Maverick Citizen


Remembering Sam Nzima’s iconic 16 June 1976 photograph 47 years later


Prof Tinyiko Maluleke is the deputy chair of the National Planning Commission.

The contemporary and continuing potency of Sam Nzima’s photograph of a dying Hector Pieterson lies not only in its ability to help us understand the past, but rather, in its ability to invoke, provoke and inspire, here and now.

Eighty-nine years ago, in the sprawling rural Mpumalanga farmlands called Lilydale, a hundred or so kilometres from Mbombela, Masana Sam Nzima was born. He was the last of the five children of Phambalani “Kitchen” Nzima and his wife Vuyaze Nzima.

In my mind’s eye, I imagine the young and lanky Sam Nzima crisscrossing the nondescript grasslands of the intersecting villages of Lilydale, Justicia, Kildare and Somerset, where wild and domestic animals intermingled with people. I imagine him, playing happily under the African skies of the lowveld with his brothers Shawiri and Mahambehleka as well as his sisters, Martha and Grace.

But alas, in such farms as Lilydale, black people were permanent tenants who could be forcibly removed unless they worked for the white landowners. Lilydale, Kildare and Somerset, where the Nzima clan lived, were but three of a string of farms which were acquired by an English merchant in the second half of the 1800s, one Hugh Lanion Hall.

By 1934 when Sam Nzima was born, Hall, his wife Grace and their sons Lanion and Dickon had built what was once called “one of the largest commercial farming operations in the British Commonwealth”. Except that, between the Halls and the Nzimas of that world, there was nothing common about the wealth in question.

When Nzima was 19 years old, in 1953, the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd posed the infamous rhetorical question whose foul stench still hangs in the air of the corridors of black institutions of education: “What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?”

But the young Sam Nzima was the very opposite of Verwoerd’s “model Bantu child”. Not only did he love mathematics, but he was very good at it. Such was his mathematical potential that, when the time came for him to be conscripted into farm labour, one of Nzima’s school teachers smuggled him into a school at Mataffin instead. 

That plan was quickly thwarted, and young Nzima was yanked out of class and sent straight to the citrus plantation belonging to Hall and Sons in Mataffin. Nine months later, he fled to Johannesburg.

If we were to paraphrase Sol Plaatje’s opening lines in his classic, Native Life in South Africa, in light of the circumstances into which Sam Nzima was born, we would put it thus: “Born on Wednesday morning, August 8th, 1934 in Lilydale; baby Sam Nzima, found itself, not actually a potential slave, but a prospective farm labourer in the land of its birth.”

A man and his camera

From the first day Nzima saw an instant camera being used by one of his primary teachers at Somerset, he fell in love with the gadget. Little did he know then that the small gadget would one day define his destiny and catapult him into the epicentre of the Struggle against apartheid.

When Nzima acquired his first camera – a Kodak Brownie – he used it to take pictures of tourists and visitors at the Kruger National Park. Later, while working as a gardener in Johannesburg, Nzima and his subjects used to dress up for the Nzima photoshoots on Sheila’s Day (Thursdays) at such places as Zoo Lake and Joubert Park.

Our generation of photoshoppers and computer image generators may not fully appreciate why Nzima was so excited when the pictures he took of the Lowveld black business pioneer, Stick Nyalungu, were published in the Bantu World newspaper, together with a short profile of Nyalungu. That piece opened the door for Nzima to be later employed by The World.

Documenting a little atrocity

In the lyrics of the song, “Soweto Blues”, written by Hugh Masekela to commemorate the student protests of 1976, a song rendered immortal by Miriam Makeba, there is a series of rhetorical questions in isiXhosa:

Benikuphi na madoda? (Where were you the men?)
Xa bedubula abantwana (When they shot down the children)
Ben Ukuphi na? (Where were you?)
Abantwana xa bejikijela ezizimbokodo (When the children were throwing stones)
Benikuphi na? (Where were you?)

Sam Nzima and Sophie Tema would have been able to respond to the above questions without any fear of contradiction. The iconic picture which Sam Nzima took with his Pentax SL camera is proof that they were there when the police were shooting at the children. Soon, this single photo became a giant mirror in which the true state of South Africa was reflected back to the country and to the world.

Looking deep into that iconic photo

To take a look at that Sam Nzima picture of three kids in flight and in palpable anguish is to hear the sound of running feet pounding the ground; it is to look into the agony written on the face of Mbuyisa Makhubu.

To take a look at the iconic picture of Sam Nzima, is to hear the anguished voice of Antoinette screaming; it is to ponder the horror of the hint of blood gathering at the corner of Hector Pieterson’s mouth, and to feel the visibly weakening body of the kid.

To take a look at Sam Nzima’s iconic picture of June 1976, is to feel the grip of Mbuyisa, his fingers digging a curve into Hector’s right thigh. To take a good look at Sam Nzima’s iconic picture of June 1976 is to smell the dust, the sweat and teargas; it is to taste the blood and the tears, it is to hear the sound of gunfire.

All these sights, insights, sounds, feelings, emotions and more are captured in this one single photo.

But alas, the photo itself was later to claim its own victims: Mbuyisa Makhubu had to flee the country, never to return; Sam Nzima had to retreat back to Lilydale where he had to reinvent himself. But perhaps one of the photo’s biggest victims was apartheid itself. One photo snap, so many consequences, and so many repercussions.

The many meanings of the iconic photo

The contemporary and continuing potency of the Nzima photo lies not only in its ability to help us understand the past, but rather, in its ability to invoke, provoke and inspire, here and now.

This photo has helped generations of South Africans to connect the dots between present violences and such past violences as the Sharpeville Massacre (1960) as well as the double whammy of the Bisho and Boipatong massacres in 1992.  

The Nzima picture also helped us to understand why Rhodes and fees had to fall; how Andries Tatane was sacrificed in 2011. It enabled us to make sense of the gruesome events of the third week of August 2012 when 44 black men were killed in Marikana – 37 of whom died at the hands of the police of democratic South Africa.

Where were you?

To go back to “Soweto Blues”, our generation may one day have to explain where we were when corruption and gender-based violence became embedded into every sector and every level of society.

We will have to explain why our children cannot read for understanding; why and how our hospitals became hospices, while our roads were rotting away. Will we be able to say where we were when contaminated water led to people dying of cholera in Hammanskraal?

Maybe we won’t have to answer any of these questions, because in the absence of the Sam Nzima types to disrupt our complacency and expose our complicity, the conditions highlighted above may soon become so ubiquitous it will all feel normal. God forbid! DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Complacency and complicity suit our rulers, who laugh at our stupidity and systemic powerlessness. Viva, ANC, Viva. Taxpayers have just paid millions to see Putin give Cyril the middle finger. Viva, ANC, Viva. AGOA be damned, says ANC. Viva, ANC, Viva.

  • David Forbes says:

    Great story remembering those terrible days. I worked with Sophie Tema at the Rand Daily Mail. Such a wonderful woman, who told me such awful stories about those days.

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