Images and art paint picture of country's history and heritage

Sam Nzima's photograph of Hector Pieterson after he was shot in 1976 became the worldwide image that defined the June 16 student uprising.
Sam Nzima's photograph of Hector Pieterson after he was shot in 1976 became the worldwide image that defined the June 16 student uprising.

Every revolution has its defining moment. The attempted Chinese democracy protest of 1989 stays frozen behind a lone protester facing a column of People's Army tanks at Tiananmen Square. South Africa's defining moment was when police massacred protesting pupils in Soweto; thus sparking an international outcry that set in motion faultlines that cracked apartheid's foundation.

The year is 1996 and I am a young journalist at a community newspaper called Africa Sun, which was started by the late Joas Mashego (no relation) and edited by Lunga Masuku. It is small, with a print run of 5000 copies, but a huge footprint and deep impact in a Bushbuckridge community that has never enjoyed an independent voice.

After writing my first 20th anniversary June 16 commemoration piece, I am invited to the office of the publisher. Upon entering I am met by Mashego sitting with world-renowned photographer Sam Masana Nzima.

I am told Nzima is about to buy his way into the newspaper and if I join the paper full time, I am likely to have Nzima as my boss and me as editor since they are plotting to fire Masuku. I rush to request Nzima to autograph the full spread photograph of a dying Hector Pietersen in the arms of Mbuyiseni Makhubo. He gaily autographs my article and we get down to conversation.

Africa Sun never survived three birthdays. I parted ways with it immediately after Nzima came aboard.

If my memory serves me well, Nzima was still fighting a mammoth battle to gain rights to his historic picture. The next time I met him he told me he had obtained the copyright but was unable to recoup royalties due to him for all the years the picture was used by thousands of publications.

I next met Nzima when then president Thabo Mbeki came to Bushbuckridge to open a project at Maripe High School, the alma mater of politician Mathews Phosa and businessman Reuel Khoza. On the day we meet, Nzima is wearing a stylish shirt modelled from his iconic picture. He is his jovial self and shares his interest to open a photography academy in derelict rural Lillydale. I tease him about writing his biography but he tells me it's already in the pipeline. Nzima believed he was a writer and the photojournalist in him refused to allow someone to narrate his story - which was worth more than a thousand words.

Truth is, the old man tried his best to play a role in the artistic life of Bushbuckridge, especially since the formation of CCIFSA (The Cultural and Creative Industries Federation of SA). His interest lay in photography and he felt young people were not keen to embrace photojournalism. Nzima believed they didn't understand the power of the camera. Nzima always, whenever there were government events, especially visits by national leaders, took photos. I would later peruse newspapers and blogs checking if any of the media had published them, to no avail.

They are probably still pegged on a line in his Lillydale dark room where he lived after retiring. Nzima has won tons of awards, including a 2016 New York Times cover and documentary celebrating his life.

Seven years ago he was honoured with Order of Ikhamanga bronze medal, one of the accolades he revered. I am one of those who feel Nzima was not properly utilised in his old age; especially by those who professed to share his vision of youth development.

Nzima is a former municipal councillor in Bushbuckridge. He wanted to be one of those whose contribution was supposed to move this community, the same way he moved the world forward.

I have attended meetings with him and local government officials where I felt they always paid lip service to his proposals. That people only know one picture, while he shot 1000s others beyond June 16 1976 is an indictment on our arts and culture authorities. I have in the past argued that state buildings and those of SOEs should be adorned with artwork and artefacts produced by South Africans such as Nzima, sculptor Noria Mabasa, December Mpapane, Linda Shongwe, Gerald Sekoto, Jackson Hlungwani, Moses Tladi, Dolores Fleisher etc on loan to facilitate their eternal revenue. I hope Nzima's death injects political will into our culture authorities. We can't have Nandos doing better than the government in honouring local painters.

Famba uyetlela hikurhula tatana Masana Nzima.

*Mashego is a 360 Degrees artist and political analyst.

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