This Photo Galvanized the World Against Apartheid. Here’s the Story Behind It

14 minute read

For a child growing up in Soweto, South Africa, in 1976, apartheid was an abstract concept. White minority rule didn’t mean much in a community that was exclusively black. Parents and neighbors complained of denigrating treatment at work and segregated facilities in the nearby city of Johannesburg, but except for the occasional police superintendent or social worker, many children never encountered white people, and rarely experienced the racial divisions of a repugnant social order that treated most of the country’s residents like a lesser form of humanity.

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That all changed when the government decreed that instead of learning in English, as most black children were, they would be taught in Afrikaans. To 15-year-old Antoinette Sithole, it was a bombshell. Not only was Afrikaans the language of their colonial oppressors—Afrikaans evolved from the Dutch spoken by South Africa’s first European settlers—she was already having a hard time understanding much of her subject matter. “Obviously physical science on its own is very difficult,” remembers Sithole, now 65. “The very same subject that you are struggling with in English, we are going to do them in Afrikaans? This doesn’t make sense.”

So Sithole and an estimated 20,000 other students from Soweto’s high schools decided, in secret, to hold a protest. For a young woman caught up in the heady excitement of drafting slogans, writing signboards and practicing revolutionary songs, it was an immense rush. “We were a little bit scared, you know, but we felt free already. It was like, ‘Now we are taking the streets of Soweto with a message.’” The night before the protest, Sithole ironed her school uniform and packed her school bag with placards, while her younger brother, 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, looked on enviously. Younger students were not supposed to be part of the protest.

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June 16, 1976 dawned cold and cloudy. As Sithole made her way towards the pre-planned gathering point, she had no idea that the protest would not only change the course of South African history, but that it would also profoundly impact her own life, and that of three other people who are now indelibly linked to the uprising through a singular image that rocked the world.

Sam NzimaHector Pieterson, 1976.

Though the protest had been planned secretly, one of the organizers leaked details to the media in order to guarantee coverage. Sam Nzima, a 42-year-old photojournalist with The World newspaper, was sent out to cover it. Nzima got his start in photography by taking portraits with a second-hand Brownie camera. When he made it to The World in 1968, there was nowhere else for a black photographer in apartheid-era South Africa to go—even the news was segregated. The World was written by blacks, for blacks. Its sister publication, The Star, was for whites. “Black photographers were not allowed to work for The Star,” says Nzima. “We were only allowed to interview blacks, and we were not allowed to write about whites.” It didn’t even occur to Nzima to protest. “The thing about protesting, you go to jail,” he remembers.

Nzima arrived at Naledi High School around six in the morning. Students were already preparing their placards, scrawling slogans with thick lines of paint: AWAY WITH AFRIKAANS; AFRIKAANS MUST BE ABOLISHED; WE ARE BEING CERTIFIED BUT NOT EDUCATED. Even then, Nzima felt a thick sense of foreboding. Few of the children had any experience with the apartheid state, but he had seen plenty of police crackdowns in his work. They never ended peacefully. “I knew that they would be arrested or be killed. There were no rubber bullets back then. It was live ammunition. When they pull out the gun, you must know that you are dead.”

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A few hours later, students were pouring in from across Soweto, waving their placards and singing. Everyone she knew was there, says Sithole. Friends from school, distant acquaintances from church and cousins from miles away. “It was amazing,” she remembers. “It was like we were going on a school trip, but on foot.” Suddenly, she heard a bang, and thick clouds of teargas filled the streets. Police marched down the streets, shouting at the students to disperse. “We all ran amok in confusion, running for cover, dashing into other people’s homes,” remembers Sithole. She didn’t understand why her eyes were burning until someone explained tear gas and gave her water to soothe the pain.

When Sithole crept out of her hiding place, she spotted her younger brother across the street. “He was not supposed to be there. He was too young to understand what was really going on,” she recalls. She waved, and he smiled, too caught up in the excitement to be afraid. Sithole shouted at him to stay put. She kept telling him that they would be ok; that she would find a way to get him home, but inside she was terrified. “I was just saying that because I’m a big sister trying to be brave and bold.”

