which is the way she prefers it.
After the 1976 uprising Sithole stopped attending school, returning only in 1979. In between, she says, “I just kept myself busy doing dramas.” These dramas, about domestic life in Soweto, were a way of proving her independence to her strict grandmother.
Before the uprising Sithole wanted to study pharmacy because she enjoyed science. “I loved it [science], I was always visualising myself coming up with new things and helping people.” But her schooling came to an abrupt end in 1980 when she married and left school to care for her ill mother-in-law. She wrote three matric subjects in 1998, and still dreams of finishing grade 12.
Now, she feels, doors have opened in South Africa. “We can take the children wherever they feel that they want to go.” She is amazed at how language no longer segregates people and found her first opportunity to vote in 1994 very exciting.
Sithole finds it stressful working at the museum because she has to relive June 16 every time people ask her about that fateful day. “I thought working here would help me cope with healing. Sometimesit does.” To make the healing process easier, she sometimes imagines that her brother’s death happened to someone else, who has told the story to her.
Her unwanted fame has taken her overseas several times: once to Germany in 1989 to a school named after Pieterson, once to The Netherlands in 1999, and three times to Sweden.
Sithole wants to let Pieterson’s death go, to let her brother rest in peace. She says, philosophically, that “we will all die”.
Yet it is, nonetheless, hard to deal with. “The only thing that [consoles] me is that I was there when he died. I was lucky — I got to say goodbye.”
Sithole says that she tries hard to remain an anonymous face. Sometimes, when people recognise her, she tells them they are looking at a sister or a cousin of the girl in the photograph, and not actually her.
The only time she puts herself in the public eye is when journalists, like me, bother her for interviews.