Sam Nzima, photographer of iconic 1976 Soweto Uprising image, dies after collapse

South African nationals pay their tributes following the death of Sam Nzima, the photographer who captured the famous picture of a dying 13-year-old activist shot by apartheid police during the 1976 Soweto uprising.

Aged 83, Sam Nzima died in a hospital on Saturday in the Mpumalanga province, northwestern city of Nelspruit, said his son, Thulani Nzima.

The compelling photo of the Soweto student uprising shows 16-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying the crumpled body of 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, as Pieterson’s sister reacts in horror. His photograph of a dying Pieterson being carried away after security forces opened fire on young people protesting in Soweto township on 16 June 1976 turned the world’s attention to the brutality of the apartheid regime, catalysing international reactions against South Africa’s system of racial discrimination which ended in 1994. 

Over three days, at least 170 people were killed, with some estimates putting the death toll at several hundred over the following month after which protests spread across South Africa and a new era of black activism emerged. His iconic photograph has been used on everything from billboards to T-shirts.

Photojournalist Sam Nzima stands outside Nzima Liquor Store in his home village of Lilydale in Mpumalanga, 24 June 2014. Nzima opened the store in 1977 after fleeing Soweto following threats against his life. Picture: Refilwe Modise

“Sam Nzima was one of a kind,” said President Cyril Ramaphosa, in a statement on Sunday. “His camera captured the full brutality of apartheid oppression on the nation’s psyche and history.”

“We will especially remember his iconic photograph of a dying young Hector Pieterson, which became a symbol of resistance against the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in the black schools,” said Ramaphosa in a statement.

Nzima’s photo of the dying Pieterson “caused the world to come to terms with the … evil of the apartheid system,” said South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, in a statement. “This came at a price to Nzima who was subjected to countless acts of intimidation.”

Harassed by the apartheid regime, Nzima resigned from The World newspaper and left Johannesburg for his hometown Lilydale, where he was placed under house arrest for 19 months. According to AP, Nzima had earlier said that for many years he regretted taking the photo because it destroyed his career in journalism. But he later became proud when he saw the lasting influence of his photo and its contribution to ending apartheid.

In 1998 Nzima won the copyright for the much reproduced photo which is now the centerpiece of the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum depicting the history of the Soweto students’ uprising on June 16, 1976. The museum was opened in Soweto in 2002 and is one of South Africa’s most visited sites. Pieterson’s sister, Antoinette, whose grief is captured in the photo, has for many years been a guide at the museum.

In 2011 Nzima was awarded South Africa’s Order of Ikhamanga, which honors South Africans who excel in the arts, culture and journalism, and was later named one of the 100 most influential photographs in history by Time Magazine in 2016.

The ruling African National Congress said Nzima’s “emotive iconic (picture) … became a historical landmark feature that forever defined how the 16 June 1976 narrative was told.”