extract from States of emergence growing up in apartheid South-Africa: Aspects of Kendell Geers’ art production whilst living in South-Africa 1988 — 1998, Warren Siebrits, Johannesburg, 31 January 2007
[…] Although the 50s and 60s was a great period of prosperity for the white community the cracks were starting to show. The only protection white middle-class suburbia needed was from themselves and their policies. The culmination of decades of discriminatory policy and practice came to a head in June 1976. The outbreak of largest race riots ever seen in South Africa marked a clear turning point in the country’s history.
Although the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction was the initial flashpoint commentators agree that the poor socio-economic conditions in the townships and deep-seated resentment at being regarded as second class citizens were the true reasons for this insurrection. Although these riots were the catalyst for the subsequent political changes, the price in human life was high. According to figures released by the South African Police Services (SAPS), more than 16 000 rounds were fired in Soweto alone, killing 172 blacks and injuring 1 439 others. Prof J.J.F. Taljaard, the head State Pathologist declared 229 post mortems were performed between 18 June and 18 August on the Johannesburg West Rand. Of these, about two thirds of the people had died of gunshot wounds. In the Johannesburg area 68 were found to have been shot from behind.
These painful reminders of the past would re-emerge in 1993 when Kendell found the official mortuary register from the 1976 Soweto riots discarded on a rubbish dump in Newtown, Johannesburg. UNTITLED (1976) utilised one of the most sinister found objects ever to be exhibited in South Africa. It was written in the same hand by an office clerk whose job it was to keep the register up to date. All the entries were in alphabetical order with some marked with a red ‘R’ in the margin. This indicated someone who died as a direct result of rioting. On closer scrutiny Kendell was shocked to find Hector Pietersen’s name clearly recorded in blue ink.
Hector Pietersen was the first victim of the Soweto uprisings on 16 June 1976. As it turned out the majority of the hundreds of entries were riot victims, mainly from Soweto and surrounding areas. Pietersen was the first demonstrator to be shot dead. Only 12 years old and with blood pouring from a bullet wound to the head, the image of his limp body being carried through the streets of Soweto, was seen on television screens and printed in newspapers around the world. Now 30 years later this image still remains an iconic anti-apartheid symbol.
Seventeen years later and less than one year before South Africa’s first democratic elections, it was decided by the apartheid government to destroy as many incriminating documents and official records as possible. Many were destroyed but a number remained intact, including this particular mortuary register. The discovery of this document and its subsequent exhibition at The Everard Read Contemporary in Rosebank posed many uncomfortable questions for the South African public at large. Why had the document been discarded in such a careless and callous manner? Why was Hector Pietersen’s body brought to a mortuary in Newtown, a great distance from where he died in Soweto? On further investigation it turned out that a remote mortuary in a whites-only, non-residential part of Johannesburg had been selected to house many of the dead from the Soweto uprisings. As relatives of the deceased would only think of looking at local mortuaries in Soweto, no bodies could be located and identified immediately. Even worse, the Pass Law System prohibited black people access to these areas. By placing the bodies in a remote mortuary the number of reported dead would be reduced. The thinking was to reduce the levels of anger, hostility and resentment in the townships towards officials in the aftermath of the unrest.
The state, in the run-up to the elections in April 1994, tried in vain to retrieve this incriminating document by sending a strongly worded official letter to the gallery owner Trent Read. The letter, written on a Department of National Education letterhead and dated 3 February 1994, read:
Dear Mr. Read
It has come to my attention that an official inquest register has been obtained by Everard Read Contemporary and that the register is being offered for sale. The exact details are not known to me, but according to my information the register was picked up at a dump site at the Johannesburg Magistrates offices. I wish to point out that in the case of such a register actually having been obtained, it would remain an official record and state property which may not be alienated and should not have been allowed to be alienated. I would appreciate your kind assistance to clarify this matter.
Marie Olivier — Director: State Archive Services (acting)
The sphere of legislative and constitutional power of the once feared and reviled apartheid juggernaut had come to a halt. UNTITLED (1976) was purchased in May 1994 by MuseumAfrika in Newtown and is now held less than a kilometre from the Newtown Mortuary – whose staff had originally discarded the item in the first place. The sinister pathology of the apartheid era ended with the dawning of the New South Africa. However, the violence, injustice and horror suppressed and condensed in a document of this nature can never be diminished by the passage of time. […]