TODAY   |  December 07, 2013

Hear the story behind iconic anti-apartheid image

Nelson Mandela had been in prison 13 years when high school students launched a protest, marking a turning point for South Africa. One teenage boy -- and an iconic photo -- became symbols of the need for change. TODAY’s Lester Holt reports.

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

>> reporter: nelson mandela in prison 13 years when high school students in seweto here. he was going to remain in prison another 14 years that protest marked a turning point in this country's direction and also how the world perceived what was going on here. it was one teenage boy, as well as a photo that became symbols of the 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 seweto uprising began.

>> it was plus/minus 20 thousand. can you imagine the number raining and making it more confusion?

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

>> we want to conconvey the message.

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

>> not at all. not at all. it was a peaceful march and just going to convey or message.

>> reporter: then bullets and tear gas fired by the police and young hector who wasn't supposed to be there and other scores of people were killed on that day.

>> i could see myself on the other end crying in desperation. the next moment, i was at the clinic. i couldn't believe that happened then. i was in disbelief.

>> reporter: the march became an uprising and seminole 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 coincide. a student up rising began in this part of seweto. it's just a few blocks from where nelson mandela lived and though he was in prison at the time, he remained a huge influence in this neighborhood and his life story served as a call to action .

>> i think the uprising was because of him, because we knew that he is serving so much years in jail. let us do something.

>> reporter: the upright siding 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 peace and -- harmony and abiding commitment to peace and world order , permit us no other course.

>> reporter: today in seweto, high school students too young to have known a life under apartheid visit the hector memori memorial. it is their history.

>> so that we can forget about it, we never can and try to live with it and make peace and 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 , you saw there, was honored was replica statue of that iconic hector peterson photo in 2006 . that same year, then senator barack obama visited the memorial and met with antoinette peterson, clearing a sign of how important that 1976 protest was in movement to end apartheid and free nelson mandela .