Alf Khumalo: He photographed apartheid struggle


You had to be brave to photograph apartheid in action, and even more so if you were black. Alf Khumalo was both, and he applied his talent and sensitivity to recording the bad years in South Africa. The police did not like to be photographed, since it made them vulnerable to attack. Khumalo remembered his encounters with them, being "arrested, beaten up. They cracked my skull. That's how it was."

But Khumalo, who has died in Johannesburg aged 82, was committed and determined, and over the years photographed the police behaving viciously as they dealt with blacks. The star photographer Peter Magubane said Khumalo used "his camera as a gun to fight apartheid."

He recorded the long struggles: the anti-apartheid protests and the Treason Trial of the 1950s, the state of emergency after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, the Rivonia trial that ended with Nelson Mandela's sentence of life imprisonment, the children's uprising in 1976, the resistance of the 1980s, and the coming of democracy in 1994.

As the former president Thabo Mbeki said, "Alf Khumalo was more than a documentary photojournalist, he was, above all, one of South Africa's eminent historians." Yet there was nothing of the ace or macho photographer about him. He was quietly spoken and modest. He laughed easily and was known for always being willing to help other photographers.

A decade ago he set up a museum of photography and a training centre in his old home in Soweto to share some of his skills with young South Africans.

In a career of more than 60 years he also did much work that went beyond the immediate violence of South Africa's racial conflict. He photographed Mandela in the early 1950s, both as a young lawyer and rising leader in the African National Congress, and in tender scenes with his beautiful new wife, Winnie. He covered Mandela's dramatic release from prison in 1990, his election as president and photographed his life right up until recently.

When the dissident and founder of the Pan Africanist Congress, Robert Sobukwe, was released from Robben Island after six years of solitary confinement, Khumalo was there to show how Sobukwe was freed, but only in name, sent into banishment and put under house arrest in Kimberley. But he also showed the zest of black township existence even under apartheid, with memorable images of women dancing, children playing in dusty streets, and men at work.

Khumalo was born in Alexandra, a poor and crime-ridden township on the edge of Johannesburg. He completed high school in another township. Without training, but with a passion for photography, he followed the road taken by other young blacks then aspiring to journalism, eking out a living by selling pictures and stories where he could.

His talent was evident and in 1951, he was hired by Johannesburg's Bantu World newspaper, which was white-owned but was aimed at black readers. He later joined Drum, which was the leading magazine for blacks, and went on to establish his reputation there. He also worked for the city's leading newspapers, the Rand Daily Mail and The Star.

His photographs have appeared in many newspapers throughout the world. In 2004, he had an exhibition of his lifetime's work during the 59th session of the UN General Assembly in New York.

The South African government awarded him the Order of Ikhamanga, its highest accolade in creative arts, in 2005, and the South African National Editors' Forum honoured him with the Nat Nakasa Award for Media Integrity for courageous journalism throughout his career.

I have a personal regret about his death, not only because he was a good man, with rare courage and integrity, but also because we had agreed to collaborate on a book about Robert Sobukwe, my words, his pictures. Solely through my tardiness, the book never happened.

President Jacob Zuma said that Khumalo's " work will live on forever as a monument to the peoples' resilience and fortitude in the face of oppression and apartheid."

It also lives on in two books, and in the testament of his collected pictures.

Benjamin Pogrund

Alfred Khumalo, photographer: born Alexandria 5 September 1930; married Elizabeth (two children); died Johannesburg 21 October 2012.