Nz­ima’s pho­tos of apartheid SA changed the world’s mind­set

Sowetan - - Opinion -

Ev­ery gen­er­a­tion, ev­ery na­tion, has an iconic mo­ment. For the Amer­i­can civil rights move­ment that mo­ment was when Dr Martin Luther King Jnr de­liv­ered his I Have a Dream speech dur­ing a march on Wash­ing­ton DC on Au­gust 28 1963.

For the box­ing world I want to ar­gue that one of those mo­ments of great­ness came in 1965 when Muham­mad Ali floored the un­beaten heavy­weight be­he­moth Sonny Lis­ton in the first round in one of the most memorable up­sets in Lewis­ton, Maine.

For South Africa, that historic mile­stone is what I want to call the “Sam Nz­ima Mo­ment”. Sam who? Not many peo­ple know who Nz­ima was. Even though Nz­ima, 42 at that time, was not a head­line-grab­bing pho­tog­ra­pher, he did not sleep on the job – in other words, he knew what “time it was”, to use the slang of the era.

As a staff pho­tog­ra­pher at the premier black daily news­pa­per The World, he was one of a few jour­nal­ists who’d been tipped off that “some­thing big” was go­ing to hap­pen on the streets of Soweto on June 16 in 1976.

Just how big that “some­thing” was go­ing to be was any­one’s guess.

When Nz­ima arrived at Naledi High School around 6am in the morn­ing, stu­dents had al­ready massed out­side the premises, pre­par­ing plac­ards that bore such mes­sages as: “Away with Afrikaans”, “We are Be­ing Cer­ti­fied but not Ed­u­cated.”

Even then, Nz­ima felt a thick sense of fore­bod­ing.

It did not take long be­fore stu­dents started burst­ing forth into the streets, chant­ing slo­gans and wav­ing their plac­ards. Some aerial pho­tos taken by the po­lice at the time show the viewer what ap­pears to be hu­mon­gous cater­pil­lars writhing through the land­scape.

They were not cater­pil­lars, those were chil­dren. Tens of thou­sands of them run­ning in the streets, to­wards a pre­ar­ranged des­ti­na­tion.

They were not to get there. Be­cause the po­lice sud­denly ap­peared. At the cor­ner of Moema and Vi­lakazi streets in Or­lando West there was a bang. The chil­dren scat­tered. There were screams. A young man in delela dun­ga­rees emerged from the crowd, car­ry­ing a limp body of a boy in full school uni­form.

Then a girl ap­peared, shout­ing at the young man to let go of her brother. Nz­ima had been click­ing away all along, cap­tur­ing the ac­tion.

The fol­low­ing day the world woke up to the hor­ror of the June 16 mas­sacre as doc­u­mented by Nz­ima.

The young man who’d been car­ry­ing a boy was later iden­ti­fied as Mbuy­isa Makhubu, the boy was 13year-old Hec­tor Pi­eter­son, and the girl was Hec­tor’s 17year-old sis­ter An­toinette.

Thanks to this im­age, the world could no longer ig­nore the hor­ror of apartheid. The US con­demned the shoot­ing, and ac­tivists world­wide be­gan lob­by­ing for eco­nomic sanc­tions, which even­tu­ally brought the apartheid gov­ern­ment to its knees.

For Nz­ima, the picture brought mixed feel­ings: while he be­came an in­ter­na­tional celebrity, in apartheid South Africa he be­came one of the state’s enemies. He was ha­rassed by the se­cu­rity po­lice who wanted to know what had hap­pened to Makhubu.

Nz­ima had to quit his job, leave Jo­han­nes­burg and seek refuge in the home­land of Gazankulu. In 1978 The World was shut down.

Though the picture was iconic, Nz­ima did not re­alise ma­te­rial ben­e­fits from its pub­li­ca­tion, as copyright resided with the com­pany which em­ployed him.

Nz­ima’s son Thu­lani said this week that although it took his fam­ily 22 years to con­sol­i­date his fa­ther’s rights to the Hec­tor Pi­eter­son im­age, it gave the fam­ily plea­sure knowing his fa­ther lived to ex­pe­ri­ence the global recog­ni­tion he re­ceived for his self­less con­tri­bu­tion.

Born in 1934, Nz­ima died last Satur­day in Nel­spruit.

We dare not forget him.


Late pho­to­jour­nal­ist Sam Nz­ima will be given a spe­cial pro­vin­cial of­fi­cial fu­neral in Mpumalanga on Satur­day next week.

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