Several students regrouped, and started singing the banned liberation anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika,”or “Lord Bless Africa.” Nzima stood off to the side, between the students and the police, and watched as an enraged white commander shot his gun directly into the crowd. The students scattered. By the time Sithole returned to the street, her brother was nowhere to be found. “Everybody was just shooting at random,” says Nzima. He rushed in with his camera. “I saw a little boy fall down.”

From her position on the edge of the crowd, Sithole saw a man run past with a body in his arms. “The first thing that I spotted was my brother’s shoes,” she says. Confused, Sithole caught up with him. “Who are you?” she demanded. “This is my brother. I’ve been looking for him. Where are you taking him?” But the man just kept on running. Sithole, desperate to keep up, looked more closely at the limp body in his arms. “I saw blood coming from the side of the mouth. I panicked. ‘Can’t you see he’s hurt?’” she shouted at the man. “Who are you, where are you taking him?”

A car screeched to a halt in front of them to transport the boy to a nearby medical clinic, but it was already too late. “He’s dead,” the man told Sithole, as he placed the body in the car. “Hearing that, I was torn into two,” says Sithole. “I could see myself on the other end crying in desperation. It was not real. It was like, this couldn’t be happening. I was with my brother just now. How could this have happened?”

It wasn’t until two years later that Sithole learned the name of the man who had tried to save her brother. Eighteen-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubo had already finished school, so he wasn’t part of the protest. But he knew about it from his friends. He was at home when he heard the gunfire. “Mama, they are killing the kids,” he shouted, according to his sister, Gwendolyn Nontsikelelo. He tore through the backyard, leapt over the gate and ran to help. To his older sister, now 61, that was typical Makhubo, always trying to lend a hand. It was a bit of a family joke—whenever his mother sent him out to sell apples at a football match to earn some extra money, he invariably gave a few away to the hungry, despite shorting his own profits.

Nzima, the photographer, vividly remembers hearing Makhubo’s anguish as he tried to save the boy. “‘I must try to help this dying bleeding boy,’” he said, as he ran towards to the clinic.

From the time the white policeman fired his first shot, to the point where the boy’s body was loaded into the car, Nzima took six pictures. Even though he had been anticipating violence, he still wasn’t prepared. “I did not expect to see a 13-year-old boy being shot by the police.” he says. “So many were injured. So many were killed. But Hector Pieterson was the first.” Nzima knew the photos were good, but he also knew he would be singled out by the police for photographing the violence. So he rewound the film mid-roll and stuffed it in his sock. He started on a fresh roll, as enraged students turned on the police. “The students got hold of one policeman and they put him down on the ground and they slaughtered him like a goat,” recalls Nzima. “They set him on fire. He was burnt beyond recognition.” When other officers saw that Nzima was still taking pictures, they forced him to open up all his cameras. “All the films were exposed,” says Nzima. “And that one of the policeman who was killed by the students was destroyed.”

Nzima often thinks about the two scenes he captured that day. One of a boy being killed by the police, and another of students killing a policeman. Only one image made it back to The World. Had it been the other, South Africa’s history might have been a lot different. When the photos were developed a few hours later, an argument broke out among editors at The World over whether or not to run the now iconic image of a clearly traumatized Makhubo carrying a dead boy in his arms, his sister running alongside in anguish. “There was a big debate,” recalls Nzima. “This picture is going to horrify the people,” one editor said. “If we use this picture, it’s going to spark civil war in South Africa.” Another countered that there was no better illustration of what was happening in Soweto. Children had been killed by the apartheid police. The latter argument won, and The World published an evening Extra edition.

