South African Social Documentary Photography

Sam Nzima, 1976

WARNING: This post contains graphic content and may be upsetting to some people.

The image of a dying Hector Pieterson became the symbol of the Soweto Uprising and provoked international outrage

Social documentary photographers are driven by the desire to record significant historical moments. Even greater is their desire for their images to be recognised all over the world as icons that symbolise a particular period in time. In 1976, South African photographer Sam Nzima took such an image. It is my contention that Nzima’s photograph of a dying Hector Pieterson played a significant role in shaping the face of South African social documentary photography, and in many ways contributed to the mounting pressure to end apartheid. 

Apartheid, meaning ‘separateness’, was a system of racial segregation legalised and enforced by the National Party government in 1948 following a general election. A string of laws were passed which became known as ‘petty apartheid’. There was a ban of racially mixed marriages, black people were not permitted to live or work in designated white areas unless they had a pass, and they were not allowed to cast a vote, which motivated Nelson Mandela’s ‘One Man, One Vote’ slogan. These restrictions and countless more rules that were put in place served to devalue the majority black population.

In 1974 The National Party used the 1909 Constitution (a policy that recognised only Afrikaans and English as official languages) as justification to initiate the Afrikaans Medium Decree. (1) 

This policy forced all black children and students to be taught exclusively in a mix of Afrikaans and English. This led to anger and frustration amongst students who felt their language and identity were being sidelined and ultimately led to student protests. The most famous of these protests began on the 16th June 1976, and is now known as the Soweto Uprising. More than 15,000 students gathered for a non-violent march in Soweto, but were very quickly surrounded by a police patrol. Some students began provoking the police and a minority set fire to a police dog. The police attempted to calm the students verbally, and then resorted to using tear gas to disperse the crowd. Eventually, the commanding officer, “Colonel Kleingdel, drew his handgun and fired a shot, causing panic and chaos.” (2) 

Shots of ‘sharp ammunition’ (live rounds) were fired into the crowd made up mainly of children and young adults. The original death toll released by the government was 23 people, but it is believed as many as 600 may have been killed. (3)

The media named Hector Pieterson as the first of the children to die. Interestingly, it was a boy named Hastings Ndlovu who was actually the first victim. Nzima had photographed Pieterson, whereas Ndlovu’s death was not captured on film. His name ultimately became lost compared to those who were immortalised in the horrific images captured by photographers who arrived at the scene of the shootings shortly after Ndlovu’s death. 

Twelve year old Hector Pieterson was shot by police shortly after the firing began. A fellow student, Mbuyisa Makhubo, picked him up and carried his lifeless body to a car and he was driven to a nearby clinic. He was later pronounced dead. 

Photojournalist Sam Nzima who was working for The World Newspaper at the time of the uprising, and was one of the first photographers to arrive at the scene said, “I picked up my camera and was shooting him while I was running backwards. I took this picture under the shower of bullets, of course.” (4)

 Sam Nzima, 1976

The emotional terror of this impossible situation is most prominent on the face of Hector Pieterson’s seventeen year old sister, Antoinette. As they run away from the gunfire, Makhubo’s distress is also visible and he is seen holding onto Pieterson incredibly tightly, as if to keep him alive with his strong grip. The image is an echo of Ian Berry’s photographs of a similar incident in Sharpeville sixteen years earlier, but it is the fact that this war-like scene focuses on three children that adds to the sheer horror of what started out as a peaceful protest and ended in many being killed. 

The World Newspaper published the image alongside an article of the day’s events leading people all over the world to be deeply outraged by what had taken place the previous day. Former South African Ambassador to the UN, Pik Botha, stated, “I vividly remember that photograph went right across the world, and immediately there was reaction” (5)

The international community had been relatively passive about the system of apartheid, but when Sam Nzima’s image was released and more news of events emerged, they began the process of standing up against it, putting tremendous pressure on South Africa’s National Party to disband the apartheid regime. Much of this pressure came in the form of economic sanctions. As Sophie Tema, Journalist from The World Newspaper commented, “That picture actually caused the change that eventually came in South Africa.” (6)

As well as the national and international response to the photograph, the image also had personal repercussions. Sam Nzima and Mbuyisa Makhubo, the boy who carried Hector Pieterson’s body, both feared they would be killed by security police and were forced into hiding. “The police started to hunt for me, they wanted to arrest me. They claimed that I had destroyed the image of the country of South Africa.” (7) The irony is, that the false image of South Africa needed to be destroyed. The publication of one image exposed what was really happening in South Africa.

