/ 8 August 2019

The shifting meanings of that June 16 image

Loaded: Sam Nzima’s photograph is used to officially commemorate the June 16 uprisings and the author argues it has layer upon layer of meaning.
Khulu Mbatha is dismissive of the repetitive annual rhetoric to commemorate 16 June, which he refers to as “myopic and narrow”.  For Mbatha, 16 June 1976 was about far more than where the marches started, who led them, who threw stones or how the police reacted. (Cornell Tukiri/Anadolu Agency)



In her article, “The thirtieth anniversary of the Soweto Uprisings: Reading the shadow in Sam Nzima’s iconic photograph of Hector Pieterson”, Ruth Simbao raises the question “of what happens to an emblematic image of protest as the climate of resistance shifts and as a homogenous history is conscientiously pried apart”?

She goes on to show how Nzima’s iconic image of the June 16 1976 uprisings “seems to take on new meanings in its recontextualisation” and, with reference to Joel Snyder’s “Documentary without ontology” in Studies in Visual Communication, that it did not have an “unequivocal meaning to begin with”.

According to Snyder, to dispense with documentary photographs as objectively representational of “facts,” has the “value of permitting us to see that our notions of document, record, objective picture and the like, are not fixed and determinate, but on the contrary are flexible, open, and changeable”.

More than 40 years after Nzima’s iconic image was taken, South Africa’s relationship with it is ongoing and open-ended as it continues to reference and absorb the circumstances of the country and build in multilayered meanings.

This was brought home to me in 2015 when I was invited to present my documentary film, What Happened to Mbuyisa?, at the University of Johannesburg. (The 1998 film tells the story of the mysterious disappearance of Mbuyisa Makhubu, the anguished young man carrying the dying — or already dead — Hector Pieterson in the photograph.)

READ MORE: Finding Mbuyisa Makhubu, the June 16 1976 hero

In my introduction to the screening, I mentioned in passing that the film had had many screenings on public television and at festivals and had been in demand, in its early years, as part of annual commemorative events of the June 16 massacre.

The film, taken with these remarks in my introduction, provoked a derisive remark from an academic staff member. His reaction was to the iconic freezing of the brutalities of the apartheid state by the post-apartheid commemorative contexts, when free and democratic South Africa had itself been guilty of repressive police violence and brutality, most notably the massacre of 34 striking mineworkers at Marikana in 2012.

This incident challenged aspects of post-apartheid South Africa’s “foundational myths”, in service of which the Nzima image has been used and has come to symbolise.

The meaning of the Nzima image and its use, post-apartheid, to represent a past state atrocity, comes under question through a kind of intertextuality described by Walter Werner in the article “What does this picture say? Reading the intertextuality of visual images”, published in the International Journal of Social Education.

Trigger: The iconic image of Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying Hector Pieterson is also a stark reminder to some of how the post-apartheid government, which the youth of 1976 fought for, failed to protect striking miners in Marikana, killing them instead. (Paul Botes)

Meanings are dependent upon the image-viewer-context triad, that is the ideas and feelings formed by the viewer’s experience and background, and the social and physical context where the image is encountered. The social and political context post-Marikana thus informs a counter-meaning of the Nzima image. Marikana capped an increasing sense of betrayal of the promise of the liberation struggle. This invests in the image “intangible” and “imaginary” meaning that is not at all visibly represented in the image.

The experience of a writer at a photographic exhibition is indicative of this. With reference to an image of a mass funeral for protesters killed at Sharpeville in 1960, the writer, according to an eNCA report in 2014, states: “Seeing the mass of bodies, I could not but think of Marikana.”

Marikana seems now to occasion a shift in the meaning of the iconic image. Yet as a symbol of the sacrifices made for a free and democratic South Africa, the image may also stand as the reminder of the failings and betrayal of the promise of a post-apartheid South Africa. This may be true for none more so than the youth of South Africa today, in particular the student youth, labelled “born free” as a generation.

“Born Free”

In an official commemorative context, post-apartheid, Nzima’s image has been used to pay tribute to the sacrifice the young people of 1976 made for the freedom that South Africa enjoys, particularly by the born-free youth. There was a charge in the first few years of democracy that young people were insufficiently conscious of the costs at which their freedoms and opportunities had been gained; that they were apathetic and inclined more to hedonistic pastimes.

But, since the emergence of critical university student movements in the form of #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall in 2015, this narrative has been turned on its head.

