Masana Nzima

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Sam Nzima

Biographical information


For his excellent contribution in photo journalism and placing the brutality of the Apartheid police in the international spotlight, Nzima was conferred with the Order of Ikhamanga in Bronze

First name: 
Last name: 
Date of birth: 
8 August 1934
Location of birth: 
Lillydale, a small village in Bushbuck Ridge, Northern Transvaal (now Limpopo Province)

Masana Samuel “Sam” Nzima was born on 8 August 1934 in Lillydale, a small village in Bushbuckridge, located in the south- eastern part of Limpopo Province and the north eastern part of Mpumalanga Province. He grew up on a farm where his family lived and his father worked. When the farmer pressed the young Nzima into farm labour, he ran away, after nine months of working on the farm, to Johannesburg where he found a job as a gardener in Henningham.

Hector Pieterson being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo after being shot by South African police. His sister, Antoinette Sithole, runs beside them. Photograph by Sam Nzima.

Nzima is famous for the photograph of Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying a slumped and bleeding Hector Peterson away from the crowd at the student protest – the Soweto Uprising – on 16 June 1976. This image depicts Petersen, carried by Makhubu, with Hector’s sister, Antoinette Peterson, beside them. Hector Peterson had been shot by the police who opened fire on the protesting students.

His interest in photography developed at a very young age when one of his teachers had a camera. He was fascinated by the concept of pictures coming out of a box. Nzima bought himself a Kodak Box Brownie camera. During the school holidays, he would go to the Kruger National Park and charge people to get their photographs taken by him.

In 1956, Nzima was employed as a waiter at the Savoy Hotel. At the hotel, a photographer named Patrick Rikotso taught him photography and soon Nzima began taking portraits of workers. While later at the Chelsea Hotel, Nzima started reading the Rand Daily Mail newspaper, and he became very interested in photojournalism.

He wrote a story about travelling on buses and sent it with photographs to The World, a black African daily newspaper. The editor of The World was interested in Nzima’s work and requested that he work as a freelancer for the paper.

In 1968, Nzima was invited to join the paper as a full-time photojournalist. However, he started concentrating more on his photography and less on writing as the pressure of writing and photographing for a daily newspaper started to weigh him down.

When Nzima took the photograph of Hector Peterson, he was still working for The World and was covering the students strike for the paper. Subsequently, the newspaper published the photograph taken during the riots.

Towards the end of 1976, the South African Security Police started targeting students, journalists, as well as photographers, who had been at the June 16 Uprising. This carried on into 1977. He was affected by this and decided to return to Lillydale.

Here he set up a bottle store, as a form of diversion. But soon, a member of the security branch from Nelspruit came to his bottle store and told him that they knew what he had done. He was told that he was not allowed to leave his home for any reason and if he did he would be arrested. To ensure that he complied with their instruction, the police checked on him every Friday for three months.

When The World was closed down by the Government in 1978, the Rand Daily Mail and The Star newspapers requested Nzima to work for them. Fearing for his life, Nzima turned down their offers. In 1979, Chief Minister Hudson Ntswanisi of the Gazankulu Homeland offered him a job at the legislative assembly.

He lives in Lillydale, where he runs a photography school. He has served on the councils of the Lillydale municipality and of the Bohlabela District in Limpopo.

Following a lengthy battle, assisted by a legal firm, Nzima received the copyright for his world famous photograph after 22 years.

In recognition of his contribution to photojournalism and placing the brutality of the Apartheid police in the international spotlight, the State President, Jacob G Zuma, conferred Masana Samuel “Sam” Nzima with the Order of Ikhamanga in Bronze on 27 April 2011.

• Presentation Of National Orders, Masana Samuel “Sam” Nzima, from the Presidency, online. Available at [Accessed 7 May 2011]
•  Bushbuckridge Local Municipality. [Available at] online. [Accessed on 7 May 2011]
•  Anon (unknown), Sam Nzima, Available at online. [Accessed on 7 May 2011]

Last updated : 17-Nov-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 17-Feb-2011