Goodbye to liberator with a camera

The angels must be stomping the ground with throaty joyfulness in a gig to welcome back the returning son of the soil – back to the land of his forebears.

Hyperbole is the only way to make sense of Peter Magubane’s death, after a long life of 91, edging close to 92, and dying a few days before his birthday on January 18 – the day of his earthly arrival in 1932.

Who would not be happy to have a person of his character return home, almost as if in victory after a long period of absence, fighting a cause of justice in a faraway world of apartheid South Africa.

His illustrious photographic poetry started its chronicle meanderings in 1956 as it captured, not in words, but in graphic detail, images of women marching on Pretoria for the unchaining of their oppression, imposed on them by the unjust pass laws.

For it was Hendrik Verwoerd and his apartheid oppressors who had declared war on women, arguing that, they too, like their African male counterparts, must not escape the burden of carrying on their persons, every day of their lives, the demeaning and oppressive document called the “dompas”.

The unjust identifying document, especially targeting African women, and not of all racial groupings, would also be imposed on them, as the “dompas” had in previous years been used as a tool to strictly control the movement of African males.

“Africans must know their place and know that they are temporary sojourners in white South Africa,” was the rallying cry of the Verwoerdian call.

This was the philosophy of the apartheid system, designed and executed by Verwoerd in the all-white inclusive cabinet, that the African persons’ free movement in their own country must be proscribed and rigidly controlled.

So, in 1956, African women defiantly declared they would have no truck with a system that oppressed them, and so they would express their opposition to the draconian pass laws by marching on Pretoria.

In a nutshell, the pass laws were designed to harass and remind Africans that white South Africa belonged to the white people, and that the reserves, or Bantustans, were home to millions of Africans.

And so Magubane, who had, as legend goes, graduated from the Jim Bailey’s Drum school of photography, in poetry only known to his camera lens, would capture the moment of resistance by African women – also joined as a form of solidarity by a sprinkling of other racial groupings to protest an unjust system cooked up in the apartheid pots.

The photographic protest poetry would define the course Magubane would take to expose the atrocities of apartheid. So, that would set the scene for the many years in which Magubane would immerse himself, through his camera lens, in the trenches of the liberation struggle.

In an unjust political system such as prevailed under the apartheid system, it was axiomatic that even journalists would, first, see themselves as an oppressed collective, and second, as news hounds.

Then four years later, in 1960, Magubane’s poetry through the lens of his camera, would again kick into action.

The 1960 Sharpeville massacre orchestrated by the apartheid police in which 69 protesters were mowed down, and more than 200 protesters wounded by apartheid bullets, Magubane’s camera lens captured the event for posterity, and for the international community to have a glimpse of how the apartheid beast looked like in its oppression of the African people.

Then 16 years later as the apartheid cruelty intensified, Magubane was in the thick of it, recording the 1976 Soweto students’ uprisings.

The veteran photojournalist would, after the demise of apartheid, be enlisted as the official photographer of former president Nelson Mandela.

In one sense, history has been kind to Magubane. It gave him long life, and a privilege to chronicle the country’s momentous events, including the recording of the historic first democratic national elections that saw Madiba becoming the first democratically elected president of a free South Africa in 1994.

Magubane will in his grave join several of his contemporaries who have gone the way of all flesh, including Bob Gosani, Alf Khumalo and Ken Oosterbroek, among others.

Rest in peace, Peter Magubane. The angels are ready to welcome you to your final eternal resting home.


  • Mdhlela is the acting news editor of Sunday World, an Anglican priest and former editor of South African Human Rights Commission journals

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