Thursday, November 18, 2010


Sam Nzima is a South African photographer whose work for a long time went unrecognized – but he also has a place in history.

On June 16, 1976, Sam Nzima was in Soweto working as a photojournalist for The World newspaper. On that day, thousands of school students in Soweto took to the streets to protest the introduction of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools. As the children gathered, police used tear gas to stop them, then started firing.

Sam Nzima took several photos that day, but one captured a moment that hasn’t been forgotten. The photo shows a young man carrying a child. The child is limp, and the young man is crying. A girl, pain etched on her face, runs beside them. The child being carried is Hector Pieterson, twelve years old and one of the first children to have been shot and killed that day. The boy carrying him is Mbuyisa Makhubo, while the girl running beside them is Hector’s sister Antoinette.

Sam Nzima’s photo was published by The World and then flashed around the world on news wires. It made people realize what was happening in South Africa, and helped prompt greater international action against apartheid. Yet Nzima was forced to hide from the police and he declined further work as a photojournalist because of concerns about his security. It also took him years to regain copyright of his famous photograph. He ended up opening up a shop, serving as a homeland member of parliament, and then opening a school of photography in Bushbuckridge.

I’m privileged to say that I once met Sam Nzima. I was in Johannesburg in the late 1990s, visiting projects for the development organization I was working for. I and a colleague from Ottawa took some time to go to a spot in Soweto near where the Hector Pieterson Memorial, which opened in 2002, is now.

We entered a three-sided structure housing a display of photographs. Some of the photos showed scenes of Soweto. Others were of then-President and Hillary Clinton in a recent visit. But the photo which caught my attention was black and white. I recognized the image immediately. It was the photo of Hector Pieterson, his friend and his sister.

As I stood taking it in, a man who had been standing near the display came over. He said, quietly, "I was the photographer who took that picture."

As his words sunk in, I realized that he had taken this famous photo; he had been at this scene. He was the person who had informed the world about Hector Pieterson and the other schoolchildren who had been so brutally killed. I gathered my wits enough to begin to ask him questions about the circumstances of his being at this place on that day.

Overhearing our conversation, a fellow visitor came closer. She was an American woman who had been commenting loudly on everything in the area so far. She piped up with what I imagine was her most pressing question: "Were you here when the Clintons came?" Yes, answered Nzima. "Did you meet them?" she was desperate to know. Then, "What was Hillary Clinton wearing?"

At that moment, I saw the chasm between this woman’s world view and mine. For me, the history of deep injustice that pervaded this soil, and the profound changes that had taken place to allow us to be standing as tourists on this spot, were what was significant. That we were meeting the photographer, Sam Nzima, who had galvanized the world to take notice of South Africa was an enormous privilege. For her, the meetingwas a way for her to get a closer glimpse of her own celebrities.

As I looked into this later, though, I realized that the Clintons’ trip to South Africa was the first by an American president. To an American, the experience of meeting Sam Nzima might well have symbolized a bridge between South Africa and her own country. I guess we each have our own markers of significant events and people in our lives.

For me, one significant person will always be Sam Nzima. You can see a short BBC video of Sam Nzima and an exhibit of his photos here. You can also read more about him.

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