Salute and hats off to Nzima
Lensman invited the world to see state brutality
Born: August 8 1934 Died: May 12
What made Sam Nzima morph from an ordinary newspaper photographer to a decorated world-class icon?
Born in Lillydale in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga, Nzima died on Saturday at the age of 83. The acclaimed photographer‚ Struggle activist and recipient of the Order of Ikhamanga will be given a special provincial official funeral in Mpumalanga next weekend.
The hard-to-explain splitsecond reaction to the apartheid evil, or the presence of mind, or both, must have created a rare opportunity for the newspaperman to capture the picture that would remind the world of the brutal nature of apartheid, and the despicable cruel event of 1976 that ended the life of Hector Pieterson, only 12 approaching 13.
Nzima was the only lensman to capture for his newspaper The World, and the international community, the rare iconic image of the dying young boy. Today Pieterson would have been a mature adult of 54 or 55.
Soweto on June 16 1976 was burning. The students marched in the streets to protest against the apartheid system that required them to receive instruction through the medium of Afrikaans. When students questioned the imposition, the protestations were met with police brutality and firepower.
The lifeless and limp body of Pieterson captured in Nzima’s lens was profound. It jolted around the globe to the ugly and grotesque face of apartheid.
Pieterson’s limp body, with blood oozing from it, and the weeping figure of Mbuyisa Makhubo carrying it, and Pieterson’s sister, Antoinette, sorrowfully running beside the dead body of the young boy, were stark symbols to dramatise the moment of inhumanity meted out by oppression and injustice.
The picture catapulted Nzima to the status of a liberation fighter. There should be no gainsaying he was a dedicated photojournalist, with a nose for news. But the irony of it all was that Nzima was indifferent to the liberation politics that defined the Struggle to eliminate apartheid.
This we know because three years after the students’ revolt, chief minister Hudson Ntsanwisi invited him to join the discredited Gazankulu bantustan legislative system, the brainchild of Hendrik Verwoerd – the chief architect of separate development.
But this should not diminish the role he played as a celebrated photojournalist.
Also, we cannot fully appreciate Nzima’s life without casting our eyes to the man who was behind it all – the late editor of The World at the time, Percy Qoboza.
Goodbye Nzima. We salute you as an important contributor to the newspaper’s stand against apartheid injustice and oppression.
Sam Nzima took the famous photograph of a dying Hector Pieterson when the 1976 students’ riots erupted in Soweto.