“They hated photographers,” said Alf Kumalo, the late South African photographer, recounting the crackdown by the country’s police under apartheid. “We were assaulted, beaten up, jailed – this happened many times. We actually got used to it.”
Kumalo, who died in 2012 at the age of 82, covered it all: the Soweto uprising of 1976, the police raids on Winnie Mandela’s home, trials of anti-apartheid activists, Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and subsequent ascent to the presidency, and South Africa’s transition to democracy.
Kumalo said that from a young age he loved making images. He said he wanted to become a photographer but it was expensive, so he began his journalism career as a writer to “save money and buy a good camera. And that’s what I did.”
He taught himself photography in the 1950s when he started working for publications like Drum, a magazine aimed towards black readers, and later the Sunday Times. “I prefer taking pictures to writing,” Kumalo said, wearing his trademark black rimmed cap and Nikon digital camera hanging from his shoulder. “Images have a greater impact than writing… a picture says exactly what happened.”
On the occasional assignment Kumalo said he could write features and take photographs, like he when he covered the famous “Rumble in The Jungle” 1974 boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in what was then Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo).
“Once the editors knew I could write and photograph, they started wanting both things at the same time. And there was no digital back then,” he laughed, remembering the cumbersome process of developing film before sitting down at a typewriter to write his story.
Kumalo became famous for his coverage of the tumultuous resistance to apartheid that swept South Africa, and especially the Soweto area, where he lived for most of his life.
As a black photographer during this period, getting the shot was never easy. He described how he would sometimes take one shot on a roll of film before hiding the canister in his socks or elsewhere on his body to protect it from the police. At other times he risked his life to ensure that the story would be told.
In 1976, students led an uprising in Soweto after the apartheid government tried to force the instruction of the Afrikaans language in black schools. The uprising spread to black communities across the country and is remembered as one of the turning points of the apartheid era.
During the police crackdown that ensued, Kumalo said even the Sunday Times’ regular drivers refused to work in Soweto. “It was too dangerous,” he said. He was in a car with one of the writers when he captured one of his most famous images, depicting two bodies lying on the street in front of a large armoured police vehicle. He described how he shot the image from the car’s rear window, adding that the couple could easily have been killed by the police who had orders to “shoot and kill anyone, even photographers”.
Kumalo said he felt guilty having taken such a risk, and felt even worse when censorship stood in the way of the photo’s publication. “I went to the office the following day and listened to one of the editors telling BBC guys that I was unlucky and I didn’t get any good pictures.” Kumalo said they not only kept the pictures from being published in the Times, but also prevented them from appearing in other foreign publications.
Censorship was common during apartheid, and editors were often afraid or unwilling to test the authorities. Kumalo described how one of his images depicting an assault on a black colleague won an award in the UK before it was published by Drum. His image were often published anonymously. However, that option wasn’t always easy.
“I used to watch youngsters toyi-toying, chanting slogans and dancing vigorously, and singing ‘Mandela, Mandela’. And I used to wonder, ‘What picture did they have in their minds of Mandela?'”
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He told the editors of Drum that he wanted them to publish a photograph he had taken of Mandela, so people could see what the legendary political prisoner looked like. Kumalo told the editors to keep his name in the credit to take pressure off of the publication in case of backlash from the authorities. “[Drum] used the picture and then we waited, because I knew they were going to come for me after that. But what’s funny is that they didn’t. I think they thought it was political bait or they just missed it.”
Kumalo and Mandela met one another early in their careers. Mandela, one of the first black lawyers in South Africa, was defending a client in a 1953 trial that Kumalo was sent to cover. “It wasn’t political, but still the Afrikaner [plaintiff] wouldn’t answer questions from Mandela [because he was black]. But then the magistrate insisted that he answer his questions. He answered and he was very angry that the lawyer was a black guy. There was a lot of hate in those days. Serious hate.”
Kumalo was quick to point out that Mandela was only one of countless South Africans who fought the apartheid system and whose commitment to justice he never questioned. When Kumalo was asked whether he, as a journalist, saw himself as a part of that fight, he replied without hesitation, “Yes, I did. [As a journalist] you can do so much to enhance the struggle, especially with pictures.”
He never stopped taking photographs, telling the story of how incredible it was for him to witness the sea of people lining the streets to greet Mandela upon his release from 27 years in prison in 1990.
But Kumalo said an even more important event for him was when Mandela, standing alongside the last apartheid-era president FW de Klerk, was himself inaugurated as president after the country’s first free elections.
“That was even greater,” Kumalo said. “Because it was very clear and final that [change] was really happening. With that terrible background of apartheid, and suddenly a black guy is going to be president of your country. That was very powerful.”