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Remembering Dr Sam Nzima and Iconic ’76 Photo – 47 Years Later



“Sam Nzima was a passionate mathematician and a talented photographer. His attempts to end Apartheid were thwarted by Apartheid. He used the second to put an end to Apartheid.”

Masana Sam Nzima was born in Lilydale, a rural farming community southeast of Mbombela, in Mpumalanga, 89 years ago. His parents were Phambalani “Kitchen” Nzima and Vuyaze Nzima. He was the last of their five children.

Remembering Dr Sam Nzima and Iconic ’76 Photo – 47 Years Later

Seeing young Sam Nzima cross the nondescript grasslands of Lilydale, Justicia, Kildare, and Somerset, where wild and domestic animals congregated, I imagine him crisscrossing the grasslands crisscrossed by wild and domestic animals. His sisters, Martha and Grace, and brothers Shawiri and Mahambehleka, played happily under the African sky of the lowveld.

Unfortunately, black people were forced to work for white landowners in farms such as Lilydale or face forcible removal. An English merchant named Hugh Lanion Hall purchased a string of farms in the second half of the 1800s, including Lilydale, Kildare, and Somerset, where the Nzima clan lived.

Remembering Dr Sam Nzima and Iconic ’76 Photo – 47 Years Later

Prof Tinyiko Maluleke, Vice-Chancellor and Principal delivering a keynote address at the 3rd Dr Sam Nzima lecture.

A company called “one of the largest commercial farming operations in the British Commonwealth” was once built by Hall, Grace, and their sons Lanion and Dickon when Sam Nzima was born in 1934. However, the wealth in question had nothing in common with that of the Halls or the Nzimas.

It is still a foul stench in the corridors of black institutions of education that Hendrik Verwoerd posed in 1953, when Nzima was 19 years old: “What is the point of teaching the Bantu child mathematics if it cannot apply it in the real world?”

In contrast to Verwoerd’s “model Bantu child”, Sam Nzima was anything but. His love of mathematics was matched by his excellent skills. Nzima’s math skills were so impressive that, when he was supposed to go to farm labor, one of his teachers smuggled him into Mataffin’s school instead.

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In response, young Nzima was sent directly to Hall and Son’s citrus plantation near Mataffin after he was yanked out of class. Johannesburg became his new home nine months later.

In light of the circumstances under which Sam Nzima was born, we would paraphrase Sol Plaatje’s opening lines in his classic, Native Life in South Africa: “Born on Wednesday morning, August 8th, 1934 in Lilydale; baby Sam Nzima, born on Wednesday morning, August 8th, 1934, in the land of its birth, found himself not only a potential slave, but also a prospective farm labourer..”

A man and his camera

Nzima had fallen in love with an instant camera the day he saw one being used by a primary school teacher. His small gadget would eventually define his destiny and catapult him to the center of the apartheid struggle when he was still a child.

Using the Kodak Brownie, Nzima snapped pictures of tourists and visitors at the Kruger National Park when he acquired his first camera. The Nzima photoshoots were conducted at places such as Zoo Lake and Joubert Park in Johannesburg on Sheila’s Day (Thursdays) when Nzima was working as a gardener.

Photo shoppers and image generators of our generation may not understand why Nzima was so excited when his pictures of Stick Nyalungu, the Lowveld business pioneer, were published in the Bantu World newspaper along with his profile. A piece like that led to Nzima’s employment by The World later on.

Documenting a little atrocity

There are a series of rhetorical questions in isiXhosa in the lyrics of “Soweto Blues”, a song written by Hugh Masekela to commemorate 1976’s student protests.

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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?)

The above questions could have been answered without any fear of contradiction by Sam Nzima and Sophie Tema. They were there when the police fired upon the children, as evidenced by the iconic picture Sam Nzima took with his Pentax SL camera. Those few photos soon became a giant mirror, refracting to the world and the country the true state of South Africa.

Looking deep into that iconic photo

Mbuyisa Makhubu’s face tells of agony written on the face of three kids in flight and in palpable anguish in Sam Nzima’s picture.

It’s hard not to be moved by the iconic picture of Sam Nzima, it’s hard not to think about the agonizing voice of Antoinette screaming, and the feeling of a kid’s body weakening as the blood gathers on Historie Pieterson’s lips.

Sam Nzima’s iconic photograph from June 1976 conveys a sense of Mbuyisa grasping Hector’s right thigh with his fingers. If you look closely at Sam Nzima’s iconic photograph from June 1976, you can smell the dust, the sweat, and the tear gas; you can taste the blood and the tears, and you can hear the sound of gunfire.

Throughout this photo, we can see, hear, feel, and experience all these things.

However, the photo itself eventually claimed its own victims: Mbuyisa Makhubu fled the country forever; Sam Nzima was forced to return to Lilydale to reinvent himself. Apartheid itself was perhaps the greatest victim of the photo. There are so many consequences and repercussions associated with one photo snap.

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The many meanings of the iconic photo

It is not only the ability to help us understand the past that makes the Nzima photo so contemporary and potent, but also its ability to provoke, inspire and invoke.

The Sharpeville Massacre (1960) and the double whammy of the Bisho and Boipatong massacres in 1992 have helped generations of South Africans to connect the dots between current violence and past violence.

Additionally, we learned about the sacrifices made in 2011 by Andries Tatane by looking at the Nzima picture. Having access to such an accurate history helped us comprehend the gruesome events that occurred in Marikana during the third week of August 2012. Of the 44 black men killed, 37 were killed by the police of democratic South Africa.

The iconic Hector Pieterson photo taken by Dr Sam Nzima in 1976. Photograph - Dr Sam Nzima archive.

Where were you?

As we look back on “Soweto Blues”, it may one day be necessary for us to explain where we were when corruption and gender-based violence became an integral part of society at every level and in every sector.

Why and how our hospitals became hospices while our roads rotted away, as well as why and how our children cannot read for understanding. When people died of cholera in Hammanskraal due to contaminated water, will we be able to recall where we were?

Unless Sam Nzima types interrupt our complacency and expose our complicity, maybe none of these questions will need to be answered, since the conditions outlined above might soon feel so commonplace it will all feel normal. God forbid!

For more information on the Tshwane University of Technology, please contact Phaphama Tshisikhawe, Corporate Affairs and Marketing.
Tel: +27 12 382 4711   Email: [email protected]

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