Remembering the Humble Photographer Who Shot the Iconic Photo of 12 Year Old Hector Peterson

Opinion piece written by Suzette Nxumalo Mafuna

It was Sam’s R180 worth Pantex camera that took him years to pay off, his passion for his work, his instinct for the right moment to get the best shot, his talent as a keen and curious photographer and his hunger for the ultimate story that enabled white South Africans and people from around the world to gain an indisputable insight into the workings of the racist bullies that constantly inflicted atrocious treatment on fellow black people who dared challenge and stand up against white supremacy.

Sam’s weapon of choice was a simple but strikingly impactful black a white picture. His iconic capture in film of the brutal murder of an innocent 13 year-old child will stay etched permanently in our hearts and minds and will always remind us of how brutally savage the apartheid regime really was.

On that fateful June 16 1976, it was just Sam’s crafty fearlessness and his Pantex that helped turn the tide for the South African struggle. Sam was assigned coverage of the pending student demonstration following a tip off to the World newspaper from an anonymous student.

Sam Nzima remembered the tense atmosphere of a peaceful student march that immediately enraged the police and army through the singing, in loud resounding and unified voices, the then banned resistance prayer, Nkosi Sikelei’iAfrica, and then the terrifying sound of a lethal police gun shot that hit a little boy close to where Sam was standing wearing his press badge to identify to both parties that he was simply a press representative and neither a student nor a police spy.

When he finally returned to the office and showed the editor a picture of a dying Hector, the editor initially refused to publish the picture fearing its publishing would instigate a civil war. However, he quickly decided the picture deserved to be seen and police brutality exposed. And so it was that Sam Nzima’s momentous photo made it to the front page of the World newspaper and informed all and sundry of the prevailing turmoil in black townships.

That picture also fueled ordinary people’s anger and helped radicalize activists, conscientize the ignorant and apolitical as well as helped galvanize despondent black societies to transform feelings of helplessness into a resolve to participate actively in helping save children’s lives.

This urgent need to support the children’s struggle that led to a swift mobilization of a parents’ organization that became the adult wing of the children’s initiative and helped them escape police capture by arranging local and far off hide-outs, establishing community support systems and generally becoming a mouth piece for the voiceless.

It is heartening to note how ordinary people appreciate and are vocal about the esteem with which they regard Sam’s significant role in the ’76 uprising. Nombuso Makhubu the sister of 16- year-old Mbuso Makhubu who carried Hector’s crumpled body and also endured endless police enquiries over her brother’s disappearance says this about Sam’s courage in the face of police brutality:

“When people refer to Sam as an unsung hero I argue and say ‘No, he is not an unsung hero, he did what he had to do…we blacks people being our brothers’ keepers…it would have been a disgrace if he had run away from the police”.

To get back to where it all began, I remember sharing a newsroom and at times working with Nzima on several assignments and coverage of social and political events that required photographic support. A self taught, humble and wise beyond-words simple black man, Sam was different from the rest of the men in the newsroom.

Where there was raucous macho noise, Sam’s silence and gentle demeanor caused you to even forget he was there before your eyes. Not for him the raucous exchange of weekend shenanigans, whispered boasts about the past weekends “new hot catches”, work gossip or fanatic soccer debates and arguments, and not for him the sophistication of urbanized know-it-all township folks or the drinking and debauchery of his colleagues.

Although never isolated nor disrespected in the newsroom,  it was difficult for Sam to fit in easily but without being an actual recluse. Sam, a proud Tsonga speaking man represented in urban society a minority black group that was often subjected to racialized and colorized stereotypes of geography, culture and accent by city snobs who deemed themselves smarter, and superior to their more traditional compatriots and looked down on them.

I don’t remember a single scandal being attached to his name or character. If you spotted him at a party, it was when he had had no choice but follow instructions to attend and capture the event images for a news item.
As an up and coming female columnist, Sam always had a kind word of support and encouragement because of his maturity, his experience in the industry and just because Sam was just a most amazing human being I ever worked with.