No one was prepared for the impact. The World had a relationship with international wire agencies, and by the next day, Nzima’s photo was splashed across the front pages of newspapers from New York to Moscow. Suddenly the world could no longer ignore the horror of apartheid. Almost overnight, international opinion hardened against South Africa’s apartheid regime. The U.S. government condemned the shooting, and activists worldwide began lobbying for economic sanctions, which eventually brought the apartheid government to its knees. In South Africa the picture helped launch a civil uprising and emboldened the black liberation movement. “We never thought that would be the turning point,” says Sithole. “The protest was about Afrikaans in school. But it raised eyebrows for other countries that this is not right. How can kids be killed for claiming their rights?”

Sam Nzima's photo used in The World on June 16, 1976.The World

Though the photo’s publication would eventually bring about the end of apartheid, in 1994, for Nzima, Sithole and Makhubo the immediate aftermath was horrifying. Nzima started getting harassed by the police. A few days after the photo’s publication he got a call from a friend in the force. “Sam,” said the friend, “Choose between your job and your life.” The police had been given new orders: “Wherever you find Sam taking pictures, shoot at him, kill him. Then you come and fill the forms here that it was a stray bullet.”

Nzima immediately resigned from The World, and fled for his hometown of Lillydale, a hardscrabble hamlet a day’s drive from Johannesburg. Three months later the police caught up to him and put him under house arrest. He never took a photo again. The government shut down The World two years later, and raided the office. Nzima’s negatives are thought to have been destroyed.

Sithole buried her brother two weeks later, on July 3. At the beginning she couldn’t bear to look at the photo. “It used to break me in pieces,” she says. But over time she was able to put it into a kind of perspective. More than 170 people died that day, and hundreds more in subsequent uprisings. “We were not the only ones,” she says.

Nontsikelelo only heard about her brother’s role when she passed a newsstand on her way home from work that evening. He didn’t come home until very late, and he refused to talk about it. “He just changed from that day,” recalls Nontsikelelo. “He was hurt, he was confused. I think he felt bad that Hector died. His intention was to save him.” Soweto was in flames, and the riots lasted for days. “It was very tense. You didn’t know what to feel, what to say,” says Nontsikelelo.

Soon the police started coming around. They accused Makhubo of posing the photo in order to embarrass the government. Makhubo slipped deeper into depression. He stopped sleeping at home. And then one day, he just left. The family set a place for him at the table for Christmas dinner. When he didn’t come home, they decided they would never celebrate Christmas again.

Makhubo phoned home once, from Botswana. The family would get scraps of news from time to time through anti-apartheid activists. The last they heard of him was in 1978. He sent a letter from Nigeria saying he was planning on walking to Jamaica. That was Nontsikelelo’s first indication that he was mentally unstable. “How can a man walk from Nigeria to Jamaica?” she asks.

For Makhubo’s family, the photograph elicits mixed emotions. “To us the picture is a misery,” says Nontsikelelo, as she gazes at a replica on the bookshelf of her Soweto home. “This guy just disappeared off the face of the earth. Where is he? Did he die? If he did, how? Who was there? That’s the thing that makes us miserable.” The hardest thing, she says, is the sense that she should have done more to help him. “When I look at his frowning face, I want to say to him, ‘Don’t worry, you tried your best. You’re not responsible that [the boy] died. You did what you did to help him. Please don’t be sad.’”

Back in Lillydale, Nzima picks up his old Pentax, the camera that made him famous—and ended his career. He hits the shutter button and winds the non-existent film in a habit untarnished by decades of disuse. “That picture destroyed my future in journalism,” says Nzima, now 83. “I regretted that I took the picture at that time, because I was compelled to leave my job. Now I say people are free in South Africa because of the contribution that I’ve done by this picture.”

Every year Nzima meets with young South African student groups to teach them about the Soweto uprising. Sithole helped establish and run Soweto’s Hector Pieterson museum and memorial. But both still regret Makhubo’s disappearance. “I wish Mbuyisa can come back home,” says Nzima. “Then Mbuyisa, Antoinette, and myself can come together and say, ‘Well done. We have shaped a lot in South Africa.’”

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