The new student movement has turned a powerful spotlight on South Africa’s negotiated transition, challenging the idea of a “rainbow nation” that has failed to overcome stark, racially based inequality, poverty and structural racism.

Instead the leaders of the generations that had liberated South Africa are now critiqued. For example, when I interviewed then student leader Fasiha Hassan, she said they were “on the other side … captured by capital … by a different life”.

In this context Nzima’s image, as representative of a generation and a struggle to which the “born frees” owe their democratic freedoms and opportunities, may conceivably stand for a generation that has “sold out” — the representative leadership of which is seen now as part of the establishment.

One may be critical of some of the attitudes of today’s student movements, including an ahistorical, hindsight dismissal of South Africa’s negotiated transition in 1994, its imperatives for peace, stability and social cohesion, and of its important post-apartheid achievements. But history, not least in South Africa, suggests that young people are objectively, recurringly, a motive force of social change. In this sense the Nzima image may perhaps stand, abidingly, in representation of that mission for a youth now demanding greater and deeper transformation.

Other adaptations of the Nzima image have explicitly represented it as “conscience to” and indictment of post-apartheid South Africa. These relate the image to pertinent, present-day struggles and concerns of young people, such as HIV, gender-based violence, unemployment and educational access.

Appropriation: The famous image has appeared in various guises over the years. (Frédéric Soltan/ Corbis/ Getty Images)

Zapiro, the well-known cartoonist, reproduced the image with 12-year old Aids activist Nkosi Johnson, who died as a result of an Aids-related infection, in the arms of Mbuyisa. It was accompanied by the caption: “Champion of the New Struggle”. The drawing evoked the struggle against apartheid and its casualties as analogous to the struggle against Aids — but it could also be read as an indictment of the government’s Aids-denialist policies between 1999 and 2008.

Nzima’s published image did not, as Simbao notes, have “unequivocal meaning”. In the article “Lest we forget: Photography and the presentation of history at the Apartheid Museum, Gold Reef City, and the Hector Pieterson Museum, Soweto”, Darren Newbury relates how images change once removed from their original contexts of production and circulation and placed on museum walls. The delivery of Nzima’s image on the pages of The World newspaper in 1976 — the very first to publish it — and its “removal” from this original context of production and circulation and subsequent placement in other news media, made for different meanings and readings.

The photograph’s publication by The World, a newspaper with a deep history among Black African people, and one that had been consistently covering grievances about the imposition of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction, gave it a distinct contextual meaning. The newspaper was integral to the subaltern in a media landscape dominated by a mainstream press that did not reflect the lives of Black South Africans. Its publication of the photograph was arguably a self-reflective, internal representation by “one’s own” as it were — a trusted, integral part of the community that had suffered the horrifying tragedy and was up in arms against it.

For non-Black African communities, however, the image was reproduced by other newspapers and framed by a different context that may have endowed it with very different meanings. Publication of the image in the mainstream white press was accompanied or preceded by propagandist state television reportage.

Other non-media sources of information, which fed “background experiences, knowledge, and interests” as in Werner’s notion of intertextuality, also shaped the environment of engagement with the image. For those who may have been exposed to the syndicated image by the mainstream white press as well as the state broadcaster, the image may have been framed as threatening wanton violence by Black African people.

Symbol of the Struggle

From these beginnings, the image came to be invested with new meaning. An image of atrocity came significantly, through the 1970s and 1980s, to be claimed as a symbol of resistance against oppression.

Nzima’s image exposed the brutal response of the South African state to legitimate protest. The picture made front-page news internationally and mobilised international condemnation of the apartheid regime, spurring the sanctions campaign.

John Peffer, in the article “Remarks on South African photography and the extraphotographic”, on the website Africultures, Les mondes en relation, offers more specifically how “commentators have, I think rightly, spoken of how this picture had evocative power on an international level because it may be related visually to a whole history of pietà-type images in Christian iconography”.

The image’s evocation of the pietà, however, can only be a partial explanation for the resonance of the photograph. The image found and has currency well beyond members of the Roman Catholic faith, many of whom have questionable knowledge of or little to no socialised religious or cultural reference of Christian iconography. The widespread resonance of the photograph has to be, moreover, attributed to a humanist response to an atrocity and to the political meaning it came to assume as a symbol of the struggle against apartheid.

