Image: Deputy President David Mabuza delivering the eulogy at the special provincial official funeral of Mr Masana Sam Nzima, Lillydale, Mpumalanga Province
No other South African photographer is more closely associated with the Soweto uprisings of June 1976 than Masana Sam Nzima. Sam, who passed away in 2018, became world- famous for the powerful and moving image he took of the dead body of Hector Pieterson being carried by another learner. The house in the small village of Lillydale in Bushbuck Ridge, Limpopo Province, where Sam grew up and had lived at the time of his death, was recently turned into a museum. According to Sam’s son, Thulani, the family believes that turning his father’s house into a museum is the best way to honour his legacy. For Sam the house was not only a physical home but also a spiritual one. The fact that the museum opened in Youth Month, which commemorates the Soweto uprisings, makes the event so much more significant.
Nicknamed “Mr June 16”, Sam had shown an interest in photography at a young age. He bought himself a Kodak Box Brownie camera while still at school and began taking pictures in the Kruger National Park during school holidays. Determined not to become a farm labourer like his father, Sam went to Johannesburg in search of employment. While working as a gardener and then as a waiter, he completed his high school education in the mid-1950s by doing correspondence courses. During that time Sam became an avid reader of The Rand Daily Mail and The World and soon he became interested in photojournalism. He started taking black-and-white pictures after another photographer, Patrick Rikotso, taught him some photography skills. Sam clearly had a talent for photography because after he had submitted some of his photographs to The World, the editor invited him to freelance for the paper. Sam did so well that he was appointed as a full-time photojournalist at The World in 1968.
Sam was still working for The World when he took the photograph of Hector Pieterson on the corner of Moema and Vilakazi Streets in Orlando West, Soweto, on 16 June 1976. The image shows a fatally-wounded Hector being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubu and Hector’s sister, Antoinette, running next to him. Sam was the only photographer who happened to be close to where the learners were marching and being shot at by the police. Years later, when Sam was interviewed about that fateful day, he said: “I saw a child being shot and falling down. I knew this was my moment. I had to capture this.” Sam took six shots with his Pentax SL camera and the third shot happened to be the best one. The World published the black-and-white photograph the next day and since then it has become emblematic of the brutality of the apartheid regime.
Soon after publication of the Hector Pieterson photograph, Sam became a target of the security police, who went after him and other photojournalists who covered the Soweto uprisings. Fearing for his life, he decided to return to Lillydale, where he started a photography school. After battling for years to obtain the copyright to his famous image, it was only returned to him in 1998. The Order of Ikhamanga (Bronze) was conferred upon Sam for his outstanding contribution to photojournalism in South Africa.
Today Sam’s world- famous photograph remains as powerful and haunting as when it was first published. In fact, the image seems to take on new meanings as time goes by. According to journalist Feizel Mamdoo, South Africa’s relationship with Sam’s photograph “is ongoing and open-ended as it continues to reference and absorb the circumstances of the country”. This statement is particularly relevant today with the Black Lives Matter movement’s renewed focus on police brutality and human rights.
The new museum in Lillydale will not only honour the legacy of the photographer who froze the brutality of the apartheid state in a single image, but it will also keep alive the spirit which that image embodies for posterity.
Anon. Hector Pieterson, http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/hector-pieterson.html, viewed 2020-06-29.
Anon. Masana Sam Nzima, http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/masana-sam-nzima.html, viewed 2020-06-29.
Anon. Late Sam Nzima’s house turned into museum, http://www.sabcnews.com/sabcnews/late-sam-nzimas-house-turned-into-museum.html, viewed 2020-06-28.
Mamdoo, F. The shifting meanings of that June 16 image, http://www.mg.co.za/article/2019-08-08-00-the-shifting-meanings-of-that-june-16-image.html, viewed 2020-06-29.
Mbuli, M. The late Sam Nzima tells of that fateful day, http://www.lowvelder.co.za/627175/the-late-sam-nzima-tells-of-that-fateful-day.html, viewed 2020-06-28.