June 16: The Story Behind the Photograph


In the 1940s a young man called Sam Nzima, from a tiny village in rural Mpumalanga, was inspired by the beauty and animals in the nearby Kruger National Park to start taking photos. In another time and different circumstances he would have received fame, accolades and awards but today few people recognise his name – and it was only recently that he received any credit at all for a photograph that shaped South Africa’s history.

Whilst the photo is internationally acclaimed (Time Magazine selected it as one of the 100 most influential photos of all time*) and is instantly recognisable to South Africans, it brought the man who captured it nothing but misery and frustration.

* It is the only South African photo on the list although the ‘Starving Child with Vulture’ picture that the much more celebrated and famous Pulitzer Prize Winning South African photographer, Kevin Carter, took in Ayod, Sudan is also on the list.

Masana Samuel “Sam” Nzima was born on 8 August 1934 in the village of Lillydale. Young Sam wanted to stay in school but there was a system on the local farm where boys who came of age needed to earn their keep by working on the farm. So, instead of starting high school, Sam was pressed into farm labour, which he hated. After a few months working the fields, he fled to Johannesburg. Here he found work as a gardener and managed to complete his high school education. He then found work as a waiter at the Savoy Hotel and was able to refine his photography skills after being mentored by a photographer he befriended at the hotel.

His photographic skills earned him some freelance work and eventually a full-time photojournalist position at The World (a black daily Johannesburg newspaper formerly known as The Bantu World).

It was in this capacity as a photojournalist that he found himself in Vilakazi Street, Soweto, covering the student uprisings to protest the decision that all mathematics and science school lessons would henceforth only be taught in Afrikaans.

The date was of course June 16, 1976 and the image that Sam Nzima captured was that of a fatally wounded 13-year old boy, Hector Pieterson, carried by a distraught Mbuyisa Makhubu and flanked by Hector’s devastated sister Antoinette. Mbuyisa was fleeing the gunfire and took Hector to the closest vehicle he could find, which happened to be that of the press core. Hector Pieterson had been shot in the head by a policeman’s bullet and was pronounce dead on arrival at the Phefeni Clinic.

Antoinette Sithole (nee Pieterson) stands next to Sam Nzima’s iconic photograph outside the Hector Pieterson Memorial in Soweto. Antoinette, sister of the slain Hector Pieterson, worked as a tour guide in the museum (photo by Gideon Mendel-Corbis via Getty Images).

Sam knew he had captured a significant image and hid the spool of film in his sock. All his other rolls of film were confiscated by the police shortly thereafter. The next day the photo appeared on the front page of The World and shortly thereafter in the foreign (especially British) press. The photo is credited as the catalyst that opened the apathetic eyes of the international community to the horrors and brutality of Apartheid.

Sam received a R100 bonus for the picture. It was the last piece of photojournalism he would ever do.

The security police started targeting students, journalists and photographers who had been at the June 16 uprising. Mbuyisa Makhubu disappeared without a trace a few months later. When Sam received a tip-off from a police informant that his life was in danger, he resigned from the paper, uprooted his family and fled back to Lilydale. His hopes of living a quiet life were in vain as a member of the local Nelspruit security police confronted him with, “We know what you did.” Sam was placed under house arrest for 18 months and was continually harassed and threatened.

Sam struggled for years to get the copyright for the picture, which belonged to The Argus (who owned The World). He finally received the rights to his picture in 1998 after the Independent Newspapers Group bought the Argus Group. However, this still brought him very little recognition, fame or financial gain. When the Hector Pieterson Museum was opened in Soweto in 2002 it prominently featured Sam Nzima’s photographs but Sam’s name was missing from any credits or acknowledgements. As recently as 2006, a Mail and Guardian article commemorating the June 16 uprising credited the photo to another (much better known) photographer, Peter Magubane.

Sam Nzima outside the liquor store he owned in Lilyvale holding the Pentax camera he used to capture the June 16 uprising. (photo from The Citizen)

Sam Nzima eventually received some recognition for his contribution to photojournalism when he was awarded the bronze National Order of Ikhamanga from the presidency on Freedom Day in 2011 (17 years after South Africa achieved democracy).

Although Sam’s house arrest officially ended in 1979, he never left Lilydale again nor took another professional photo. Masana Samuel “Sam” Nzima collapsed at home in May 2018 and died shortly there afterwards at the age of 83.

This article originally appeared in the marathon report I wrote on the Great East Marathon (which starts and finishes in Lilydale’s neighbouring village of Kildare). The original article can be found here: Great East Marathon (The Kruger Park run)

Information sources / further reading:

Sam Nzima: The man behind the iconic photo of the fight against apartheid – BBC News

How one photograph changed the world : Mail & Guardian Online (archive.org)

‘Hector Pieterson pic ruined my life’ (iol.co.za)


South African History Online (sahistory.org.za): Sam Nzima

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5 Replies to “June 16: The Story Behind the Photograph”

  1. I remember that photo very well, that incident happened only a month after you were born, and made me very worried and concerned about the direction we were heading. It was the turning point for South Africa’s relationship with the rest of the world which finally led to the end of apartheid.

  2. I loved this article. Top-notch journalism, much respect Sir. I bet many of us didn’t know the story behind this famous photo. Proud to be your follower

  3. The narrative was more than just not wanting to be taught in afrikaans but also that the amount of funding allocated to “bantu” education was way less that was spent on other groups education ie. coloured bit more but most on white childrens education. The saddest fact today is that those that protested then are now in government. They are not honouring those that died in 1976 as the current education of school children today is in no way acceptable in the lack of commitment to improve facilities(toilets just to name 1). To claim an 80% pass rate for Matrics when less than have that started school finnish 12 years later.

  4. Well done, this outstanding reporting. Thank you for the article, it gives good information. I am sorry for Sam to have to fight for something that was due to him “recognition” but denied.

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