He sometimes cautioned naive me against allowing newly found fame and recognition to derail my performance or character and was always helpful with suggestions on my first field assignments with him. If he was familiar with the subject of the interview, he would help break the ice to ease the interview process for the beginner in me.

He once had to put me in my place when I seemed to be taken up in my naivete, by an intoxicating love interest that would later prove to be the type to stay very far from. If I had not followed Sam’s candid and fatherly advise, I would have been stuck in an ugly and untenable situation./relationship.

I also don’t remember a single angry word, news-room gossip or criticism of anyone passing through Sam’s mouth. Always kind, gentle and charming he always made time to chat, share news tit bits and warm smiles. He was impeccable in his dress, always properly groomed and always punctual.

His rural background and quiet nature put him at a disadvantage in a newsroom that was the bastion of smooth talking city slickers who were know-it-alls and bedazzled you with smart talk, lusty looks and flirtatious smiles as they strode purposely through the newsroom with the self confidence and a strong sense of self importance that at times could be mistaken for visiting  powerful head-office honchos.

Never intimidated for being different and carrying the burden of belonging to a minority of a generally demeaned, isolated and less acknowledged black group, Sam simply focused on producing the best work possible, treasured the few relationships with colleagues but most of all, deeply treasured his nationality, his privacy, his Afrikan-ness and Limpopo roots.

His face always lit up when Sam related his dreams of ploughing back to his rural community. At some point he had his eye on establishing grocery shops in his village.

Following my public criticism of South Africa’s tendency to neglect local heroes while they live then shower their corpes’ with praises and over the top rhetoric, I was swiftly reminded that  Sam had been honoured with a prestigious annual 2011 South African Ikhamanga Award for excellence in arts, culture and journalism.

I argued that a single once-off lifetime award under closed doors that will soon be forgotten does not say much about South Africa’s regard for Sam’s worth. To my mind, Sam Nzima deserved a visible and public  talk-of-the-town, “Nizwile? kinda public razzmatazz.

“A dead man does not know the value of his coffin” Afrikan Proverbs

And imagine if the Arts Department could have established a monument to his name for acting beyond the call of duty in ferrying the dying Hector to a local clinic without worrying about the consequences of using a company car without permission, or risking possible police retaliation for his heroic deed. How cool would that have been!

The arts and culture ministry could have easily established a scholarship for photography-training around Nzima’s rural hometown for a lasting legacy and pride for generations of his people rather than a fleeting and soon to be forgotten award event.

Nonetheless, Sam would eventually start his academy for aspiring photographers in his village even without government support. Another obstacle he faced was a vicious battle for compensation following abuse of his work. From Sam’s frustrating and long-lasting pocket denting copyright dispute with the thieves of his works, one would have expected the current government to have now put in place legal frameworks for protecting all South African works produced through exceptional talent, heroism and selflessness such as Sam’s.

To capture and secure that world acclaimed photo, Sam gambled on his own life by hiding the very important film inside his socks, but just as cunningly and as craftily also handed over to the suspicious police, his valuable photographic equipment and other inconsequential film to deflect further attention from the rest of his body which hid the precious film and other images of the gruesome scene, images that he managed to save and protect throughout his life.

Thankfully, Sam’s exceptional contributions to the emancipation of the black nation has been recognised by powerful forces abroad, and to quote just a few –  from the German Embassy; “his camera captured the full brutality of apartheid oppression on a nation’s psyche and history…a single picture can open our eyes to injustices and brutality”.

A 2016 Time magazine issue named Sam’s photo “Time magazine’s one of the most influential 100 photographs in history” and also wrote “Suddenly the world could no longer ignore apartheid…The seeds of international opposition that would eventually topple a racist system has been planted by a photograph.”

