Mandela's world

A photographic retrospective of apartheid South Africa.

Images of apartheid South Africa, by Jurgen Schadeberg
Jurgen Schadeberg, centre, with photographers Peter Magubane and Bob Gosani, 1956 [Jurgen Schadeberg]
Jurgen Schadeberg, photographed with a sel-timer in 1956 [Jurgen Schadeberg]

Photographer Jurgen Schadeberg (1931-2020) spent most of his life documenting the struggle against apartheid. Years before his death in 2020, Schadeberg shared some of his iconic images - and the stories behind them - with Al Jazeera.

On April 27, 1994, South Africa held its first multiracial democratic election, voting out apartheid and voting in its first Black president, Nelson Mandela.

Forty-six years prior, in 1948, apartheid - a system built on white supremacy, segregation and inequality - was signed into law.

It fomented the boundaries between races, cutting people off from one another with increasingly restrictive rules.

In the vibrant multiracial enclaves of Johannesburg in the 1950s, apartheid police clamped down while many non-white people resisted.

Among those documenting life and resistance under apartheid for the famed Drum magazine, was young German-born photographer Jurgen Schadeberg.

On the streets of Johannesburg, he captured vibrant, diverse communities at a time when the apartheid government was trying its hardest to remove every trace of multiracialism from its streets. Through his lens, he also immortalised leading struggle and cultural icons, among them Oliver Tambo, Miriam Makeba and Nelson Mandela himself.

This story was first published in the Al Jazeera Digital Magazine.

Images of apartheid South Africa, by Jurgen Schadeberg

Mandela's office

Before Nelson Mandela was an anti-apartheid fighter, a political prisoner for 27 years, and South Africa’s first Black president, he was a lawyer with Mandela and Tambo Attorneys, the first Black law firm in the country.

Mandela "was a very quiet and a very serious-looking man," Jurgen Schadeberg said, recalling his first meeting with the icon in 1951.

Over the next five decades, Schadeberg would photograph Mandela many times. This picture was taken in Mandela’s Johannesburg law office.

"I was very lucky to get that shot," he recalled.

Images of apartheid South Africa, by Jurgen Schadeberg

Oliver Tambo

The African National Congress (ANC) has governed in South Africa for 30 years. But before it became a political party, it was an anti-apartheid liberation movement. Oliver Tambo was its president from 1967 to 1991 before Mandela took over in advance of the ANC winning the 1994 national elections.

Tambo and Mandela were also among founding members of the ANC Youth League, they were partners in their shared law practice in Johannesburg, and were lifelong friends.

"He was a very important influence [on Mandela]," Schadeberg said.

Images of apartheid South Africa, by Jurgen Schadeberg

Walter Sisulu

Anti-apartheid activist Walter Sisulu was another ANC comrade and founding member of the organisation’s youth league.

"Walter Sisulu was maybe the most important person for Nelson Mandela because he mentored Nelson Mandela," Schadeberg said.

"He was very important to the whole of South African politics, simply because of his influence on Nelson Mandela. He taught Nelson Mandela, he was his main teacher."

Images of apartheid South Africa, by Jurgen Schadeberg

'Freedom in our time'

In the early 1950s, anti-apartheid activists embarked on mass action, including boycotts, strikes and civil disobedience against the apartheid government.

This was part of the Defiance Campaign, the largest scale non-violent resistance movement ever seen in South Africa.

Schadeberg captured the people who gathered at Freedom Square in the centre of Johannesburg on April 6, 1952, to listen to the leadership of the ANC announce their plans.

Images of apartheid South Africa, by Jurgen Schadeberg

Pass offenders

Under apartheid, Black men were subject to "pass laws", which required they carry a special identity document dictating their movements in and around certain areas. Those without a pass book, or those in an area without permission, were subject to arrest and imprisonment.

"These two, they didn't have their passes," Schadeberg recalled about the two men in the photograph, who were hiding behind a wall in the suburb of Sophiatown, where Drum magazine was based.

The policemen did not notice the pass offenders, though, because they were distracted, thinking that Schadeberg was there to photograph them.

Images of apartheid South Africa, by Jurgen Schadeberg


The areas where people lived and worked were always racially segregated. But in the early days of apartheid, some "freehold" settlements existed where all races could own property and live together freely.

Sophiatown, on the western side of the Johannesburg, was one of the oldest and most vibrant of these communities until it was demolished by the apartheid government.

"There was always somebody making music or playing," Schadeberg said of the suburb. "It gave Sophiatown a special atmosphere."

Images of apartheid South Africa, by Jurgen Schadeberg

Miriam Makeba

Known as "Mama Africa", singer Miriam Makeba became a global musical icon. But in the early years of her career, she found fame in the bars and clubs of multiracial Johannesburg.

