Sam Nzima was an African photojournalist that anyone who ever picked up a camera in search of truth and justice in this continent should aspire to be – fearless, smart and dogged. He took a picture that shocked the world and inspired a generation – yet he paid a terrible price for taking it.
Like many understated heroes he was a mild-mannered gentlemen who wore his eminence lightly. Not for him the bitterness of old age or bombastic pride about the brave exploits of his youth amid the fire and fury of Soweto.
In December 2014 I chatted to him and returned his warm handshake, as editor of Forbes Africa, as he told our magazine his engrossing story of the day he took the picture of the dying Hector Pieterson in the heat of the Soweto uprising on June 16 1976. “I got out from the house, the police had ceased firing, and I saw a little child falling down. There comes this tall boy Mbuyisa [Makhubo] and picked him up. As Mbuyisa picked him up, I went with my camera. I was also shooting with my camera, under the shower of police bullets. Mbuyisa was running to the nearest car, the nearest press car was our Volkswagen Beetle. I managed to shoot six sequences of him carrying Hector. My colleague Sophie Tema opened the door and they put Hector inside. Hector was certified dead upon arriving in Phefeni Clinic,” says Nzima recalling the harrowing scene as if it were yesterday.
Nzima risked his life to smuggle the picture out in his sock through angry police lines. He was even mindful to fill his camera with empty film so the police would tear it out thinking they had put a stop to his spreading of the truth.
His newspaper, the World in Johannesburg, didn’t even want to run it fearing it would spark a civil war; editors relented and put it on the front page. The shot captured succinctly the pain and terror of the day armed police gunned down teenage schoolchildren. It was a picture that swayed world opinion against the brutal apartheid regime. On the anniversary, every year, Nzima told us how he would kneel and pray for the lost young souls of Soweto.
The shot also wrecked Nzima’s life and put his life in danger.
“After two days I received a call from the station commander at John Vorster Square, he wanted to have a cup of coffee with me. Percy Qoboza was my editor at The World. He advised me to stay away from the police if I don’t want to come back as a corpse,” said Nzima.
Police effectively banished Nzima to his homeland in Mpumalanga in north eastern South Africa where he was to eke out a bleak living for decades. It took him 22 years to get the copyright of his famous picture back. Even then, there are photographers around the world, who have never set foot in Africa, who are doing good business selling copies of the shot for hard currency.
Awards came in, in latter years. In April 2011, South Africa’s then President Jacob Zuma awarded Nzima with the Order of Ikhamanga for excellence in liberal art. Yet Nzima was never lauded like many of his colleagues across the continent.
Nzima – despite lucrative offers – clung on to the ancient camera that took the historic shot that wrecked his life. He went to his grave in hospital in Nelspruit, in Mpumalanga, on May 12, with no intention of selling it, nor his soul.