In South Africa’s image: Peter Magubane

2014-04-27 06:00

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Dr Peter Magubane, a national treasure and one of City Press’ 100 World Class South Africans for 2014, has captured the unique history of our country better than any other photographer, writes Tamara Rothbart

Hovering helicopters dropping canisters of tear gas, anti-riot vehicles and roadblocks, police shooting blindly into the crowds, students retaliating with stones, thick clouds of black smoke, a carnage of upturned vehicles, burnt-out shops and bodies.

Peter Magubane was there on June 16 in Soweto; he was there at Hector Pieterson’s funeral and he was there as the uprising spread across the country: Mamelodi, KwaThema, Eastern Cape.

He was there, just as he had been at the Rivonia Trial, at the Sharpeville massacre and at the coal mines, quietly capturing apartheid’s silent and most sinister side, child labour.

Magubane’s images were evidence of the invisible, the shouts of the silenced.

Peter Magubane being detained by the police for taking pictures during a riot. Picture: Peter Magubane archives

His determination to liberate himself and his people gave him a lion’s courage and a spirit that could not be broken.

But not for want of trying; the state police did their worst: In June 1969 he was arrested and held for 586 days in solitary confinement without being charged with a crime.

On his release, he was banned from photography for five years and had to resign from the Rand Daily Mail.

In 1971, he was rearrested and sentenced to a further 123 days for contravening the banning order, prompting the newspaper to run a feature, Magubane, The Man Who Does Not Exist.

The Soweto Uprising was his comeback. His images circumnavigated the globe, earned him international acclaim and made him an icon of the struggle. There followed commissions from Time magazine, the United Nations and Sports Illustrated.

Magubane was a fighter. He thrived on the challenge. And in 1990 his hard work was rewarded when Mandela personally chose him as his official photographer.

He has been awarded seven honorary doctorates; is the recipient of an honorary fellowship for The UK Royal Photographic Society (2008) and has been the subject of countless exhibitions. At 82 he is organising his archives into an opus with the working title, A Struggle Without Documentation Is No Struggle At All, a refrain he used when facing down an angry crowd of students in 1976.

He is also working on a book about Afrikaners. The project that has taken him to the right wing outposts of Ventersdorp for the murder trial of Eugene Terre’Blanche; to the commemoration of the Battle of Blood River in KwaZulu-Natal in 2011; to Groot Marico, the site of the annual Herman Charles Bosman Festival, and to The KKNK festival in Oudtshoorn. “They call me the Zulu Boer,” says Magubane without judgement. Having previously captured the religious and cultural codes of the Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele, Venda, Tsonga, Basotho, Tswana and Pedi, Magubane says of Afrikaners: “They are South Africans. They are part of who we are.”

It is tempting to see this project as a journey of forgiveness, a man looking to resolve a trauma by romancing the oppressor, but to do so would be to crucially miss the point of Magubane, the man and the magnitude of his work. “I do not hate. Even then, I never hated. You see, if you hate you cannot document the truth,” he says.

When necessary, Magubane wielded his camera as a gun, but essentially he is a human interest photographer whose love for culture and country has kept his camera cocked and his eyes keen for almost 60 years.

Of his third work in progress, a book on sunsets, he says little except that: “It tickles me to shoot the sun setting.” Still, there’s an obvious lyricism in his choice of subject. No man outlives his day in the sun. But Magubane’s work will always rise another day as a reminder to us all from whence we came.

» City Press 100 World Class South Africans is supported by Play Your Part, a nationwide Brand SA campaign created to inspire and celebrate active citizenship. Each South African is encouraged to offer their time, money, skills or goods to make a collective difference to the lives of those in their communities. Follow: @PlayYourPartSA

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