Kid Lit Review of “Hector: A Boy, a Protest, and the Photograph that Changed Apartheid” by Adrienne Wright

This true story is based on events on June 16, 1976 in South Africa. Students in Soweto, a township outside of Johannesburg, planned a peaceful protest of a new education law that required Black students to be taught in Afrikaans rather than English. Afrikaans was the language of the white rulers of South Africa. South Africa was governed by a system called apartheid, which enforced discrimination towards and segregation of Black citizens.

Hector Zolile Pieterson was “an ordinary twelve-year-old boy” who went to the non-white school in Soweto. On June 16, however, Hector and a friend saw no one was attending school, and they gravitated toward the sound of chanting and singing by a mass of students heading toward the stadium where the protest was being held.

The police tried to block the protestors with tear gas and live bullets. Antoinette, Hector’s older sister, saw him in the crowd and yelled that he should run for home right away. But as Hector ran, he was shot and killed by police.

Photojournalist Sam Nzima captured a picture of Hector’s dead body being carried away. The picture was picked up by the international press, and, as the author writes at the end of the book in “After the Photograph,” “became a powerful symbol, opening the world’s eyes to the racism and violence of apartheid and providing change in South Africa.” She also notes that June 16 is now a public holiday in South Africa known as “Youth Day” in remembrance of those who died protesting apartheid.

The author also tells us that growing up white in South Africa, she saw the practices of apartheid and police, but it was something that happened to other lives, not her own. But she wanted to write a book about what happened, and she was able to speak both with Antoinette and Sam Nzima.

In Wikipedia one can learn more about what happened after Nzima took the photograph. The police confiscated most of Nzima’s film but he stuffed the role documenting the violence into his sock. The newspaper by Blacks and for Blacks, “The World,” published the photo the next day. Time Magazine reports that “by the next day, Nzima’s photo was splashed across the front pages of newspapers from New York to Moscow. Suddenly the world could no longer ignore the horror of apartheid. Almost overnight, international opinion hardened against South Africa’s apartheid regime.”

Nzima was forced to go into hiding because of the harassment he was receiving by the security police. After three months the police caught up to Nzima and put him under house arrest. He never took a photo again. The government shut down “The World” two years later, and raided the office. Nzima’s negatives are thought to have been destroyed.

Sam Nzima poses with his famous photograph showing Hector Pieterson being carried after being shot dead by police during the 1976 Soweto uprising. Photograph: Denis Farrell/AP via UK Guardian in obituary for Nzima who died at age 83 in 2018

Back matter includes a reproduction of Nzima’s famous photo, some thumbnail biographies, a glossary along with pronunciation guide, and list of additional sources.

Evaluation: This book written in graphic novel style for readers 8 and over and illustrated by the author in somber tones delivers a gut punch. It will help readers see the effects, not just historically in South Africa, but everywhere and in the present time, of racism, protest, and police violence. The fact that Hector was only 12 and was an “ordinary boy” caught in the wrong place will particularly resonate with readers.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Page Street Kids, an imprint of Page Street Publishing, 2019

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