Following the Soweto uprising of 1976, the South African government recognised how damaging the image had been to their hold on power over the majority black people. Out of fear of international sanctions they increased their control over photographic imagery. Strict enforcement laws became commonplace, but documentary photography continued as images of a struggling South Africa became increasingly sought after by the international media. 

In reaction to the new enforcement laws, photographer Omar Badsha determinedly commented, “Photographs are so powerful that the state makes sure that no cameramen are allowed on the streets…but we are going to tape this whole meeting right until the end because this stuff has to be documented” (8)

Another photographer, who chose to remain anonymous, made his frustrations known when he said, “I am not a writer; I am a photographer. My work is about creating images for the news and other media. I feel compelled to communicate what I see, in written form, because the general media restrictions have intervened in our work to the extent that it is almost impossible to operate.” (9)

The face of documentary photography had changed in South Africa. The international reaction to Sam Nzima’s image of Hector Pieterson and the controlling response from The National Party helped a new breed of image making rise to the surface and despite the restrictions, social documentary photography flourished. These images, which often had to be smuggled out of South Africa secretly, were playing a crucial role in relaying to the international community evidence of the injustice of apartheid.

In a conversation with Omar Badsha, photographer Paul Weinberg said, “You are looking at times when a single picture, or a bit of information can actually sway public opinion and world opinion. It is incredible to be aware of the power that one has as a photographer.” (10)

As a response to the new working conditions documentary photographers faced, Omar Badsha and Paul Weinberg founded Afrapix in 1981. Afrapix existed as a ‘photographic collective dedicated to the editorial control of resistance photography’. (11) Young black and white photographers were trained and supported through various workshops, and the agency provided an outlet for images of struggle. The founding of Afrapix came at a time when documentary photography was experiencing yet more changes. The focus became much more subtle and looked at themes of sadness, strength and dignity. The photographers who recorded these emotions were known as ‘Struggle and Resistance’ photographers because they showed through imagery how the majority blacks were resisting the effects of apartheid. Afrapix was not the first collective of resistance photographers, but it was the first to call itself an agency. 

Another vital source of information was Drum Magazine, which started in 1951 as ‘African Drum’. The importance of Drum cannot be underestimated. It was a magazine aimed at black South Africans which “linked and shared ideologies, beliefs and abilities [and] was influential and entertaining, bringing voice to an at-times voiceless people.” Peter Magubane, now one of the country’s most famous photographers, started working with Drum Magazine in 1954. He too was in Soweto on 16th June 1976, and during the era of apartheid also ran into problems as a result of the photographic restrictions. He was shot at, detained, and imprisoned. Speaking about the risk of being caught by police, he said, “On occasion I hid my camera in a hollowed-out Bible, firing with a cable release in my pocket.” (12)

According to Magubane, “Drum was a different home; it did not have apartheid. There was no discrimination in the offices of Drum magazine. It was only when you left Drum and entered the world outside of the main door that you knew you were in apartheid land.” (13)

While Drum Magazine and Afrapix continued recruiting resistance photographers, prominent South African documentary photographer David Goldblatt praised them for being ‘talented and courageous’ but disagreed with their approach. Goldblatt had a very different style to many of the other photographers working in South Africa during the era of apartheid. At an African National Congress conference concerning the arts and liberation, Goldblatt said, “The camera is not a machine gun and photographers shouldn’t confuse their response to the politics of the country with their role as photographers.” (14)

Afrapix took the view that photographers should boldly expose a story as positive or negative with a subjective approach, whereas Goldblatt exercised a certain degree of dispassion and objectivity. He was criticised for this, but defended his stance by commenting, “I tried to avoid easy judgements. This resulted in a photography that appeared to be disengaged and apolitical, but which was in fact the opposite.” (15)

Goldblatt took his documentation further than the violence of apartheid and illuminated the structures and values surrounding every day life in South Africa. Goldblatt allowed the images themselves to inform a political viewpoint. The ANC, however, did not appreciate much of Goldblatt’s work as they felt it wasn’t sufficiently ‘weapon-like’ to further the struggle against apartheid. He remained consistent with his view that his camera was not a machine gun to be used to forcefully make statements. 

Sam Nzima and Paul Magubane were very responsive photographers, reacting to the situations that surrounded them, but David Goldblatt was much more considered in his methodology. Many of the Afrapix and Drum Magazine images were immediately visually impacting due to the violent nature compared to the independent Goldblatt’s layered subtleties of every day life. The violent images made the headlines, but in my opinion, the images that have aged well and remain appreciated and exhibited are those of David Goldblatt. Goldblatt did not shy away from violence, but managed to capture such scenes with a sense of normality. His commitment to a social documentary approach served him well as the political climate started to change. 

