South Africa weeps once more at the loss of yet another struggle icon, Sam Nzima. Nzima was catapulted into the international spotlight when he captured images of the 1976 student uprisings in Soweto. Students were protesting against the use of the oppressor’s language (Afrikaans) as a medium of teaching. The apartheid police responded by shooting and killing dozens of the students.
Nzima took the iconic photograph of a fatally would Hector Pierterson(13) being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubu(16) whilst Pierterson’s sister Antoinette runs beside him. The veteran photographer died on Saturday, May 12 in Nelspruit.
Nzima was born in the small town of Lillydale, Mpumalanga. In his earlier life, he aspired to be a journalist and photographer. He moved to Johannesburg to pursue his dreams. In 1968 he joined The World, a black African publication as a photographer.
After taking the world famous picture he was harassed by the apartheid police. He feared for his life so he moved back to his hometown of Lillydale. There he was kept under surveillance and put on house arrest for 19 months. “The law of the country was that we were not allowed to take pictures of anything that the police had done. So I knew I was risking my life,” he said.
Nzima once said that he regretted taking the Hector Pieterson photograph because it destroyed his journalism career. He struggled to attain the copyright for his picture for many years, only doing so in 1998.
In 2011 he was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga, the highest honor given to those who excel in the arts, culture, and journalism in South Africa. In 2016 his picture was named one of the most influential photographs in history by Time magazine.
It has been rumored that even Hilary Clinton once offered to buy the camera Nzima used but the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela advised him to keep the camera and never sell it to anyone.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has lauded Sam Nzima as one of a kind saying “His camera captured the full brutality of apartheid oppression on the nation’s psyche and,”
Rest in Peace.