June 16 1976 marks our nation’s seismic date with its destiny. Sam Nzima’s photograph of Mbuyisa Makhubo bearing the limp body of Hector Petersen, immortalized the events of 36 years ago. Hector, a young pupil from Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto was the first person shot dead in the 16 June student uprising against the use of Afrikaans at Black schools. The iconic image served as a testament to the moral bankruptcy of apartheid and put the country’s liberation back on the international agenda. Sam Nzima spoke to Abel Mputing of the Information and Content Development unit.
“To this day, I wear a reminder of this momentous moment. Ironically, I, though, never intended to be a photographer, let alone to capture an image that would influence the course of our country’s political history. I was introduced to photography by my teacher, who used to photograph us with his old brownie Kodak camera. I soon developed an affinity with the camera. I then started to save my school holiday earnings to buy one. My first stint as a freelance photographer was with the Emmanuel Press in Mpumalanga, which published evangelical publications.
I knew that in order to be a professional photographer I had to go to Johannesburg. In the late 1950’s I did. While there I bought myself a camera, so advanced that I could not operate it until Patrick Rikhotso, my colleague, showed me how it worked. Thereafter, I started to shoot domestic workers on Thursdays, their official leave day which was affectionately known as Sheila’s day. My big break came when my photograph of Spooks Mashiyane and Lenny Mabaso, the legendary penny-whistle wizards of the time, was published in the Bantu-language newspaper, The World.
At the time I could not be hired solely as a photographer, I had to be a photojournalist: to take pictures and write stories as well. It is Alistaire Sparks and Patrick Lawrence who taught him the craft of feature writing. My first feature was on Stick Nyalungu, an Mpumalanga businessman who turned his truck into a bus, which was followed by another feature on how Shangaans left Zululand for Mozambique and came back as a sovereign ethnic group that settled in Mpumalanga.
In 1968, I joined The World newspaper as a fully-fledged photographer. On the evening before 16 June, the paper got a tip-off that there was going to be a student march from Soweto to John Vorster Square against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction (in half the subjects at schools, including mathematics). I was assigned to cover it by Percy Qoboza, who was its editor at the time.
While the leader of the march, Tsietsi Mashinini, was telling the student who gathered to march peacefully, the police arrived and gave them an ultimatum that they had to disperse within three minutes. A commotion between the police and students ensued and the police opened fired. Suddenly, I saw a still body of a boy being dispatched to a nearby clinic and I photographed it. In fact, I had six sequences of the image, but the one that showed the anguish of the event was the best of them all.
The decision to publish the photograph was not taken lightly. There were fierce disagreement particularly between Mr Brian Mould, a features subeditor and Mr Pecy Qoboza, the editor. Mr Mould was of the view that the publication of such a picture could bring the country on the brink of civil war. Mr Qoboza insisted that, come what may, we were going to publish the picture. In fact, he went on to instruct the editorial team that there must be a special edition exclusively on June 16. On 17 June, the picture was published all over the world.
On that day, I got an invitation from the Commander of the John Vorster Square who wanted to have a conversation with me over tea. I did not know what to do, but Mr Qoboza told me not to accept the invitation.
He in fact called the Commander to ask why he was inviting me. The reason he gave was that a Russian magazine had Hector Petersen’s picture as its cover page, and it was irresponsible of us to send such a picture to a communist country, especially when South Africa was on the verge of change.
As much as the picture was taken as an expose on the moral bankruptcy of apartheid, it cost me my photojournalism career. On the same day we got information from an insider who told us that I was going to be arrested in the small hours of the following morning. I did not sleep at home that night and my wife told me that they indeed came with their guns drawn. And they were so angry that I was not there. The next day we got a call from an anonymous officer who told me to choose between my life and my job because the special branch was given an unequivocal instruction that they should assassinate me.
On hearing this, I fled to Mpumalanga. Six month later, the special branch came to my house in Mpumalanga and told me that I was under house arrest. I was told that, by law, I was not allowed to be in a company of people other than my wife. I was compelled to sign a house arrest register every Fridays and Saturdays. In 1977, while I was still under house arrest the June 16 photograph won the World’s News Picture of the Year Award.
As much as I was grateful for its world acclaim, sadly I was not entitled to its royalties because the Argus Group claimed, at the time, that they were entitled to its copyright because I took it while I was in their employ. In 1998, when the Independent Newspaper Group bought the Argus Group, they transferred its copyright to me and I have since registered it under my name and anyone who intends using or sampling it must first get my consent.
I was honoured when, in 2010, I was invited to exhibit my portfolio in Germany and Belgium. But the highest honour came recently when President Jacob Zuma conferred on me the national order of Ikamanga for my contribution to the liberation struggle. What was most heartening, though, was when Bill Clinton visited me. He said he made the visit because he constantly saw my picture at the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in New York during his state visits there. His wife wanted to buy my camera that took that fateful picture, but Winnie Mandela advised me not to sell because it was one of our country’s valuable assets.
Every year around June 16, I take the camera out and polish it an act that brings back bitter-sweet memories of both bravery and indignation, of material loss and spiritual fulfillment. Hence, I think that we should not celebrate June 16, we should, instead, commemorate it because it is a sacred day that claimed the lives, the blood, the sweat and tears of many whose selfless sacrifices have helped to nourish our democracy.”