Obituary – Our memory is his legacy

2012-10-26 13:22

Glomerulus could easily be the name of a nasty flower.

But it refers to the tubular kidney structure that failed and caused the death of iconic photojouranalist Alf Kumalo.

The doctors say it was renal failure in a body that housed one gifted retina.

Kumalo’s talent saw him bear witness – from the front line – to more than half a century of the South African story.

He started taking pictures professionally when he joined the Bantu World newspaper in 1951.

In 1956 he joined the Golden City Post as a permanent staffer.

At The Star newspaper, he began in 1980 and continued past his formal retirement age.

He carried on working, the gentleman in the fine attire who always got the shot.

He establisheda photography museum in Diepkloof, Soweto, where he housed our memories and his legacy.

At the facility, he also set up a project where underprivileged post-matric students can be taught photography.

Kumalo was born in 1930 in Joburg’s infamously impoverished township of Alexandra.

This is where president Nelson Mandela rented a tin-shack back room.

Considering the dire living conditions there, it could easily have been a stretch for Kumalo to be sensitive to others, right? Yet there lies a profound humanity in his work.

His capacity for empathy lies in his ability to be intimately present with his subject.

Take those Rivonia Trial pictures he produced while he was the official photographer of the Mandelas.

Kumalo goes beyond the grand historical figures to show us the young Winnie and Nelson Mandela as a smitten couple rubbing their noses together.

He captured the palpable electricity of that post-kiss glance like no one else could have. His subjects trusted him.

In his images of the same era, there is a portrait of a sprightly Hugh Masekela.

It catches the now world-renowned jazz trumpeter as a boy doing a star jump with his horn in hand.

In the repressed Sophiatown of 1956, no picture could have better spoken of the defiance of joy and the vitality of jazz in the urban black experience.

We know Kumalo had a good ear too because he told a documentary film maker: “When there was music, you could actually forget that you were oppressed, whether you were at a shebeen or at your own home.”

In fact, his images of musicians swing with an exceptional sagaciousness.

At the height of Miriam Makeba’s troubles with the apartheid state, Kumalo gave us an image of her at a New York shoe shop.

Mama Africa sits on a bench staring into the distance with a white salesman kneeling at her feet helping her fit a pair of boots.

Her regal posture and Kumalo’s eye restores her dignity.

Black dignity.

The picture becomes the photographer’s weapon in the fight against apartheid.

Just as it was when Kumalo covered the 1976 student uprisings and the 1980s state of emergency.

It is not surprising that he was awarded the National Order of Ikhamanga.

If only it had led to actual support to ensure that his museum continues to nurture the talents of township children.

But legendary Alf Kumalo, the photojournalist, artist and cultural worker, is gone now to join the eternal part of our family.

How did we treat him while he was with us?

Only history will be the judge.

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