Taking Pot Shots At Apartheid: The legend that is Peter Magubane

A Heritage Month Special

I was able to carry my gun, the camera was my gun I was able to kill apartheid with my gun. I am glad that I am able to share my work with people.

Peter Magubane
- At the opening of his UFS Exhibition

The University of the Free State recently hosted the second annual Arts and Social Justice Week. The events included a presentation by legendary photographer Dr Peter Magubane and his exhibition, a magnum opus, titled; A Struggle without Documentation is no Struggle. The collection showcases Dr Magubane’s work from 1954 to 1994, focusing on historic events such as the 1976 Youth uprising and the Rivonia Trial.

Eastman Kodak's "Box Brownie" camera of the early 20th Century.

Eastman Kodak’s “Box Brownie” camera of the early 20th Century.

It all started when his father bought him a box Brownie camera when he was a schoolboy. Little did he know that the gadget would be a stepping stone towards his documentation of more than half a century of the history of South Africa.
The Audience listened attentively as Dr Magubane reminisced about the greatest and most challenging times of his career.

“I hid my camera in a hollowed-out Bible, and at times I had to hide it in a milk carton or loaf of bread and pretend that I am eating. If I want to take a picture and if you don’t want to, I will find a way. After 586 days in solitary confinement what more could you be afraid of”?

Dr Magubane hosted the presentation at the opening of his exhibition, which ran from 13 August to 12 September 2014 at the University of the Free State’s Centenary and Stegmann Galleries.

The Peter Magubane Exhibition currently running at the University of the Free State. Photo by O'Ryan Heideman.

The Peter Magubane Exhibition currently running at the University of the Free State.

He was banned from taking photographs for five years, repeatedly arrested and imprisoned and still has the scars from being wounded with buckshot during the uprisings. He documented the struggle, capturing some of the most historical events in the history of South Africa, such as the Rivonia Trial (1963-64), the Sharpeville massacre (1960), and the release of Nelson Mandela (1990). He was former president Mandela’s personal photographer.

Rivonia Trial

The Rivonia trial saw 10 leaders of the ANC being tried for 221 acts of treason (attempting to overthrow the government) and later sentenced to life imprisonment. The trial is well-known for the speech of Nelson Mandela where he stated that; “the ideal of a democratic and free society is one for which I am prepared to die”. Among the leaders jailed were, Ahmed Kathrada, Dennis Goldberg, Walter Sisulu and Andrew Mlangeni.

He shared his experience during the Sharpeville massacre where 69 unarmed people were killed and scores injured while protesting against the hated “dompas” identity documents that controlled the movement of indigenous Africans.
Moreover, Dr Magubane further expressed his love for the pictures of Mandela particularly where he is dancing; “I love this picture of Madiba dancing; he played a very important part in the history of the country”.

The Opening of the Peter Magubane Exhibition at the University of the Free State. Photo by O'Ryan Heideman.

The Opening of the Peter Magubane Exhibition at the University of the Free State. Photo by O’Ryan Heideman.

This ‘Drum Generation’ photographer’s fine work has earned him seven honorary degrees. He has published 17 books and held countless exhibitions.

Recalling the events in Soweto in 1976, he said: “When I got to Soweto that morning, these youngsters would not allow us to take pictures of them I told them that listen; this is a struggle, a struggle without documentation is not a struggle. Let them capture this, let them take pictures of your struggle then you have won”.

This was the first day of the Soweto uprising in 1976. The award wining photographer describes this time as the beginning of great change and a tough time for the country.

Child Labour

One of the focus points of his work was child labour; “I felt that my camera can defeat the struggle, I felt that I had done what I wanted to do…I could have done other projects but this was of importance. I told myself that I would not make money from this, but rather, the pay is reuniting these kids with their parents”.

Dr Magubane was able to achieve exactly what he had hoped for; “I brought a child home the mother said, ‘you have done well, I don’t know what to say or do, a thank you would be enough’ This reflected humility. I also took Molundi home.His father cried he had not seen the child for eight months. It was not easy to sell the story to newspapers. But I managed. Because no one had done the story before.”

However, on some occasions this was not always the case as he often had to watch parents reject their own children. “When I brought a boy home his dad rejected him. I was broken and asked myself why did I bring this child back home?…I could understand that he hasn’t seen his child in a long time but when he saw him it looked like he was just about to die….”

Photographer & Mentor

Dr Magubane was more than just a photographer; he took on the role of a father, guardian and a leader, getting involved in the lives of the children with the aim of restoring their lives.

“I only got involved with the story after I have done my story and taken the pictures. Then I began to question what I would do if they were my children?

He said that, the aim of the focus on child labour was to show the children that no matter “how poor or cruel your home is, your home is your home, do not take to the streets, it will not be the same, the streets will never be home.”

The self-taught photographer encouraged young photographers to read about their profession and acquaint themselves with key individuals.

He touched on the need to take action; “take action because if you keep quiet then you will never tell your story. I got what I wanted, I wanted to expose the system of apartheid and the world heard my cry.”
Dr Magubane conveyed a word of advice to the youth stating that “photography is healing of the past. Pay attention to what you are doing… don’t run away when things are sad, take a picture and leave. That picture will be history tomorrow.”