Despite severe repression, the uprising was not crushed and did not abate. It spread, grew and intensified; wave after wave, layer upon layer of multiple, complex expressions of mass organisation, protest and insurgency into and through the 1980s right up to the democratic transition of 1994. This spirit of resistance in the face of repression came to be embodied in Nzima’s image.

The image was used in a multitude of ways by innumerable organisations, in particular with every successive commemoration of June 16, engendering its iconic status through repetition and reproduction, as a symbol of the struggle against apartheid. The image’s inherent duality of atrocity and resistance is conveyed by the dying Pieterson in the arms of the heroic persona that is Mbuyisa.

With every anniversary, and every use of the image, it accumulated additional layers of meaning of atrocity and resistance.

In the dynamic contexts of the mid- to late 1970s, Nzima’s image was a vital part of the socio-political cauldron of the time, embedded in all the dynamic processes of struggle including the sharp social and political consciousness-raising of the time. It continued to be so for newer generations of activists exposed to the image in struggle literature during the 1980s.

Yet, over time, with repeated use, the photograph was also dulled in its human implication. In the discourse and iconography of the struggle, the children of 1976 came to be disembodied and abstracted as the shock troops of the revolution.

The Nzima image came to be invested with meaning of resistance not least because of the heroic figure of Mbuyisa. But for the Makhubu family, the lingering questions about his disappearance and unknown fate make the picture “a misery”, as quoted by Aryn Baker in Time: “This guy just disappeared off the face of the earth,” Mbuyisa’s sister Nontsikelelo says. “Where is he? Did he die? If he did, how? Who was there? That’s the thing that makes us miserable.”

In the details of the story of Mbuyisa and his disappearance, is a further reaction to the “freezing” of the Nzima image. There is a huge unresolved question about a central figure in the image. In this there is a counteraction that restores the individual, human dimensions of a person abstracted in the image.


Up until 1998, the focus in the image was primarily Pieterson. This shifted to Mbuyisa after the story of his mysterious disappearance became more widely known. Whereas state and society continue commemorating June 16 with Nzima’s image at its centre, they do so with nonchalance toward any determined effort to resolve the question about Mbuyisa’s fate, and so some members of his family have been derisive. They feel that his image is being exploited with scant regard for their loss. Mbuyisa’s late younger brother, Raul, took to protesting this with a cropped early poster of my film asking: “What Happened to Mbuyisa?”

He once walked into the Hector Pieterson Museum with journalists, posed in front of the famous image and blocked Mbuyisa’s face, demanding that it be erased, writes Ali Hlongwane in his PhD thesis: The historical development of the commemoration of the June 16, 1976 Soweto students’ uprisings: a study of re-representation, commemoration and collective memory.

The currency Mbuyisa’s story has injected into the image and into commemorations of June 16 is shown too in Simbao’s account of a spontaneous breakaway solidarity march to the Makhubu home after one commemorative event.

The focus on Mbuyisa has intensified since a dramatic development in 2014 concerning his whereabouts. An investigator with the Canadian Border Services Agency, after watching a June 16 broadcast, came to the conclusion that a man detained on immigration violations since 2004 was, in fact, Mbuyisa. According to Canada’s immigration and refugee board, the man has been living in Canada since 1988. He has assumed a number of different identities and displays symptoms of a mental health disorder. He has refused to divulge his identity because he apparently believes the apartheid system still persists. According to a report by Mandy Weiner in 2016, DNA tests to confirm his identity have proved inconclusive and attempts to resolve what is an impasse have been beset by intragovernment politics in South Africa.

The man has since been released under a bail programme after spending more than 11 years in detention. Now the question of Mbuyisa’s fate and whether the man in limbo in Canada may be him is possibly inescapable when viewing the image.

Mbuyisa is constructed as a hero by this image, which is deeply embedded in the identity of South Africa, and I venture the country subliminally feels a debt of gratitude to him.

He personifies the courage of the youth of 1976 that made for a turning point in the struggle against apartheid.

As one Soweto resident put it to me, Mbuyisa signifies the care and support of the community. Up until the latest development, because of the mystery surrounding his fate, he has assumed a mythical aura. Now, however, if he is the man in Canada, he is flesh and bones in a tangible circumstance. Should this ever be proved with certainty and he is returned home to South Africa, it may open up whole other meanings of Nzima’s seminal photograph.

This article is an adaptation of filmmaker Feizel Mamdoo’s paper published in the Cahiers d’ Etudes Africaines journal in 2018.