On the 16th June 1976, Sam Nzima (born Masana Sam Nzima) took one of the world’s most famous photographs. It was also one of the most heartbreaking images, depicting the lifeless body of twelve-year-old Hector Pieterson being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubu. Running alongside Mbuyisa was Hector’s distraught seventeen year old sister, Antoinette Sithole.
The photograph, which is considered by Time Magazine to be one of the 100 most influential images of all time, was published in The World, a Joburg-based daily newspaper targeting South Africa’s black middle class. The image went on to be published internationally, broadcasting to the world the horrors of the June 1976 student uprising, which saw close to 200 protestors being murdered by the state, with some estimates putting the figure as high as 700 mortalities. The initial number of deaths reported by the government was grossly inaccurate, with the state claiming that only 23 learners had lost their lives.
The photo changed the course of Sam Nzima’s life. He had been working as a photojournalist for The World and was being mentored by Patrick Rikotso, a friend he met while working as a waiter at the Savoy Hotel. Sam had run away from Lillydale, a small village in Limpopo, after the farmer his father worked for tried to force him to quit school to start work on the farm. Sam managed to complete high school via correspondence, while developing his knowledge of photography. He worked as a switchboard operator for the Chelsea Hotel in Hillbrow for a number of years and then approached The World with a story he had written a about a local bus driver. He was employed as a freelancer at first but by June 1976 Sam was employed by the newspaper on a permanent basis.
When Hector was shot, he fell on the corner of Moema and Vilakazi Streets and was carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo to Sam’s car. Journalist, Sophie Tema, drove Hector to a nearby clinic, where he was pronounced dead. Mbuyisa was harassed by the police after the photograph received international attention, and eventually went into hiding. During the TRC hearings Mbuyisa’s mother told the commission that the last time she had heard from her son was in 1978, when she had received a letter from him posted from Nigeria.
Sam too, was harassed by the police, eventually seeking refuge in his home town of Lilllydale, where he opened a bottle store. He was tracked down by the security branch from Nelspruit, who informed him that he was not allowed to leave his home for any reason and would be arrested if he did. To ensure that he complied with the order they checked up on him every Friday for three months.
Sam was offered jobs by both The Star and The Rand Daily Mail, after The World was banned in 1978 but, fearing for his life, he turned down the offers of employment, eventually becoming a member of the legislative assembly in the then homeland, Gazankulu. Later in life Sam ran a photography school in Bushbuck Ridge, where he also served on the municipal council.
After more than twenty years of fighting for the rights to his photograph of Hector Pieterson, Sam was finally given the copyright to the photo by The Star in 1998. Sam Nzima passed away on the 12th May this year at Rob Ferreira Hospital in Mbombela (Nelspruit) after suffering a short illness. He was 83 years old at the time of his death.
This coming Saturday we celebrate Youth Day in honour of Hector Pieterson, and the countless others who gave their lives on the 16th June 1976.