Peter Magubane & the boers

2014-04-08 12:00

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It’s late summer, but the mid-morning air is ­nippy, a Joburg winter foretold. It’s been raining incessantly for days. At the Melville home of Peter Magubane, the grand man of South ­African documentary photography, the chill ­informs our greetings and small talk.

Magubane punctuates his courteous coffee offer with a touch of humour, an option of uMbamba or ­sorghum beer, the traditional old man’s drink.

Each of his steps appear strenuous as he labours ­towards the couches in the lounge. The 82-year-old is battling prostate cancer, for which he undergoes regular chemotherapy. The procedure leaves him with little strength, a reality he blankets with a jovial demeanour.

However, the silver-headed lens man is awake to the gravity of his condition. He lost his wife to cancer in 2002. As he fights the same disease, he says he can again count on his helper, Mme Mpayi, the same woman who saw him through the passing of his wife.

“She is like my second mother. When she came here 12 years ago, my wife was sick. Now it’s me.”

A shrill edge creeps into his voice, a touch of vibrato. It is followed by a short pause and a light gasp for breath. He quickly changes the subject to lift the mood. We are meeting to talk about his latest photographic project.

In the mid-1980s, Magubane visited the small town of Parys in the then Orange Free State, his camera yoked round his neck.

“This was the first time I saw a white person who stays in a zozo,” he recalls as he points out an image of a heavily bearded and shabby old man with a cowboy hat standing at the door of his shack.

As the images of impoverished Afrikaners beam from the monitor one by one, Magubane strains to ­remember the details of his encounters with the ­unnamed men and women. “I never asked for names. It made them nervous and so I just took the picture, said thank you and left.”

The hunt for these subjects took him into the homes of pale strangers living across apartheid’s political ­divide. The images chronicle Africa’s white tribe in ­various cultural ceremonies, some in the squalor of life in squatter camps and others in the glory of a ­mampoer-drenched farm existence.

Women enjoy a sack race at a mampoer festival in the mid-1980s. Picture: Peter Magubane

He wasn’t aware of it at the time, but that trip would become the genesis of a body of work on the Afrikaner community that he now plans to publish in a book and have made into a film.

For two decades the Parys ­pictures gathered the proverbial dust and were all but forgotten. It was only in 2011 when the photographer was organising his archive that they revealed themselves to him as a coherent body of work. So Magubane resumed his documentation of the boers.

He visited the right wing outpost of Ventersdorp ­during the murder trial of Eugene Terre’Blanche, leader of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB). He was well received. “They liked me. They called me ‘the Zulu boer’,” says Magubane of the unexpected ­affection he received.

He went to photograph the commemoration of the Battle of Blood River in KwaZulu-Natal. In October 2011, the project took him to Groot Marico, the site of the annual Herman Charles Bosman Festival, where they celebrate the Afrikaans literary icon’s life, work and drinking habits.

Families commemorate the Battle of Blood River. Picture: Peter Magubane

Suddenly the elderly photographer was doing some of the most adventurous work of his career. Like the iconic pictures that he took as mentor to the Bang Bang Club (a hard-core pack of news photographers documenting the country’s violent transition to democracy).

Mixed in with his earlier images of Afrikaners are pictures he took during the Sharpeville massacre and other horrors of our history.

Suddenly, the screen glows with a black-and-white portrait of him with blood coming down his face. He had been assaulted by the police while on assignment. He pauses a moment, peering at the image. “Eish, that boer got me that day. Yerr! He hit me hard,” he says. Then he cracks up laughing.

I notice a tattered and yellowed page of a 1971 issue of the Rand Daily Mail framed and hanging on a wall. Its fading headline reads: The Man Who Does Not Exist – When They Took Magubane Away They Also Turned Him Into a Non Person His Pictures Could Not Be ­Captioned.

The article tells the story of his arrest and detention. Magubane was held at The Fort in Joburg for 10 days before being transferred to Pretoria, where he was held for 586 days in solitary confinement. He says his captors could not beat him up because they knew the Rand Daily Mail was looking out for him.

Peter Magubane was arrested and banned from photography for five years. He says it was so hard he even considered going into exile.

He ­remembers his prison days with a heavy spirit. “Well, the first day when you get in there is like a hole in hell. When you look out, you see the birds on the cell ­windowsill. When you stand, they fly away. You say, I wish I was like those birds. I wish I could just fly away.”

Magubane was banned from photography for five years. He says it was so hard he even considered going into exile. As he talks, a mood descends like the early morning fog hanging over Joburg on this day.

