According to reports, celebrated photographer Sam Nzima has died in a Nelspruit hospital at the age of 83 of yet unconfirmed causes. Nzima will be most remembered for his picture of Hector Pieterson, taken amid the chaos of flying bullets and crying schoolchildren, which became the iconic image that pushed the 1976 Soweto uprisings into the limelight and the world headlines.
The famous black-and-white picture of a dying 13-year-old activist Hector Pieterson being carried away by a panic-stricken fellow student after security forces opened fire on students during a protest in Soweto township on 16 June 1976 became a resistance symbol against the brutal apartheid regime.
In an interview with The Star in 2013, Nzima recalled the events of that day: “A guy with a stick under his arm told the schoolchildren he was giving them three minutes to disperse. The defiant children began singing Nkosi Sikilel’ Afrika before all hell broke loose as the man reached for his gun and began shooting and shouting, “Shoot!” I saw Hector Pieterson fall down and Makhubo pick him up. I ran to the scene and took the pictures.
“Our press car was the nearest vehicle there and they put him inside and took him to Phefeni Clinic. But he was certified dead on arrival,” he concluded.
This photograph by Nzima was listed by Time magazine as one of 100 most influential images of all time, cementing his contribution to struggle. The African National Congress said in a statement that Nzima’s “emotive iconic (photograph) … became a historical landmark feature that forever defined how the 16 June 1976 narrative was told”.
President Cyril Ramaphosa paid tribute to the self-taught photographer, saying in a statement, “Mr Sam Nzima was one of a kind. His camera captured the full brutality of apartheid oppression and its impact on the nation’s psyche and history.
“We will especially remember his iconic photograph of a dying young Hector Pieterson, which became a symbol of resistance against the imposition of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in black schools,” he continued.
The riots, led by high-school students, fueled protests across the country, giving rise to a time of black activism that was the catalyst for the end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994. At the time of the protests, at least 170 people were killed in the first three days, with some estimates putting the death toll at several hundred over the following month.
The Department of Culture, Sport and Recreation paid their respects by giving Nzima credit for his contribution: “The camera was his weapon of choice and he used it to expose the injustices of the previous regime.”