On my Watch

Behind the News ~ Book I

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Cross-reference from Chapter 23.

Sam Nzima’s emotion-draining image of children confronting death in Soweto on June 16, 1976 helped spark the first successful mass uprising against Apartheid. His picture, first published within hours by the Johannesburg Star, also turned the “Soweto Riots ‘76” into an internationally recognized turning point in history.

The event offered many lessons to society. Yet the celebrations of its 40th anniversary in 2016 demonstrated that few of those lessons have been noticed, let alone learnt.

For instance, within months of the 2016 celebration, similar riots with similar causes and effects, broke out a few hundred kilometers from Soweto – and very few recognized the close resemblance.
The 2016 mass protests broke out in what was once Vendaland in the north-east corner of South Africa. Residents were attacking and burning schools and government buildings. Their reason for doing so – objection to administrative and municipal boundaries – in no way seemed to justify their nihilistic and self-damaging actions.  Populist reactions from all quarters of the rest of South Africa were puzzlement and condemnation of the reported violence. Government reaction was: “The culprits will be arrested, by force if necessary.”

Like Soweto ’76, the protestors could not articulate their basic frustration and anger. In Soweto they rose up against the enforced use of Afrikaans in their government schools. In the former Vendaland they rose up 40-years later (in a so-called democratic nation) against enforced administrative boundaries and an unheeding government.
In both cases the basic cause of their deep-seated anger was that they felt they were the victims of discrimination and injustice.

Role of African reporters
Another lesson from Soweto ’76 may be seen in the myths that arose even though most participants were still its living witnesses. One example is the recent, oft-recorded view that African reporters reached parity that day with the journalistic standards of the rest of the world. That does not accord with reality as journalists saw it in those days. Our belief, partly in our newsrooms and totally in the senior editorial positions in those days, was that African men and women journalists were equal to their counterparts of any other colour – and often superior in that they usually wrote in a second language. Equality of black and white skills applied to editors (such as my colleagues Percy Qoboza and Aggrey Klaaste) – and to photographers.
Present writers have no cause to belittle their predecessors.

Sam Nzama, for instance, demonstrated not only the art, but also the instinctive skills of a Press cameraman, including the skill of outwitting the police and meeting his deadlines.
His feat helped preserve not just the heroism of the schoolchildren’s revolt, but of the icons and reputations that were created by it. For instance, according to a Johannesburg Sunday Times report in 2016, Sam Nzima still owns the Pentax camera he used to snap the famous image of Hector Pieterson 40 years ago. He says US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton once tried to buy it from him: “Winnie Mandela said no. She said, ‘This camera belongs to South Africa, it is the property of our country. We cannot allow it to go to America’. And that was the end of the story.”

Another lesson

One final example of the lessons still to be learned from Soweto ’76:
As I write, thousands of newspaper journalists around the world are being taught the skills of video photography. Meanwhile television news coverage of intricate topics such as Brexit and the strangely trumpeted U.S. elections have shown that television – not newspapers or the web — are best at covering major news… especially almost constantly running  news of major terrorist attacks and mass assassinations. Other media should not forget their specialist roles.

Rapidly evolving technology is likely to make video-takes ubiquitous and constantly available. We need then to remember the lesson regarding the emotional impact of visuals. It seems to me that a still photograph, whether depicting war, peace, human suffering or human dignity, far outweighs the impact of video coverage of the same topic.  Will the world remember, and take into account that lesson?. Will the ‘critical, emotional, frozen moment in time’ be recorded – or extracted from video – in the future?
I fear that I shall never know.