Masana Sam Nzima was born on August 8, 1934 in the small village of Lillydale at Bushbuck Ridge in what today is the South African province of Mpumalanga. His father worked as a labourer for a white farmer. Nzima became interested in photography through his teacher who had a camera. While still at school, Sam bought a Kodak Brownie and began taking portrait photographs in the Kruger National Park. When the farmer pressed Nzima into farm labour when he was in Grade 8, he ran away after nine months to Johannesburg. He found a job as a gardener in Henningham. He completed his high school education through correspondence courses.
In 1956 Nzima found work as a waiter at the Savoy Hotel, where Patrick Rikotso taught him further photography skills. Nzima took portraits of domestic workers. He then worked as a switchboard operator at the Chelsea Hotel in Hillbrow for eight years. While at the Chelsea Hotel Nzima started reading The Rand Daily Mail newspaper. Through the articles of Allister Sparks he became interested in photojournalism.
While home at Bushbuckridge he wrote a story about a bus driver and sent it with photographs to The World, a black African daily newspaper in Johannesburg. The editor of The World first invited Nzima to work as a freelance photojournalist, then from 1968 as a full-time occupation. Over the years he concentrated more on his photography, due to the pressure associated with doing both the photography and the journalism.
On June 16, 1976, the Soweto uprising began as police confronted protesting students. Nzima took the photograph of fatally-wounded Hector Pieterson (12) on the corner of Moema and Vilakazi Streets in Orlando West, Soweto, near Phefeni High School. In the image, Hector is carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo, with Hector's sister Antoinette Pieterson (17) running alongside. After The World published the photo on its front page the next day, Nzima had to hide due to continued harassment by security police. He moved back to Bushbuck Ridge, where he was kept under surveillance by security police. Makhubo fled the country for the same reason, and was last heard of from Nigeria, in 1978. Antoinette became a tour guide at the Hector Pieterson Museum
When The World was closed down by the government in 1978, the in Johannesburg newspapers The Rand Daily Mail and The Star newspapers wanted Nzima to work for them. He declined, fearing that the security forces would kill him.
In 1979 Chief Minister Hudson Ntsanwisi of the Gazankulu bantustan made Nzima a member of the legislative assembly.
After years of struggling to get the copyright for his Pieterson image, the The Star newspaper finally relented in 1998. Most recently he was living in Lillydale, Bushbuckridge, where he ran a photography school. He served on the councils of the Bushbuck Ridge municipality and of the Bohlabela District.
Nkuna says he believes that Mr. Nzima is one of the unsung heroes, with stories that need to be told.
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