Already publicly embarrassed and shamed by exposure of the iconic photo to international arena’s, the Russians added more fuel to South Africa’s ire by displaying the disputed picture in Russian publications.  Sam was again accused by government of colluding through his photo with “communist Russia that is also believed to be supplying Umkhonto We Sizwe with weapons and for this he was again threatened by the police force with possible murder.

He was often warned to choose between his job and his life. Once he was cautioned, “there is an assignment out that next time you will not be arrested but killed”.

The then US First Lady Hillary Clinton offered to buy his precious Pentax Camera and take it to the US but another vilified South African warrior instructed Sam to keep the camera and refuse to sell it. The late Winnie Madikizela Mandela intervened in preventing yet another  appropriation of a subtle South African weapon of resistance, Sam Nzima’s famous and trusted friend, his precious Pentax SL camera.

In her personal but public commemoration of June 16 1976 and in memory and appreciation of Mr Nzima’s guidance and advise Mpumi Mkhatywa a young local black student reveals that she has compiled a collage of pictures featuring diverse students in groups and couples wearing their different school uniforms and puts it on display because “Sam taught us to save and keep pictures, so let me try.”

Sam’s excellency came at a huge cost and risk to his life and his wellbeing. At one point he somberly expressed regret at having shot THAT photo because it destroyed his career and caused friction with some established photographers who missed the opportunity to capture similar images and tried to dispute Nzima’s version of the June 16 events. “They were trying to shoot down the importance of my picture and they denied the photo had contributed to or influenced the ending of apartheid.”

Then he had to contend with constant harassment that forced him to stay away from home as often as possible because the police raids to his home included death threats that were so ferocious and intimidating he was forced to disappear from the face of the earth. He was ultimately banned from working or venturing outside his home for close to 19 months and forced to resign from a career he loved passionately and was completely dedicated to. He also felt so threatened that he decided to leave Johannesburg for Lillydale permanently where he resettled with his family.

Sam’s ingenuity with his now treasured and priceless camera ensured that for a change, a lost black life did not just end up as yet another meaningless statistic that does not count for anything. However there was no reward for his courageous commitment to accomplishing a difficult and dangerous mission.

In the wise words of reputable veteran photographer Juda Ngwenya, “By resigning from his job, Nzima lost an opportunity to enter international awards and win prizes as well as travel the world. But he was forced to abandon a solid career.

From his quoted perception of his lasting contribution, Sam expressed resentment over the City of Johannesburg. He complained that although his photos took centre stage at the Soweto Hector Peterson Museum he had never received a cent from the profits made from tourist visits. “The City of Johannesburg could have compensated me for using my work to sell Soweto and South Africa to local and foreign tourists”.

He also laments that while his pictures adorn the museum, his name has been completely obliterated from the archives. He said “inside, there are video recordings of people being interviewed about what happened that day but nothing about me and what I had to say” there is not even a biography about Sam” he noted.

Sam is just one example of the many South African heroes who have to wait till they die before public acknowledgement and if they make the cut, receive the now trendy but often indiscriminate “hero’s” funeral.

Sam deserved much more so let’s roll up our sleeves and revive the spirit of Ubuntu as lived by a “proudly” and unapologetic Tsonga village boy whose outstanding talent helped expose our pain and suffering to international government platforms, to civil human rights and social justice groups resulting in broad imposition of sanctions against a stubborn, evil and irrational racist regime.

It is incumbent on those of us with the skills, the energy, commitment and resources to fulfill some of Sam’s expressed but unfulfilled wishes and dreams- his biography, government and community sites as well as monuments in his name, his unachieved photography academy and restoration of  his voice and identify as the authentic source and narrator of the infamous Hector Peterson murder inside the Soweto museum.

Lala ngoxolo Sam Nzima and thank you for a still to be recognised contribution to the black people’s struggle for emancipation from white supremacy. And thanks to your treasured and trusted friend, the incredibly useful and dependable Pantax SL camera that is likely to outlive us all.

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