Masana Sam Nzima was born 8 August, 1934 in Lillydale, a small village in Bushbuck Ridge, 30 minutes off any main road. He grew up on a farm where his father worked and the family lived. While at school Sam had a teacher who had a camera and Nzima was fascinated by the concept of pictures coming out of a box, so he bought himself a Box camera.
During the school holidays he would go to the Kruger National Park and charge people to get their photographs taken by him. After nine months of doing manual labour he ran away to Johannesburg where he found work as a gardener. In 1956, he left Heiningham to work at the Savoy Hotel as a waiter. That is where he met Patrick Rikotso, who taught him more about photography and Sam would sell domestic workers portraits he had taken of them on their day off. When he left the Savoy he went to the Chelsea Hotel in Hillbrow where he was switchboard operator. He used to buy the Rand Daily Mail and read articles by Allister Sparks. These inspired him to become a photojournalist and he learnt to develop his writing skills by reading these articles and then emulating the writing style.
Once he was confident enough with his writing and photography he went home to Bushbuck Ridge, by now the whole family had left the old farm and were living elsewhere. He photographed and wrote a story on a bus owner in named Stick Nyalungu. He went to The World newspaper in Johannesburg and asked the editor if he was willing to publish his story. It was published as a feature article and he started freelancing for The World. In 1968 Nzima was offered a fulltime job as a photojournalist by The World and he accepted. However, he started concentrating more on his photography and less on writing as the pressure of writing and photographing for a daily newspaper started weighing him down.
Eight years later, on 15 June 1976 there was a press conference in Soweto that stated the children would march in the morning to fight for their education. Sam Nzima would be assigned to the story that would impact the world and take away his self taught career. One six shot sequence that includes one front page photo led to threats on his life and his escape to his roots. Nzima traded his career for his life, just another pain of apartheid. In Bushback Ridge, he owns a bottle shop and has dreams of starting a journalism school. This day, the 16th of June is always painful to him. He has lived as an eyewitness to the uprising like no other. He fired a shot seen ‘round the world that changed millions of lives … including his.
Watch Sal Masekela’s piece on Sam Nzima today on ESPN’s coverage of the FIFA World Cup along with a series of other reports on Youth Day in South Africa. 16 June is similar in spirit to Memorial Day in the States which honors the children for standing up for the proper education for the generations to come. … Follow the World Cup on espn.com and Sal on salmasekela.com