This is the true story of a simple man, born, raised and still living in Africa.
I mention the fact that he lives where he does, because he doesn’t have to…..or didn’t have to. His work brought him international fame, and were he like most human beings who have this kind of publicity thrust upon them, he could have capitalised on it and achieved even greater fame and lived a very comfortable life overseas in the West.
But no. This man chose to go and live back in his birthplace, a place broken down by poverty. There is no running water, no drainage system, and what electricity there is, is intermittent. The people living there have no jobs, there is hardly any education program going on, people have to make do by growing what little food or keeping chickens and other animals they can, on tiny plots next to their tin shacks.
This man is Sam Nzima, or to give him his full name, Masana Sam Nzima. He lives in a little village called Lilydale, near Bushbuckridge, South Africa.
I had never even heard of the guy, to tell you the truth, when a colleague of mine mentioned his name. But I had indeed seen the work that catapulted him into the eyes of the world in June 16th 1976. This is that picture:
Sam was born in August 1934, in the same village he now lives in. His father and his family lived and worked on the farm there. What little savings his father managed to squirrel away, went on getting as best an education for Sam as they could afford.
It was while Sam was at school that he first set eyes on a camera that his teacher showed them. Of course, he could never have afforded to buy the same one as his teacher, but after many months of begging, his father finally relented and bought Sam a camera. Granted, it was only a very simple Kodak Brownie, but it began nurturing a creative seed in his little mind.
When school was out, Sam used to take his camera to the nearby Kruger National Park and offer to take visitor’s photographs for a small fee. That gave him some pocket money to buy films and get them processed. But very soon, he reached an age when the farmer where his father worked decided that Sam should begin work, and so Sam was put to work alongside his father, doing manual work.
At such a young age, Sam was unable to work to such a punishing schedule, lasting just under a year, and at the earliest opportunity, he ran away to try his luck in the main town. There he managed to set himself up as a gardener, all the while carrying on with his studies on a correspondence course basis. Soon after, in 1956, he completed his studies and found better paying work at the Savoy Hotel as a waiter. There he met a man who also loved photography and who taught him as much as he himself knew. Soon Sam was taking portraits of the workers at the hotel and making good money on top of his salary.
And so he went from job to job, and learning about photography along the way.
During another of his odd jobs working as a switch-board operator at the Chelsea Hotel, he met more people who looked at his photographic work and pushed him to trying his hand at journalism. So Sam started reading as much about journalism as he could, by reading the local papers, looking at the type of shots they published and the kind of writing they preferred. Spending a few more years working in town, he finally decided to leave and head back home to the farm where his father and family lived, only to find they had moved out.
Finding work yet again back in town, Sam hit upon writing about and taking shots of the bus driver whose bus Sam used to take every morning to get to work, much like a documentary. This he did with much enthusiasm and once his writing and photos were ready, he sent them to the local newspaper, The World, which just happened to be a black daily.
Fortunately for Sam, the editor accepted his first work and thereafter offered Sam regular work on a freelance basis, which later became a full-time job in 1968.
During his time at The World, he was sent to cover a small protest by young students and children in Soweto, who were protesting against a law that said black students must be taught in Afrikaans only, the language of the minority rulers. The protest started peacefully but when the police ordered the participants to disperse, for no reason, except that they were singing the song”Nkosi Sikelel iAfrica” or “God Bless Africa”, violence erupted, in which Sam was caught up.
That song, which is now the national anthem of South Africa, was at that time banned by the apartheid Government.
Copyright © artdaily.org
Copyright © artdaily.org
The police began shooting at, without looking at who they were shooting at. Children, some as young as 10 years old, were mown down by gunfire. Sam saw this happening and knew this was very important to record, and that the world needed to know what happened here on that day, so he started taking his photos. Very soon, he was noticed by the police officers, who, knowing they had broken universal protocols of shooting at unarmed and harmless civilians, pulled his camera away from him and emptied it of the film he had loaded inside it.
Unknown to them, Sam had hidden the first roll in his sock. “I was just shooting, I didn’t have a sense of what pictures I was taking… But something told me that I needed to protect these pictures. So I took the film and hid it in my sock. The police did stop me… they ripped out the film I had put in my camera and exposed it to the light. But the film in my sock, they didn’t see that…”
The film in his sock contained one of the most iconic shots of our lifetimes, certainly as powerful as that shot of the screaming girl running away naked from a napalm bomb attack in Vietnam. The shot Sam took, purely by chance, showed apartheid brutality at it’s worst. It showed a young boy, Hector Pieterson dying of a bullet wound, and his sister running hysterically alongside, being carried to help in the arms of his frightened and desperate friend, Mbuyisa Makhubo, who himself shortly disappeared after fearing for his life.
Soon after The World decided to publish Sam’s photo, he was forced to go underground and leave his job at the newspaper, due to numerous death threats from apartheid followers and the security police, who kept him under constant surveillance. The World was banned in 1978. Other newspapers asked Sam to join hem, but he was forced to keep in hiding, for fear of his life.
“It’s very difficult to live in a place where you don’t have water. It’s a quite long time that we don’t have water here. It’s very difficult; we just survive on hiring vans to go and fetch water from the other place. You have to pay somebody to go and fetch water for you.” he says.
As is always the case, lack of sanitation has caused disease to move in. Bilharzia, a water-borne disease of the kidneys, has begun to affect the people, mainly children and the old.
The only water there is, is in stagnant ponds, which are also used to dump the raw sewage into. Disease is inevitable.
Asked why he prefers to live here rather than move to the city or even overseas, now that apartheid is no more, Sam says “I was born and brought up among the community so to live with them I feel very much comfortable in this community because I’m used to solving people’s problems, so I’m happy to help them to solve this water problem. Whatever they do, I’m always with them.
I lived a long time in the city of Johannesburg, but I feel here now I’m free. Although I was under house arrest in this same house, I now feel free to live in this house again.”
It is indeed sad to see a man and his community still living in abject poverty, while his work that caused such huge changes in the country, has yet to filter down to grass roots level.
One would have thought that installing a simple hand-pump operated water supply in such days of high technology to be an achievable aim, but alas, perhaps there are other forces at play here, this time with the people running the country now.
all photos courtesy flickr.com unless otherwise stated