“I remember I got a driver to take me to the ­Swaziland border. I had packed my bags and we set off. I remember we booked a room in a bed and breakfast in Volksrust.

“That night I had a dream. It said: ‘Magubane, where are you going? Go back home.’ In the morning, I just told my driver that I wanted to drive. He said yes and I turned the car to head back home. I returned to face the burning order. I told myself that no one is going to make me put down my cameras. I’m not sorry I did that.”

Ironically, it is remaining inside the apartheid ­system that gave him purpose. This includes a relationship with the boers in his latest project. It’s a curious thing, perhaps even Mandela-esque, this ­fascination Magubane holds for a people in whose name the apartheid state murdered and ­brutalised so many, even himself.

“They are my people too. We are all South Africans and we’ve got to try to be closer,” the old man says. There is resolve in his tone when he adds: “If you don’t ­forgive, your profession will suffer. Besides, I deal with people. It doesn’t matter if they are wrong or right. I have to deal with them as ­people.”

There’s an uncommon tenderness in how Magubane’s lens meets the human symbols of his ­oppression. Not unlike the eye of a man looking to ­resolve personal trauma.

It reminds me of the healing that feminist critic bell hooks writes of in her treatise Salvation: Black People and Love. For her, the ­transformative power of love is the foundation of all meaningful social change.

Perhaps this is true for Magubane also.

But it opens new questions in my mind. Is the old man not falling in love with his oppressor in a perverse romance of trauma?

Comparing his memories of Sharpeville and ­Marikana, Magubane says: “Our black policemen are worse than white policemen of that time. You didn’t have so many people dying.

Can you imagine what June 16, even Sharpeville, would’ve been like if black ­policemen had guns? Look at Marikana. They mowed them down.

If black policemen had guns then, we would have had more children killed. Back then black policemen did not have guns. They gave them ­knobkerries and sjamboks,” he insists.

On how he overcame his historic bitterness, Magubane says: “I taught ­myself, as a photographer, to leave my anger out of it so that I can get what I want. If you go there as ­someone who is angry, you won’t do you job.”

For a man who has lived his life for photographs, it’s ironic that there are none on the walls of his home. Instead, it is decorated with a horde of artefacts and memorabilia collected during a career that spans more than five decades.

There’s a choir of Ndebele dolls he acquired during a commission for National Geographic. The picture story made it on to the 1986 June cover of the magazine. He later put them together into a book, Amandebele.

Over the years, Magubane has published almost 20 books and has received seven honorary doctorates from around the world. A few of these honours are framed and displayed near the dolls to complete what looks like a shrine of memories on the crowded ­cabinet.

It is most likely his forthcoming book on the Afrikaners will yield yet more honours. Its unhurried nature suits him fine.

“I can’t run. I can’t do stories like Marikana like I did with Sharpeville. I’m old now. An old man.”

A life behind the lens

»?Peter Magubane was born in 1932 in Vrededorp, a suburb of Joburg, and grew up in Sophiatown.

»?His first camera was a Kodak Brownie. From that moment, he knew he wanted to be a photojournalist.

»?He began his career as a messenger and driver at Drum magazine before ­being promoted to ­darkroom assistant to ­Jürgen Schadeberg.

»?He became a leading member of Drum magazine’s legendary pack of photographers.

»?After Drum, he worked for ­various agencies, tirelessly documenting political events in the country.

»?He became close friends with Nelson and Winnie Mandela.

»?In 1957, he was refused entry to the all-white Photographic Society of SA and helped form the Progressive Photographic Society.

»?From 1966 to 1980, Magubane worked for the Rand Daily Mail.

»?In June 1969, he was arrested and held in ­solitary confinement for over a year for taking ­pictures of protesters ­outside the prison where Winnie Mandela and 21 other political activists were being detained.

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

»?Magubane broke the banning order in 1971, was arrested again and spent 98 days in solitary ­confinement and six months in jail.

»?He documented the Soweto student uprisings in 1976, was ­assaulted and ­harassed by the police ­numerous times, and ­detained for 123 days.

»?The photos he took on June 16 earned him worldwide acclaim and made him an icon of the struggle.

»?He then worked for Time magazine, the UN and Sports Illustrated, and published 19 books, two of which were banned by the apartheid government.

»?When Mandela was ­released from jail, ­Magubane became his ­official photographer.

»?He has won a number of local and international awards, including the American National Professional Photographers’ ­Association Humanistic Award, honouring several incidents in which he put his camera aside and ­intervened to help prevent people from being killed.

– Thembi Wolfram

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