Obituaries

Sam Nzima: photographer who made history

His iconic picture helped turn world opinion against apartheid but was a disaster for Nzima

20 May 2018 - 00:00 By CHRIS BARRON

Sam Nzima, who has died in Nelspruit at the age of 83, took the unforgettable photograph of a bloodied and dying 13-year-old Hector Pieterson being carried by a distraught Mbuyisa Makhubu after being shot by police in Soweto on June 16 1976.
Pieterson was the first victim of the student uprising that erupted that day, and which signalled the beginning of the end of apartheid.
No picture more powerfully captured the horror and brutality of apartheid, or did more to galvanise international revulsion against it.
In terms of its impact and effect it was in the same league as Associated Press photojournalist Nick Ut's picture of a naked Vietnamese girl running down the road screaming in agony after being caught up in a US napalm strike, which changed American perceptions of the Vietnam War.
Time magazine listed Nzima's image one of the 100 most influential of all time.
"Suddenly the world could no longer ignore apartheid. The seeds of international opposition that would eventually topple the racist regime had been planted by a photograph," the magazine said.
Nzima, who was covering the protest for The World newspaper, remembered that he was between the students and police.
"The police were just shooting at random.
"I saw a child falling down. I rushed there with my camera. I saw another young man pick him up, and as soon as he had picked him up I started shooting the pictures.
"I knew the police would force me to open my camera. So I took the film out quickly and stuffed it in my sock."
The police ripped the film out of his camera and exposed it to the light. But the picture that would do more than any other to turn the tide of world opinion against apartheid was safe.
"The film in my sock, they didn't see that."
SPARK A CIVIL WAR
The World didn't want to use it at first, he said in an interview many years later.
"There was a big debate at The World."The editor thought we must not use the picture because it would spark a civil war in South Africa. Then he changed his mind and said come what may, we must use this picture."
Nzima said he never dreamt it would have the impact it did, not least on his own life.
After it was splashed across the front page of The World it was banned in South Africa, but used on the front pages of major newspapers around the world.
The response from the police was immediate and threatening.
"The police came to the office of The World and they weren't happy."
They demanded to know why he took the picture. He told them he was on assignment and taking pictures was his job.
They told him to choose between his job and his life.
They said their assignment was not to arrest him but to shoot him.
Fearing for his life he resigned from The World and went into hiding in the small village of Lilydale, in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga, where he was born, and opened a bottle store.
When the security police found him there he was put under house arrest for 19 months. He said that for many years he regretted taking the picture of Pieterson, "because that picture destroyed my future in journalism".KODAK BROWNIE BOX CAMERA
Nzima was born on August 8 1934 and grew up on a farm in Bushbuckridge where his father worked. A teacher got him interested in photography and he bought himself a Kodak Brownie box camera.
He earned pocket money during school holidays taking pictures of visitors to the nearby Kruger National Park.
After completing school he did various jobs in Johannesburg, including working as a switchboard operator and hotel waiter. He learnt more about photography, read the Rand Daily Mail whenever he could and developed an interest in photojournalism.
He wrote a feature story on a bus owner, accompanied by his own pictures, and took it to The World, which offered him a job in 1968.
After returning to Bushbuckridge he became a member of the Gazankulu homeland legislative assembly. After 1994 he served on the Bushbuckridge municipal council and started a photography school.
Nzima battled for 22 years to get the copyright for his famous picture but the Argus company, which owned The World, wouldn't budge.After the company had been sold to Tony O'Reilly's Independent Group he received a letter informing him that as it was felt that little value still attached to the copyright, he could have it.
Nzima said it was more about acknowledgement than money. No longer would publications around the world be able to use his picture, as they often had, without acknowledging him as the photographer.He is survived by his wife, Zinziswa, and six children.
1934-2018

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