Through the lens of Bongani Mnguni (1953 – 2019)
Many who met and knew ace photographer Bongani Mnguni will attest to have been singularly struck by his gentle and laid-back demeanour. The veteran photographer, who was often harassed and beaten up by security forces while covering the brutality of apartheid, passed away on Sunday 14 April 2019 at the age of 65.
Bongani Mnguni’s easy-going manner endeared one to his humble soul almost instantly. His handshake was unfailingly warm and, complemented by a glowing smile, made the introduction a pleasant experience. Invariably, he would ensure that the parting shot to any encounter or meeting ended with an impromptu photographic opportunity. Click, click, thanks to your photogenic self, you have been snapped!
Camera his third eye
His camera, which never left his side, was literally the prism through which he viewed and examined the world. It became his third eye from the first time he became interested in photography in the early 1960s. He would never venture out of his home without it; he carried it along even during short walks to the shops to buy milk or airtime.
It was this old-school practice – come rain, come shine – that would often give Mnguni the edge over some of his colleagues. Many unforgettable photo opportunities found him all ready and prepared for the moment – 24 hours and seven days of the week.
Mnguni was born in 1953 and matriculated from Orlando High School. He started out as a freelance photographer in 1972 and later worked for publications including Sowetan, City Press, Sunday World. He covered the Soweto Uprising on 16 June 1976, and in 1977, he photographed the mass funeral of police victims in Soweto. He also used his camera to document the daily struggles of ordinary black South Africans living under oppressive apartheid rule.
Chasing a scoop
Mnguni revelled in the excitement and adventure that came with chasing a scoop. The more dangerous the better! He was fearless and never one to baulk under pressure or provocation or amid danger. He excelled when it came to dangerous assignments.
Journalists intimidated by perilous assignments felt safer around him, for Mnguni secretly packed a mean punch which belied his genial demeanour. Thanks to the gene of his boxer father “Pancho”, who was known to equally put the lights out of opponents who dared jump into the ring with him.
Though he employed his fists sparingly, Mnguni took no nonsense from anyone – and hardly allowed anyone to become an obstacle to a good story or news shot. When in the middle of the drama of an unfolding news story, he menaced like a bulldog defending its bone. Flying bullets or not, he would get his shot! And, when he got it, the expression on his face would be priceless – second perhaps only to that of a smiling detective who has finally nabbed his suspect.
His threshold for danger often surpassed that of reporters, who would duck out of harm’s way, leaving Mnguni to his daredevil ways to mop up the finer details of the story.
Never abandoned good story
Back at the office, journalists would be rapped over the knuckles by an angry news editor for hurriedly abandoning the assignment in the face of danger, bringing a half-baked story.
Mnguni never abandoned a job for his safety, for he commanded respect from both gangsters and community leaders alike. Strangely, he never gloated about his fearsome reputation in the newsroom.
Still, Mnguni was the protector of the underdog in the newsroom. He detested bullies – there were quite a few in the media and still are today – who preyed on vulnerable young female reporters. In the newsrooms, bullying is often the armory of the workplace sex predator.
Mnguni would not waste time to give the offending bully a private dressing down, cautioning him that a repeat offence would result in a severely redefined face and a bloodied nose. In reality, he took young rookies under his wing, some were young enough to be his children.
His legacy lives on
Mnguni will be fondly remembered as a photographer’s photographer as well as someone who earned his spurs after many courageous feats in the world of journalism. His legacy lives on through his extensive portfolio of powerful images taken during the 1976 upheavals, the violence in the townships in the mid-80s and the early 90s. His archives are a curator’s dream trove garnered through series of enterprising photographic forays – most at huge personal risk.
Part of Mnguni’s 1976 work still features in a permanent exhibition at Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto; some at the Hector Petersen Museum; and others were also showcased during the exhibition to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Soweto uprisings in 2016. Being invited to be part of an international photographic exhibition in France remained an enduring highlight that put him on the world stage alongside peers from other countries.
Sadly, his efforts to bequeath his pictorial treasure to the country fell on deaf ears on many occasions – much to his constant frustration and disappointment. Promises made in the gallery of public ears were never fulfilled. Calls to official places were never followed up. Pledges to fund the archiving of his material came to naught – as did unkept promises of employment, the lack of which meant that he had to reach his retirement age without the lifetime nest of a company pension.
The lack of company pension was the result of being employed on continuous short term contracts despite promises of full-time employment. Eventually, the media world unceremoniously put him out to pasture, along with a long list of experienced black journalists who became casualties, partly to the juniorisation of newsrooms and the resuscitation of racial economic hierarchy of the apartheid era.
Yet Mnguni’s saga conjures the perplexity posed by black publications employing white picture editors to manage a gantry of black photographers in their photographic departments. Most intriguing is that these appointments – made by black editors – happen while veteran black photographers remain all but forgotten. Examples of the reversal of the roles are still rare to find today.
He loved his work
Of all riddles, it never ceased to amaze Mnguni to witness what he perceived as sheer lack of gratitude and credit for his role in escorting and providing news leads to some of the white photographers who went on achieve Hollywood fame, following their courageous exploits covering the 1990s violence on the Reef townships with him.
“They (the photographers) would contact me to give them news leads and often follow me to places like Thokoza and Katlehong to cover the violence under my protection – but I never heard from them when the idea of the film was decided upon,” Mnguni once said.
Be that as it may, Mnguni’s great passion for his craft rewarded him with a great sense of contentment. It resonated with Russian author Leo Tolstoy’s assertions about passion, that, “it is the work and not the reward that is precious”.
He derived immense pleasure and inspiration in witnessing the impact of his work in the public domain, even though he did not have much to show by way of rewards for it in the end. He still, nonetheless, spent all his life truly consumed by his passion.
They might have lived in different eras, but Mnguni would still have found great solace in the Russian author’s further musings about passion: “You see, if you take pains and learn in order to get a reward, the work will seem hard; but when you work… if you love your work, you will find your reward in that”.
Mnguni is survived by his wife and seven children.
In memory of departed photographers like Pat Seboko, Moffat Zungu, Ralph Ndawo, Evans Mboweni, Ken Oosterbroek, Walter Dladla, Judas Ngwenya, Abe Mahlangu and others.