It was a cold winter morning in Soweto. The time was 10:15. The date was June 16, 1976. Sam Nzima, a 42-year old photographer with The World newspaper, had already been at work in the township for more than four hours.
As he stood near his car with reporter Sophie Tema in a quiet street, he saw a young girl and a tall, strong student running towards him. The girl was crying. The student was calling for help. He was carrying a bleeding child in his arms.
The three came closer – Mbuyisa Makhubu was carrying the young Hector Petersen. Hector’s sister, Thandi, was at his side.
For one or two moments Sam Nzima remembered he was a photographer. He clicked the camera, six times.
Then Nzima pulled open the car door and helped Makhubu put the child in the back. They raced for the nearest clinic. When they got there, Hector Petersen, a 13- year old standard four boy from White City, Jabavu, was dead.
THE FRONT PAGE
Thomas Khoza, the driver of Nzima’s car, rushed back to The World offices with the film from the camera. Nzima stayed behind in Soweto.
The World came out that afternoon with one of his six pictures – the third one, on the front page. The Star used the picture that evening.
Newspapers all around the world bought the picture, and in many countries it was seen on television. Millions upon millions of people saw the picture of Hector Petersen, the first child killed by the police in the 1976 uprising.
Twelve years later that picture, more than any other, reminds people of the massacre that took place in Soweto in 1976. In June every year this picture appears in newspapers and magazines, on posters and pamphlets, all over the world.
Nzima was surprised that his picture became so famous. In fact, he is to this day surprised that he became a photographer at all.
THE YOUNG NZIMA
Sam Nzima was born in 1934 in the Mhala district of Gazankulu. During school holidays he worked at the Kruger National Park nearby doing odd jobs. With the money he earned there he bought his first camera which he used to take pictures of his friends.
When he was 20, Nzima came to Johannesburg and got a job as a gardener. He then moved on to other jobs. He worked as a waiter at the Savoy hotel for six years. Then he got a job at another hotel, the Chelsea, as a receptionist.
While he was working, Nzima carried on his schooling by correspondence and he bought himself another camera. “On Thursdays, ‘Sheila’s day’, I used to stand at the Twist street bus station and take pictures of domestic workers at two shillings a time,” he says.
Nzima also took pictures of other people in the street. There was a journalist living in the Chelsea at the time called Patrick Lawrence. He saw some of Nzima’s pictures and told him he should send them to The World.
In 1965 The World bought three of his pictures. They were pictures of young black boys who roamed around the streets of Hillbrow playing music to earn some money.
That was Nzima’s start. In 1968, The World offered him a job.
EXCITING WORK – BUT DANGEROUS!
Nzima was sent everywhere – to meetings, to court, to football and boxing. At boxing he learned to be fast with his camera. “You had to get a picture of a punch as it landed, otherwise the picture was no good,” he says.
The work was exciting. Sometimes it was dangerous. He remembers the time he was sent to take a picture of a “top thug” from the East Rand who was in court to get a divorce.
He knew the man would not like to see his picture in the paper so he hid behind a car in the parking lot to wait for him. “As he came out I jumped out and clicked. He chased after me with a knife,” Nzima says.
“I escaped but I was not happy because I knew the picture was not good. So I put on a dust-coat and followed the man to the station. I got into the carriage opposite him and waited until we reached Jeppe Station. Just as the whistle blew, I jumped up and took his picture. I just managed to get out as the doors were closing.”
Nzima laughs as he tells this story, even though he could have been hurt. But he does not talk about Soweto in June ’76 and the months after that in the same way.
“A camera became a dangerous thing to have. Police were going to schools using newspaper pictures to find people. ‘Do you know this one?’ they would ask. ‘Take us to his house !’
“The police also wanted to arrest us. Once when we were driving past Merafe station, a shot was fired through the driver’s side of the car. We were lucky to escape with our lives.”
“A DAY OF PRAYER”
In 1977, Nzima decided to go back to Mhala to open a bottle store. His picture of Hector Petersen has been used so many times, but very few people know that Nzima is the man who took it. Every time it was used his employers got paid, but all Nzima got was a bonus of R100.
“I felt very bad,” he said. “Some people said I could have been a millionaire if I had been paid royalties for that picture. But although I don’t get money, I am happy that the community is happy with the picture. But when people use the picture, they should at least show respect by putting my name on it.”
Nzima still has the camera he used to take the picture of Hector Petersen, but now he uses it to take pictures of his friends and family. His business keeps him very busy. But it has not made him forget about other people.
When refugees from Mozambique who were running away from Renamo started coming to Mhala, Nzima was one of the first people to help them.
Everyday small groups of refugees, barefoot and empty-handed, arrive at his door. He helps them to find food, family members and a place to live.
But if any of them had come on June 16, they would have found his shop closed. “I never miss that day, it’s a day of prayer”, Nzima says. “I spend the day quietly at home. If I went to work I would not be true to myself.”.