16 June, 10:54 AM
Synonymous with the Soweto uprising that started on June 16, 1976, is the famous photograph of a young Hector Pieterson being held in the arms of a brave Mbuyisa Makhubu. This was the work of the late veteran photographer Sam Nzima. Nzima’s shot received international recognition at the height of apartheid. However, Nzima was not the only man armed with a camera on that day.
“Nzima happened to be at the right place at the right time,” said 66-year-old Ndumiso Mike Mzileni. Mzileni was assigned to a another project on that Wednesday morning.
“I was working for Drum magazine at that time. This thing about Afrikaans had already been going on at the schools prior to June 16.”
Mzileni had been to various schools in the area, including Morris Isaacson High School, to get pictures to go along with a story about students’ reactions to the introduction of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools.
“But on that specific day, things were explosive. When I left my home that morning, I saw children singing with placards denouncing Afrikaans.”
It was at this point that he decided to join the march with his only weapon, his Leica camera.
“One thing that is important to remember is that June 16 was not just a one-day thing. Students were already aggravated by this. There were already meetings taking place on June 13 where student leaders were discussing this march, but nobody could imagine that it would be the June 16 march we know of today.”
Mzileni explained that the Soweto uprising was born out of the Black Consciousness Movement. It was this movement, along with the teachings of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, that led students to become conscientised and highly politicised.
“These students were really angry. There was chaos everywhere,” said veteran photographer Bongani Mnguni.
Mnguni was a staff photographer for The World at the time and decided to join the students who had been marching.
“The cameras back then worked with film, so you could not see what kind of pictures you were taking, you just had to shoot,” he said.
The black and white images produced by Mnguni’s clicks portrayed a fearful atmosphere both for the students and police.
Mnguni bought his first camera from his cousin who no longer had use for it.
“I used to paint landscapes and would shoot first and then paint. One day I decided just to shoot and that’s how it all started.”
Various newspapers would approach the aspiring photographer to shoot for stories and that later led to his photojournalism career.
“There were already talks about meetings and marches happening, that was all I knew before then. It was only at the time that I was walking with these students that I knew this was big,” he said.
“By the time the students had killed one of the policemen’s dogs, there was a lot of confusion among the police and that’s when they started to fire live ammunition towards the students.”
One of the youngest student leaders present on the day was 16-year-old Seth Mazibuko. Now, 57 years old, Seth looks back on that day with some regret.
“When asked what it is that I regret the most, it’s that I led students out of the classroom to be killed by police.”
Mazibuko was part of the student action committee that was involved in the meetings where plans for the march were made.
“There were students from different schools that were involved in this, hence it being such a big march.
“I always say the gods of Africa were with us on that day because there was a time where the police thought they were being sandwiched by students that were coming from all over Soweto, [and] they threw teargas towards us. Unfortunately for them, the wind blew it back in their direction,” he said with a smile.
However, Mazibuko later struggled to hold back the tears when he reminisced about how things went wrong.
“After the incident with the dog, things got out of hand. The police were left with no teargas and without a dog. They were just left with their guns. That is the sad time of my own experience as a young person of those days. It was at that particular time that we started counting corpses.”
Mazibuko praised journalists for their work during the march.
“It was the journalists, through their cameras and through their pens that the international community got a glimpse into what was happening. It was then when the world deemed apartheid a crime.”