‘Hector Pieterson pic ruined my life’Comment on this story
Johannesburg - One picture, taken amid the chaos of flying bullets and crying schoolchildren, became the iconic image that thrust the 1976 Soweto uprisings into world headlines.
But while that photograph exposed the brutality of the apartheid police and shocked the world, it also saw an abrupt end to the career of the man behind the lens.
Photographer Sam Nzima believes while the picture catapulted him to sudden fame, it also destroyed his life.
The small Pentax camera he used on June 16, 1976 had cost him R180, which had taken a year for him to pay off.
It was this camera that captured the image of a limp and bleeding Hector Pieterson in the arms of Mbuyisa Makhubo, running, his face twisted in grief. Hector’s sister, Antoinette, was running beside them crying hysterically.
A few hours before this image was shot, Nzima had marched with the schoolchildren, chatting to them and taking pictures along the way. In Orlando, one of the pupils mentioned that the police were on their way. Nzima, who had an armband that identified him as a member of the press, ran towards neutral ground when the police arrived.
The 79-year-old Nzima remembers the events of the day vividly. “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 skiet.”
The children scattered, screaming.
“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.”
Nzima knew what he had just captured with his camera was big.
He hid the film in his sock. He loaded fresh film and continued shooting. The police confiscated all the film they found on him. They missed the cartridge tucked away in his sock.
At that time, Nzima was working for The World. When his film was developed, there was much deliberation as to whether to publish the powerful picture. There were many rules in place at the time regarding the publication of images. Breaking these could prompt the government to go as far as closing down a newspaper.
In this instance, the picture under discussion depicted a schoolchild who had been shot by the police. The image would enrage the government.
Editor Percy Qoboza and the chief sub-editor decided to go ahead and publish. It was a decision that brought Nzima instant fame.
That momentous decision stopped Hector Pieterson from being a statistic. He was publicly named. His death could not be denied.
However, Nzima believes the picture ruined his career and his life. He also had to grapple with the antagonism of journalists who’d missed the picture and wanted to dispute Nzima’s version of the June 16 events.
“They were trying to shoot down the importance of my picture,” he said.
A year later, he had to uproot his family, leave his job and the media and start a new life in rural Mpumalanga, then known as the Eastern Transvaal.
He’d been told the apartheid police were going to kill him.
While the police had not been happy that the picture had made it into the international media, their anger had mounted when Russia published it the following year.
“Firstly, Russia was a communist country; secondly, it was believed to be supplying Umkhonto we Sizwe with weapons. The appearance of the picture in Russia triggered the police’s desire to kill me,” he said.
He settled in the dusty village of Lilydale where there were no newspapers. Lonely, depressed, penniless, jobless and suffering from post-traumatic stress, Nzima saw the picture as a blessing and a curse.
He opened a bottle store, but the the police continued to harass him.
“They told me that if I caused the trouble I had caused in Soweto, they would beat me up and arrest me. They said I should never take pictures again, address pupils or be seen in a group of three. For a year-and-a-half, I was under house arrest.”
Today, Nzima is bitter. He has never been able to reap the financial rewards that normally come with an image of this magnitude. The copyright belonged to the Argus Group, which owned The World.
After the Independent Newspapers Group bought the Argus Group, The Star gave Nzima the copyright in 1998.
According to photographer Juda Ngwenya, Nzima was unlucky because while the picture was huge, it was taken at the height of apartheid when police brutality towards the media was well known.
Nzima, he said, who had to abandon his career lost out on the opportunity of entering the picture for awards for which he would have won prizes and the chance to travel the world.
“I can’t quantify in monetary terms how much he would have made. But if there had been a byline on that picture, the world would have known from the word go it was his image. He would have been somewhere today. It’s sad,” Ngwenya said.
The Star’s pictures editor Steve Lawrence said it costs about R25 000 for the one-off use of Nzima’s picture. These royalties now go directly to him.
In 2002, the government opened the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto and Nzima’s enlarged picture is displayed outside.
But the thought of the museum pains him.
He says he didn’t make a cent from his pictures which are all over the museum.
“If the City of Joburg was fair, they would compensate me… Inside the museum there are video recordings of people being interviewed about what happened that day, but nothing about me and what I had to say.
“There’s not even a biography about Sam Nzima… “