Image by David Meyer-Gollam

Peter Magubane: the camera was my gun

Peter Magubane is a Johannesburg man. He grew up as an only child in Sophiatown. He travelled the cosmopolitan neighbourhoods of Johannesburg with his father on his horse-drawn vegetable and fruit cart.
In his debut book Magubane’s South Africa (1978) he describes how his father was known as a man who belonged to no political organisations and fought his own battles. He bought his son his first camera, a Kodak Brownie which he used at school to take portraits.
After Form IV (Grade 11), Magubane left school. He joined Drum magazine as a driver. He quickly became immersed in the humdrum of activity, rising to become a star photographer. The photographic department was headed by picture editor Jürgen Schaderberg who gave him free reign to learn the arts of dark room and printing. His friends were writers, Can Themba and Nat Nakasa.
With Drum magazine, he photographed the adoption of the Freedom Charter and the Rivonia Treason Trial where he was first arrested. He developed techniques to outwit the police, often disguising his camera in a loaf of bread, a pint of milk or even a Bible.
Photographer Bob Gosani was his direct mentor and showed him the ropes in the industry whilst editor Tom Hopkinson made an indelible impact. Hopkinson entered Magubane’s pictures in the South African best picture prize and he became the first “black” photographer to win this award in 1958.
On the day of the Sharpeville Massacre, March 21st1960, Hopkinson gave Magubane the lesson that would mould him into a photojournalist. Hopkinson evoked the words of Robert Capa: “If your photographs aren't good enough, you're not close enough.” Capa had been an inspiration to Magubane when he attended the Family Man exhibition at the Rand Show. He acknowledged he needed to get closer to the action and never strayed again.
The apartheid government was opposed and paranoid. In 1969 whilst on a visit to Winnie Mandela in Pretoria Central Prison, Magubane was arrested under the suppression of Communism Act of 1950.
He was put away in solitary confinement for a record 586 days. He was tortured, made to stand on bricks for four days and four nights and drink strong coffee, until his feet swelled and he urinated blood. Two weeks after release, he was placed under banning orders for five years and his Diepkloof home was burnt down to break him, and destroy negatives.
A banned person is not allowed to speak to more than one person at a time, attend gatherings, educational or business premises and in his own words, Magubane became “a ghost.”
When the banning orders were lifted in June 1976, Magubane found a new vision of apartheid in front of him. Nearly all the adult black politicians had been banned, detained or jailed and their political parties outlawed, causing the youth to take action.
He walked straight into the Soweto riots of 1976. At the break of dawn on 16th June, Magubane came across a group of protesting youth who demanded he put away his camera. He said to them his now iconic words, “A struggle without documentation is no struggle.” He asked for other photographers, black and white, to have the right to document. The youth listened and allowed him to go ahead.

“He is more than just a struggle photographer. He is a story-teller with a really strong love for his people and his country. He changed my perception of what it is like to be black. His bravery and sheer audacity to be what he needed to be is emblazoned in the way we live today.” Lungile Magubane

Image Peter Magubane

1976 became the turning point in his career. He followed the event into Alexandra Township the following day and then all over the country. His Young Lions coverage made the front page of The New York Times. He photographed Dr Eidelstein, the doctor who was mistaken for a West Rand Administration Board official and killed.
His work became the definitive collection of that historic event and was documented in various exhibitions and books, notably the 40 year commemorative edition published by Seriti sa Sechaba.
Editor Marie-Lais Emond describes Peter as “Mr. 1976.” She draws attention to the cover of 1976 and the action packed photograph of a silhouetted figure of a youth taking a leap to safety as armed police give chase. She said, “He has almost got a 6th sense for knowing what was going to happen.”
During the states of emergency and the Boipatong, Uitenhage and King Williams Town massacres, Magubane was on the ground. On many occasions he protected fellow photographers from crowds and dangerous situations. He would hop up onto a car bonnet and divert the attention to the common cause. In Gugulethu 1985 he saved photographers Louise Gubb and Sarah Leen with the words: “Stop, these are the people who are taking our struggle to the world.” In Thohoyandou in Venda Roger Lucey was saved with the words: “If you kill him, you might as well kill me too.” In 1986 he saved an entire family from being hacked to death in Leandra. He was awarded the prestigious Robert Capa award for courageous journalism. As dramatic as the photographs might have been, Magubane’s attitude was always: “I have got my pictures. I can save a life now. That is more important.”
Magubane had a strong international career and was a correspondent for Time magazine. He had an apartment in New York and was highly respected by the international photographic fraternity. He opened the doors for fellow South African photographer, Rashid Lombard in New York and got him into Magnum Photo’s. Lombard said, “He was really a legend there and it was all about his work.”
After Nelson Mandela’s release in 1990 and up until his presidency in ‘94, Magubane was chosen as his official photographer and travelled the world with him. This work is preserved in numerous books and exhibitions including Man of Destiny and Man of the People. It travelled to the European Solidarity Centre in Poland 2016 and was opened by former president and Nobel peace prize winner Lech Wałęsa and Zindzi Mandela. His images are in Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. He is thanked in the book for the role he played in facilitating the publishing deal with Time Warner Books.
“Peter has donated two collections of images to the Foundation including images of Madiba and the struggles against apartheid. Over the years these images have been used in numerous Foundation exhibitions, displays and events,” explained Verne Harris Director of Archive and Dialogue at the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
Magubane shared many of the Mandela characteristics such as respect, tolerance and forgiveness. And like other great struggle heroes he used his life after apartheid to further the cause of humanity. He changed pace from photojournalism to documentary and fine-art, shifting his focus to cultural events and the indigenous cultures of Africa.
“He had been doing photojournalism for a long time and was happy to hand over to the younger generation,” explained Reuters photo-journalist Siphiwe Sibeko. “Everything he did, he did it with respect. He had a personal interaction with the people he photographed. He showed the emotions and character of the people.”
The book Vanishing Cultures of South Africa (1998) introduced a new generation to his work. His pictures of the AmaNdebele made the National Geographic cover and were published in a full book. He produced the books BaNtwane: Africa’s undiscovered people and African Renaissance. In 2011, already into his 80s he started a new project documenting the Afrikaner culture and travelled to historic locations, events and cultural strong-holds where he was very much welcomed and respected. Of the Afrikaner he simply said, “These are our people, they belong in this country.”
Forgiveness and non-judgement was the tool that Magubane used to relate with his subjects. “He made an enormous contribution to humanity by acknowledging the everyday ordinary person and giving them a sense of hope and optimism. He uses the camera to go beyond the obvious and beyond apartheid,” explained curator, photographer, film maker, educator and archivist Paul Weinberg. His Grand-daughter Lungile (which means thank you in Zulu) Magubane grew up in New York where her mom was Consul General.
Peter Magubane has received close support from long-time friend David Meyer-Gollam. Sensing the importance of documenting the documenter, Gollan has fulfilled every role required from manager, to legal advisor, archivist, curator and editor.
He said “Magubane is the complete photographer. He is at one with his subject. Nothing is posed or set up. He is real, allowing the subjects to tell their own stories through the images. He is extremely disciplined to his craft. When embarking on a project he will go back time and time again, knowing that every time he will find something different. In this way he is showing respect to South African culture and people.” At 87 Magubane is as always a teacher. He advises young aspiring photographers to just go ahead and create their work. He says that he never waited for editors to assign him any jobs. Magubane is well acknowledged having received nine honorary doctorates. He has published 23 books so far, with more to come. He loves photographing the sun setting over the rooftops of Soweto.


Story of South African Jazz 2

Find these and other stories of jazz and liberation in the Story of South african Jazz Volume 2.