Bullet from behind put her in wheelchair for 31 years

Eric Naki and Khanyisile Nkosi

Eric Naki and Khanyisile Nkosi

Had there been a photographer when 17-year-old Poppy Buthelezi was hit by a bullet, an image very similar to that of Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying a dying Hector Pieterson, would have been captured to tell her painful story.

As with Pieterson, she was also picked up by another youth as she lay on the ground bleeding from a bullet wound and taken to hospital. But, unlike Hector, she survived.

The schoolgirl was in the thick of things when Soweto erupted on June 16 1976 and witnessed it all, oblivious that a single incident of revolt would change her life forever. The uprising has left her confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life - a total of 31 years.

In her last interview with Sowetan in June, Buthelezi, who died last Friday after a short illness aged 48, related the event and her subsequent ordeal.

If Hector symbolised those who lost their lives, Poppy became a living symbol of the hundreds maimed on that fateful day in 1976 when apartheid police opened fired on protesting students in Soweto.

She had not expected the police to react so viciously to a peaceful protest by school children against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in black schools.

She was a among Senaoane Junior Secondary School pupils who joined other school children with their placards denouncing Afrikaans. Buthelezi remembered the group going from school to school, asking other children to join in the peaceful protest until they reached Morris Isaacson High.

"On our way to Orlando, Tsietsi Mashinini and Khotso Seathlolo came and told us that Hector Pieterson had been shot. That was when we started destroying everything that belonged to the white man. In a minute bottle stores and offices were burnt down. I had never seen students that angry. Police were all over shooting at us," she said.

When she arrived home later that day, her father was unaware she had participated in the protest.

"I remember my brother getting on top of the roof and telling us that the whole of Soweto was dark with smoke."

She thought she had escaped the bullets. It was never to be. When she sneaked out of her home to fetch her school books from where she hid them, disaster struck.

"On my way back, that's when I was shot. I didn't see the police, they drove in private cars. I was shot from the back. The bullet went through the upper part of my body and and exited in front, leaving a big hole. I fell to the ground in pain."

Goodenough Nkomo saw her lying on the ground and picked the limp schoolgirl and ran with her to hospital, just hours after Hector Pieterson was killed.

"I remember telling him to tell my family that I was dying. I was in a coma for three days, my eyes and tongue were black from the bullet poison. Nurses thought I wouldn't make it," she said.

Poppy Buthelezi is survived by her daughter, Ayanda, 16, two sisters and two brothers.

She will be buried at Lenasia Cemetery tomorrow. Her funeral service will be held at home in Protea Glen from 8am to 11am.