Schadeberg took this photograph of the "promising" star for the cover of Drum magazine in 1955.

Images of apartheid South Africa, by Jurgen Schadeberg

Dolly Rathebe

Blues singer, model and film actress Dolly Rathebe was another 1950s starlet of Black South Africa. In 1955, Drum wanted to feature her on its front cover. Camera in hand, Schadeberg accompanied Rathebe to a mine dump in Johannesburg where she posed in a bikini to try and replicate a beach scene. But the shoot was interrupted when the two were arrested by police under South Africa's Immorality Act, which criminalised relations across the colour line.

Images of apartheid South Africa, by Jurgen Schadeberg

Illegal jazz

Hillbrow, a busy urban area in central Johannesburg, is today better known as a hub of criminality and violence. But in the 1950s and 60s, it was a vibrant mix of music, art and entertainment.

"It was a bit of a swinging place," Schadeberg recalled, remembering the Black jazz groups that played illegally in front of mixed-race audiences.

Images of apartheid South Africa, by Jurgen Schadeberg

White society

Under the apartheid Group Areas Act, white residential areas were cut off from non-white areas. Black people who ventured there were usually domestic workers and labourers who needed special permits to be there.

"Whites were living totally apart from Blacks," Schadeberg said about the decades under apartheid rule. He was privileged enough to gain access to both sides, photographing social life in Black and white communities. "I found the whites very boring, really," he said.

Images of apartheid South Africa, by Jurgen Schadeberg

Golf couple

There was "an invisible wall that existed between the Black and white communities" in Johannesburg in the 1950s, Schadeberg said.

Even though apartheid had just recently been made the "law" in 1948, segregation was always part of the "rules", he said.

Images of apartheid South Africa, by Jurgen Schadeberg

Pyjama man

In the 1950s, the apartheid government moved in to try and evict residents from multiracial Sophiatown, which they said was a "slum".

"It was a suburb that was surrounded by white suburbs ... and they decided to move people out," Schadeberg said.

But the lives of people in the close and vibrant community were forever altered after the destruction of the suburb. This photo captures one resident, who Schadeberg called "the pyjama man", who was caught unprepared as police raided the suburb to force people out.

Images of apartheid South Africa, by Jurgen Schadeberg

Trevor Huddleston

Activists of all races were among those who opposed apartheid. Among them was British Anglican archbishop Trevor Huddleston.

"They called him the fighting priest," Schadeberg said about Huddleston, who protested against segregation and opposed the forced removal of people from Sophiatown, where he ran a mission.

Images of apartheid South Africa, by Jurgen Schadeberg

'We won't move'

The apartheid government embarked on its plan to dismantle Sophiatown and other similar multiracial areas around the city, with the first bulldozers rolling into the suburb in 1955.

But people remained defiant. "There were these notices all over South Africa, with people saying 'Don't Move' and 'We Won't Move'," Schadeberg recalled.

Images of apartheid South Africa, by Jurgen Schadeberg

Forced removals

The community of Sophiatown was fiercely resistant to the apartheid government's attempts to evict them and turn the suburb into a white-only area.

Nevertheless, the authorities pushed on and eventually dismantled it.

"They came in with bulldozers and they pulled down the houses," Schadeberg recalled of the state's destruction of Sophiatown.

"It all happened by force."

Images of apartheid South Africa, by Jurgen Schadeberg

Mandela on trial

In 1958, Mandela joined dozens of other anti-apartheid activists who the state charged with treason.

The accused were all released on a technicality.

But the happiness, captured here by Schadeberg, was short-lived. They were all re-arrested a few days later.

Images of apartheid South Africa, by Jurgen Schadeberg

Robben Island

Mandela was re-arrested and in 1964 he was found guilty by the apartheid government and sentenced to life in prison.

He spent 27 years in prison, most of it on Robben Island near Cape Town.

Mandela was released from prison in 1990, during the transition from apartheid to democracy. He became South Africa's president four years later.

"In that cell, he spent 17 years," Schadeberg said, remembering the day he photographed Mandela in his old prison cell on Robben Island in 1994. "You could feel a certain sorrow in that atmosphere."

Images of apartheid South Africa, by Jurgen Schadeberg

The Lime Quarry

On Robben Island, political prisoners would have to spend part of their time in a barren lime quarry, breaking rocks into gravel as part of hard labour. But it was also the place where prisoners found time to discuss their views and learn from each other - a place some even called “Robben Island University”.

Schadeberg photographed Mandela in the quarry in 1994, on his first trip back to the Island since apartheid ended.

Images of apartheid South Africa, by Jurgen Schadeberg

First Black president

This portrait was taken in 1994, after Mandela became South Africa's first democratically elected president and its first Black leader - more than 40 years after Schadeberg first met the icon in 1951.

Source: Al Jazeera