Documentary is a fitting tribute to Sam Nzima’s life

By Gerrit Bester

21 September 2023

Life Through His Lens, a 90-minute documentary film about the life of accomplished photojournalist and TUT Honorary Doctor, Sam Nzima, will be previewed during a special screening hosted as part of the TUT Arts Festival on 26 September.

Despite Nzima’s significant contribution to South African history, his story has been overshadowed and he has become a forgotten figure in his homeland. It is a disheartening paradox that the man behind the lens, whose photograph of Hector Pieterson forever altered the trajectory of South African society, remains relatively unknown beyond that single image.

To truly grasp the significance of Nzima’s iconic image one must delve deeper into his personal journey, both before and after capturing that life-changing moment.

Through this captivating documentary, which is the brainchild of Thulani Nzima, Sam Nzima’s son, an immersive exploration of Nzima's extraordinary life, shining a light on the tragic events that unfolded on that fateful day and the profound impact they had on his life and career, has begun.

Life Through His Lens takes the viewer beyond the moment frozen in time, delving into the impact of the photograph on Sam Nzima's life. It follows him as he navigates the aftermath of capturing such a pivotal image. The documentary uncovers the personal sacrifices he made, the challenges he faced, and the resilience that kept him pushing forward in the face of adversity,” says Thulani.

“In addition, the documentary shows how the photograph catapulted Nzima onto the international stage, raising awareness about the atrocities of apartheid and serving as a catalyst for change.”

Thulani adds that Life Through His Lens is considered not just a documentary about a photograph; it is a tribute to the resilience of a nation and the indomitable spirit of one man. “It is a reminder of the power of storytelling through Sam Nzima’s lens and how a single image can ignite a flame of change.”

“By shining a light on Nzima's life and the tragic events of 16 June 1976, this documentary ensures that their legacy endures, inspiring future generations to remember, reflect, and continue the fight for justice and equality.”

This poignant image, capturing the heartbreaking scene of Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying the lifeless body of Hector Pieterson during the tragic events of 16 June 1976, propelled Nzima to international recognition. However, it also confined him to the boundaries of that moment, leaving his earlier and later life moments unexplored and largely unknown.

The 16 June 1976 Uprising that began in Soweto and spread countrywide profoundly changed the socio-political landscape in South Africa.

With many activists arrested and some exiled, musicians added their voice through music in the fight against the injustices meted out by the state. The photographers were not to be left out. They used their cameras as powerful weapons to fight the apartheid system. The iconic picture of Hector Pieterson is the climax of Nzima’s journey as a photojournalist, but it also reflects the changed perspective of a young man who only came to Johannesburg to work. He was now a freedom fighter, using his camera to expose the monstrous acts of the government.

The publication of the picture plunged Sam Nzima into a world of unimaginable suffering, leaving him haunted by regret. Threats to his life loomed ominously, forcing him to flee back home to the obscurity of Mpumalanga, severing the lifeline of his promising journalism career with heartbreaking finality.

Trapped within the confines of his own home, a cruel form of imprisonment, he fought valiantly to survive and make ends meet. As democracy's light cast its glow upon South Africa in 1994, hope flickered for many, but for Nzima, it ignited a fierce battle for the copyright of the Hector Pieterson pictures. In the face of relentless opposition, he fought not just for ownership but for the preservation of a poignant legacy that had forever etched itself upon his soul.

The documentary is directed by Nhlanhla Mthethwa, an established documentary film director, producer and archive researcher. The producer is Silindile Memela of Full Circle Productions, and the Editor is Ikaye Masisi, an award-winning editor who specialises in drama, long and short-format documentary editing.

For more information about the TUT Arts Festival, click on

Tickets at Webtickets (TUT Arts Festival) or at your nearest Pick n Pay.

For more information on the Tshwane University of Technology, please contact Phaphama Tshisikhawe, Corporate Affairs and Marketing.
Tel: +27 12 382 4711     Email: