Nightly News   |  December 07, 2013

How one high school protest changed South Africa

It began as a peaceful high school protest near Nelson Mandela’s home. The protest turned violent, spawned an iconic photo and helped turn the tide against apartheid. NBC’s Lester Holt reports.

Share This:

This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> mandela had been in prison 13 years when high school students here in soweto launched a protest against the ruling apar thid government. although mandela will remain in prison 14 years the protest marked a turning point that changed the country's direction. one teenage boy and an iconic photo became symbols of a need for change. the young girl is antoinette peterson, the bloodied and lifeless boys in the arms of a stranger is her 13-year-old brother, hector. it was june 16th , 1976 , the day the soweto uprising began.

>> all of a sudden there was a shot. can you imagine that number running for cover?

>> reporter: it began as a peaceful protest by high school students against a government policy requiring them to learn in africans, the language of the white minority government.

>> students are like no we are not going to fight anyone. we are just going to convey the message. the one written on the plaquard.

>> reporter: you had no idea you were in danger?

>> not at all. not at all. to us it was a peaceful march, just going to convey our message.

>> reporter: but then tear gas followed by bullets were fired at the crowd by police, scores, including young hector, who wasn't even supposed to be there, were killed on that first day.

>> you're sort of torn, i could see myself on the other end crying in desperation. the next moment there was a killing, i couldn't believe that happened, it was just disbelief.

>> reporter: the march became an uprising and seminal moment in the battle against apartheid. there is a permanent marker on the corner where hector peterson died just outside the school. it was no coincidence the student uprising began in this part of soweto , a few blocks from where nelson mandela lived. though he was in prison at the time he remained a huge influence in this neighborhood and his life served as a call to action .

>> i think the uprising because of him, because we knew that serving so much years in jail, why are we sitting and folding our arms? let us do something.

>> reporter: the uprising would claim hundreds of lives before it was over but it would also severely damage the apartheid government and rally world opinion against it.

>> our own self-interests in an africa that lives in piece and racial harmony and our abiding commitment to peace and world order permit us no other course.

>> reporter: nowadays, soweto high school students too young to have known life under apartheid visit the hector peterson memorial. it was not the current generation's struggle but it is their history.

>> i don't think we can forget about it. we try to live with it and make peace and endure, over and above everything else, things are getting better .

>> reporter: a testament to the legacies of a young boy and a beloved leader. nelson mandela was honored with a replica statue of that iconic hector peterson photo back in 2006 .