SAM NZIMA died two days before last week’s killings along the Israel-Gaza border. He was the South African photojournalist for The World newspaper who took the picture during the 1976 Soweto riots of the bloody schoolchild Hector Peterson being carried in the arms of a frantic young boy after being shot by apartheid police. Most people don’t know Sam’s name. But by the next day the photo was splashed across the front pages of newspapers from New York to Moscow and is held worldwide as a symbol of the reality that was black peoples’ lives. It marked a turning point in the struggle.
Israel is not apartheid, nor are Palestinians black South Africans. But the pictures flashing around the world from the Gaza killings are seared into peoples’ minds as symbols of what happened. Israel looks as bad as apartheid – how many Hector Petersons were there that day?
After thousands of words have been written about historical events, it is often the photographs that most define their meaning. For example, the naked 9-year old Vietnamese girl running down a road in 1972 away from a napalm attack – known later as Napalm girl – which made Americans see the Vietnam War differently; the lone man – later called Tank Man – who stood in front of a column of Chinese army tanks in 1989, after the Chinese military had suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests; an unidentified man falling headfirst after jumping from the north tower of New York’s World Trade Center – later nicknamed Falling Man – in 2001 after Al Qaeda terrorists crashed aircraft into the building and destroyed it; the picture of the Jewish boy with a yellow star of David on his lapel, walking out of a building in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943, hands in the air, surrounded by German soldiers with rifles, which became emblematic of the Holocaust.
Three Israeli pictures from May 14, when seen together, capture the crudeness of what happened that day: The first is a beaming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the new American embassy building in Jerusalem, with a Barbie-doll-like Ivanka Trump unveiling a plaque with her father’s name – US President Donald Trump – followed by the singing of “Hallelujah” by the right-wing politicians from both countries.
The second smiling image was when 50,000 Israelis congregated in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to celebrate Israeli singer Netta Barzilai’s win at the Eurovision Song Contest, and hear her sing her song ‘Toy’ twice over.
The third, as if on another planet yet just an hour away, was the bloody confrontation between IDF soldiers and 40,000 Gaza Palestinians who were storming the border fence, resulting in 60 Palestinians killed and thousands injured. To viewers around the world, particularly South Africans, the melee looked like Soweto, June 1976 – stolid security forces facing frantic rioters. It wasn’t, but that’s the way it looked.
“What a glorious day. Remember this moment. This is history,” Netanyahu told the inauguration ceremony at the US embassy. The mixture of the three scenes will be viewed by future historians as so bizarre as to wonder if the facts are correct. Why was he smiling so cheerfully when the Gaza border was burning?
Images can be spread instantly worldwide these days via social media. But life is not made up only of images. Beneath, lies a reality. Gaza is a desperate place. Israel is not fully responsible for what is happening there. Hamas rules cruelly, and wanted the world to see Israelis killing Palestinians. It succeeded wildly.
Sam Nzima’s picture of Hector Peterson influenced millions. Last week’s pictures of Israel, looked at together, swayed millions against it. Can this negative tide be turned, for now and for history?