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A pietà for all seasons

10 June 2016

John Pridmore reflects on the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprisings

Truth and hope: Hector Pieterson, carried by Mbuyisa Makhubu, with Hector’s sister Antoinette Sithole by their side, in the photo by Sam Nzima

Truth and hope: Hector Pieterson, carried by Mbuyisa Makhubu, with Hector’s sister Antoinette Sithole by their side, in the photo by Sam Nzima

IT IS 40 years since 12-year-old Hector Pieterson was shot. He was not the only child to be gunned down by the South African Security Police in Soweto on 16 June 1976. Nor was he even the first child to fall that day (that was the 15-year-old Hastings Ndlovu).

We know about Hector only because a young photographer, Sam Nzima, happened to be there with the Pentax that he had saved up to buy. His shot of Hector’s limp body in the arms of an older fellow-student, Mbuyisa Makhubu, with Hector’s distressed sister Antoinette Sithole at their side, was to become one of most famous photographs of all time.

Forty years on, apartheid is over, although its malign legacy lingers; “the international community” (whatever that is) turns its attention to other scenes of conflict; those doing the intercessions no longer pray for South Africa. Lest we forget — lest our faith become too facile — we need to look again at that last image of Hector Pieterson.

My wife, Pat, and I were in South Africa for Holy Week and Easter. During our stay, we visited the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto. The museum tells the story of the Soweto Uprisings. Those demonstrations — peaceful enough until the notorious thug Lieutenant Theuns Swanepoel ordered his men to open fire — were in protest against the apartheid government’s ruling that swaths of the school curriculum should be taught in Afrikaans. The museum, in the Orlando West Township, is located near the site where Hector was shot.

Holy Week had set us in reflective mood. Standing in the museum before this searing image, enlarged so that its figures were life-size, I found myself asking how, as a Christian, I should read it. Weeks later, the image stays clear in my mind’s eye, still demanding that I make some Christian sense of it.

I realise that I have seen this picture before. My memory projects a sequence of images. I see a Turkish policeman at the edge of the sand, with the tiny body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi in his arms (News, 4 September). I see the figure of Jihad Masharawi, cradling his baby son, Omar, killed in Gaza by a Palestinian rocket that fell short of its target in Israel. I see a Syrian father bearing the lifeless body of his son, killed by a barrel bomb dropped on Aleppo. And I see — and I hear — the howling Lear with the dead Cordelia in his arms.

We say, falling back on a word that we use unthinkingly, that Sam Nzima’s picture is “iconic”. But perhaps, inadvertently, we have used the correct word; for, in the Orthodox tradition, an icon is there to awaken us to truth, if we stay sufficiently still in spirit to attend to it properly.

We contemplate the picture by which Hector will always be remembered, and we find it merging with all those other images of someone cradling a dead child. And then these images become one with yet another. As we ponder these pictures, we see that each is a pietà. The images merge.

As Mbuyisa Makhubu approaches me along that dusty Soweto road, he extends towards me the body of the crucified Jesus. Mary laments over Hector Pieterson, lifeless in her arms.

I learn from St Paul that such reflections are not some kind of clever theological Photoshopping. Paul — astonishingly — spoke of how he “completed in his flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1.24). That, of course, is what he chose to do.

But Hector Pieterson — who made no such choice, and who, no doubt, would have much preferred to mess about with his friends than to get himself crucified — he, too, is impaled on a cross. Simone Weil teaches us, as, for that matter, King Lear does, that crucifixion is not only an event in the story of Jesus. Crucifixion is constitutive of the human condition.

We went to the Soweto museum early in Easter Week. On Easter Day, we had been in St Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg, where we had rejoiced — in the thrilling fashion possible only in an African congregation — that Christ is risen. Before we left the cathedral, we paused before a bronze sculpture that was placed there just over a year ago. It is a further casting of a sculpture that will be familiar to many visitors to St Martin-in-the-Fields in London.

That sculpture, the work of the late Chaim Stephenson, is of an adult bearing the body of a dead child. It is not a mechanical representation of the figures in Sam Nzima’s photo, but a personal — and most powerful — response to it.

The bronze in St Martin’s was dedicated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1994, as a memorial to “the victims of violence and injustice in South Africa”. (I remember how he had us dancing in the aisles.) The casting of this same work in Johannesburg Cathedral bears an eloquent inscription, expressive of the conviction that the death of Hector Pieterson, as of so many others in “the struggle”, was not in vain. The inscription reads “Sinethemba,” meaning: “We have hope.”

Yes, we do have hope. But it is all too easy for us to drift into the cut-price consolations of the “theology of glory” which Simone Weil so excoriated, as did Søren Kierkegaard before her. I am glad that our visit to the Hector Pieterson Museum came after Easter Day. In that place, we were wrenched back to Good Friday; and Good Friday is where, for just a little longer, we must stay.


The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a retired priest living in Hove.

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