Story of a black-and-white photograph
Photographer Sam Nzima was in Soweto on 16 June 1976, when police ope instruction. His photographs from that day – including the iconic image of work helped open up opportunities for other black photojournalists, Nzima
The first photograph captured their innocence – a sea of smiling faces – as the school children began their march. Photographer Sam Nzima had stepped away from the crowd, onto the side of the road, to shoot the blackand-white picture. It was possibly one of the first he took on a morning that would change everything forever. By the end of that day, he would be famous – and a marked man.
Nzima is known for taking the iconic photograph of the mortally wounded Hector Pieterson on 16 June 1976, but his other images, which are seldom seen, provide context to that fatal day and tell more about the man he was.
Nzima’s day had begun early.
The World newspaper had been tipped off that there would be a mass march of schoolchildren in Soweto to protest the compulsory introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools.
Together with reporter Sophie Tema, Nzima headed out and met pupils at the Naledi High School in Soweto at 6am. He watched as the children wrote out the placards they planned to carry.
As the sun climbed higher in the winter sky, the students began to move. The plan was to head to Orlando Stadium, where they would air their grievances. As they marched, children from other schools joined.
At the Morris Isaacson High School, student leader Tsietsi Mashinini climbed a tree so he could be seen, and stressed to the 15,000-strong crowd that they should remain peaceful.
But, already, things were turning violent. Nzima’s Pentax camera turned to the skirmishes that were flaring. In one photograph, students, surrounded by swirls of tear gas, hold dustbin lids as shields as they throw stones at the police.
Then there is the photograph of the black police officer aiming his revolver at the students. Exactly when Nzima took these pictures on 16 June is unclear.
‘He’s not using a long lens’
Taking that image of the police officer was a brave act. And it is a photograph that James Oatway, who is of a new generation of photographers, finds particularly impressive. “To me, it is a very powerful picture because he’s close. He is not using a long lens; it is maybe a 50mm lens or less. And the cops are shooting, which makes it very unusual,” he says.
At Orlando High School, the children paused to wait for others to join the march. It was there that they heard the news that a big police convoy was on its way.
The students were told to disperse. Instead, they held their ground and sang Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, which Nzima would later say agitated the police commander who drew his pistol and fired. Then all hell broke loose as other police officers opened fire.
Students scattered as shots rang out; Nzima hid in a house.
“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,” Nzima would tell a reporter from Forbes magazine in 2014.
Nzima would later tell that, in those frenzied moments, he just took six frames of Hector Pieterson.
His first photographs were taken from a distance, as Nzima closed in on Makhubo, who had Pieterson in his arms. A wide-angled shot reveals the masses of children behind him, running up the street. Nzima would later say that police were still firing.
“Remember, his camera is manual focus, and he is shooting fast action. That is a serious talent,” says Oatway. “And his adrenaline would have been pumping.”
Nzima got in closer, stepped to the side of Makhubo, and, there, he got it – the photograph that would come to symbolise the struggle against apartheid.
Photo that went around the world
In the decades since the picture was taken, the image has been reproduced millions of times. The photograph has been scrutinised for symbolism; it has even been compared to the image of Mary carrying Jesus.
But the Pieterson caught in Nzima’s lens in those moments was already dead or dying. A 12-year-old boy who, his sister Antoinette would tell the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) years later, had joined the march not out of political conviction, but out of curiosity.
The last picture Nzima took of Pieterson is of the boy being bundled into the VW Beetle Tema was driving. His eyes half open, his school shoes flecked with blood. He was rushed to a nearby clinic, where he was declared dead.
Fearing that the police would confiscate his camera, Nzima hid the film in his sock and made his way back to the offices of The World. There, after much debate, editor Percy Gobozo decided they would run the Hector Pieterson picture on the front page.
From there, the photograph took on a life of its own, quickly appearing in newspapers around the world.
The others who were there
Photographer and historian Omar Badsha has researched which photographers were in Soweto that day. It appears that, besides Nzima, there were just two others – Peter Magubane and Alf Kumalo.
Peter Magubane was in Orlando West on 16 June. He would tell of his experiences that day at the TRC hearings in 1996.
Magubane spoke of having to talk down a crowd who had pulled a Western Board official from a van and had wanted to kill him.
Later he found police officers standing around the body of Dr Melville Edelstein, one of two white people who were killed on 16 June.
“I photographed that and went to near Tshabalala garage in Jabavu. There, I found the body of a man [who had been] driving a truck that belonged to his employer. He was asked to hand the truck over. He refused and said, ‘I am working for my children.’ He was mercilessly killed and set alight.”
He continued: “Soweto was a different place altogether that day. Police were not able to come into the
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