Early in 1989, South African President Botha suffered a stroke and resigned. F.W. de Klerk succeeded him later in the year. De Klerk was determined to move towards negotiations that would ultimately end the political stalemate and made a public commitment releasing Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990. A year later, the government abolished apartheid laws. Mandela went on to be the first elected President of South Africa in a fully representative democratic election in 1994.

After the Soweto Uprising, photography had impacted politics in a way that no one could have predicted. Now it was the turn of politics to affect photography; the subject matter for ‘struggle and resistance’ photographers changed dramatically as strides were made towards democracy. The international community that was stirred into action by the Nzima image had become tired of such graphic images of conflict and violence, they were satisfied that the new appointment of F.W. de Klerk would adequately resolve any remaining concerns.

Many of the Afrapix Agency photographers had to find new themes to document, and several moved comfortably into areas within the fine art market. It is important to note that many of today’s great South African photographers can trace their photographic roots all the way back to the Afrapix legacy. The agency helped establish a South African tradition of social documentary photography through training and supporting a new generation of photographers. Possibly the most celebrated of the former Afrapix photographers is Guy Tillim. Tillim started photographing professionally with Afrapix in 1986 and has since received the DaimlerChrysler Award for South African Photography. His images, which cross over genres such as portrait photography, African social documentary and urban landscapes, are exhibited worldwide and have definitely benefitted from his years of experience as a ‘struggle and resistance photographer’. Tillim’s images of various African conflicts show that he has purposefully adapted his depiction of violence to soften the aesthetic of a genre that became over saturated during the era of apartheid.

It is this ability to adapt to changing circumstances that marks out the South African documentary photographers as exceptional. They developed their skills when the government imposed laws preventing them from working, they risked their lives documenting the effects of apartheid, and now apartheid has ended, they continually adapt to document the rebirth of a country. 

I would contend that without the international community joining the struggle against apartheid, events in South Africa could have been very different. The contribution of imagery from social documentary photographers brought South Africa to a world that hadn’t been paying much attention. When they saw the images they began to act. The economic sanctions, exclusion from international committees, images in the print media and exhibitions of resistance photography in the UK and USA all helped ensure the National Party government allow an inclusive election in 1994.

Obviously, although the dramatic changes in South African politics cannot be attributed to a single photograph, and it would be foolish to suggest otherwise, I believe photographic imagery was significant in informing the world that they needed to confront an oppressive regime, and Nzima’s image from Soweto, 1976 opened a door to this process. 

Whether used as a ‘machine gun’ or a tool for documentation, “The camera has played a special role in these times. It has been there to record inhumanity, injustice, and exploitation. It searches for peace and hope and is beckoned by history to take sides.” (16)
(1) Hermann Giliomee “The Rise and Possible Demise of Afrikaans as a Public Language” PRAESA Occasional Papers No. 14. University of Cape Town
(2) “The 1976 Students’ Revolt”. South African History Online.
(3) Harrison, David (1987). The White Tribe of Africa.
(4) Sam Nzima interview. Soweto Uprising documentary. BBC/SABC 2006
(5) Former South African Ambassador to the UN, Pik Botha interview. Soweto Uprising documentary. BBC/SABC 2006
(6) Sophie Tema interview. Soweto Uprising documentary. BBC/SABC 2006
(7) Sam Nzima interview. Soweto Uprising documentary. BBC/SABC 2006
(8) Transcript of various conversations with Omar Badsha 9/1985-11/1985
(9) Brochure for South Africa: The Cordoned Heart exhibition
(10) Transcript of conversation between Omar Badsha and Paul Weinberg while driving from Durban to Cape Town
(12) (Source URL removed 2013)
(13) Paul Magubane,
(14) David Goldblatt, ‘Interview with Obwui Enwezor’, in David Goldblatt, Fifty-One Years, Barcelona: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona 2001
(15) David Goldblatt, South Africa: The Structure of Things Then, New York: Monacelli Press 1998
(16) Andre Odendaal, Beyond the Barricades: South Africa in the 1980s

Aperture Foundation, 1989

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Drum Book: 1976 – 1980

Sponsored by Total SA
Full Frame: South African Documentary Photography

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Letter to Daniel: Despatches from the Heart

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Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela

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Politics and Photography in

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South Africa: No Easy Path To Peace

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By David Goldblatt

Contributor Brenda Goldblatt, Alex Harris

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Unfinished Business: South Africa, Apartheid, and Truth

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Published by Verso, 2003

Intersections Intersected, David Goldblatt, Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool

Guy Tillim –

Paul Weinberg –

Then & Now –

Peter Mckenzie –