A snapshot of Sam Nzima
The photo that made him famous cost him his career and almost his life. His death may bring to life his plans for a school of photography
Ihardly remember the drive to Sam Nzima’s house in Lilydale, Bushbuckridge, in 2014, but I can recall a few things about the day itself. Nzima, most remembered in South Africa’s public consciousness for his photographs that captured the dying moments of Hector Pieterson on June 16 1976, wanted to use the occasion of his 80th birthday to raise money for a school he was hoping to build.
More than a celebration of a personal milestone, the event had the tinge of a fundraising gala.
Although his children proffered platitudes about the father Nzima was, they also held up images of his work to be auctioned for the purpose of raising money for the construction of the envisaged photography school.
I didn’t think of it this way back then but what we were witnessing were the long-term effects of apartheid, manifested through a man this system had targeted and sought to wither.
Since the publication of those damning images, Nzima became an enemy of the state, with a directive for his life and career to be flushed. “Whenever you find Sam Nzima taking pictures, aim at him, shoot at him, and we’ll come back and fill in the form and say it was a stray bullet,” said Nzima of the instructions to Deryck van Steenderen in a filmed video interview.
Nzima had participated in the interview to assist in advocating for the amendment of the Copyright Act. “Indeed, the policeman who was in charge of that police group, he phoned me to tell me that I must choose between my job and my life. I asked him, ‘What’s the problem?’ He said, “We’ve got an instruction to kill you. That picture of yours, it has gone as far as Russia. That communist country has used the picture in a magazine, front-page cover.”
It was the United Press International agency that had sold the picture to the Russian publication, through the agency’s relationship with the Argus Printing Company, which owned the copyright to Nzima’s work.
In the same interview, Nzima says that he was not given any royalties for the photo but was, at some point, given R100 as a token of appreciation. The picture was later banned in South Africa.
Choosing his life over his career, Nzima went home to the Eastern Transvaal village of Lilydale, where he was placed under house arrest. He gave up photojournalism and at some point ran a bottle store. When he was eventually awarded the copyright to his image by Independent Newspapers in the late 1990s, it was, by his own admission, a case of too little too late.
Despite driving out to meet Nzima on that day, I did not get the chance to speak to him for anything amounting to a proper sit-down interview. He was Mr Party, mostly silently taking the scene in and all the speaking happening on his behalf instead.
In a convoy led by his son Thulani Nzima, we drove out to the site of the proposed school. It was nothing more than a sandy plot of land, its perimeter marked out by logs.
Following the news of his father’s death, I again phoned Thulani Nzima. Speaking about the status of Nzima’s plans since their announcement on his 80th birthday, Thulani says that building blocks needed to be put in place to make sure that a foundation was created. The foundation he speaks of will be the Sam Nzima Foundation.
“We had to make sure we had a board running the affairs of the foundation. We had had some ideas about fundraising and moved on to presenting to national and provincial government. We are now moving ahead full steam. If anything, my dad’s passing will be an inspiration for everybody to create a lasting legacy that Sam Nzima would have been proud of. There has been a lot of interest and they are pushing to support this.”
Nzima, who works in the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency, says that the case of his father (who was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in bronze in 2011) should not be seen as your run-of-the-mill posthumous honouring.
“In the past, I have been very vocal about the government not looking after legends while they were alive and I don’t like this idea of memorialising people by naming buildings and roads after them. I think the school will be a fitting tribute to him,” he says.
Sam Nzima’s interest in photography was first piqued by a teacher’s box camera. He later bought himself a Kodak Box Brownie, which he used to shoot pictures of tourists at the Kruger National Park during school holidays. In the 1950s, he picked up further skills from a colleague at a hotel where he worked. He later freelanced for The World after sending photos of his bus trip to the publication. He joined the publication full-time in 1968.
Celebration: Sam Nzima at his 80th birthday party in 2014. Photo: Oupa Nkosi