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

Mail & Guardian - - Photography - Kwanele Sosibo

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

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