"A veteran photojournalist speaks"
Peter Magubane addressed Rhodes journalism students on 18 October 2001, on the eve of South African Media Freedom Day
      by Guy Berger, October 2001

Peter Magubane speaks softly, hands behind his back, moving gently in and out of the faint light of a darkened auditorium. It is October 18, 2001, and he's addressing 70 people on the eve of South Africa's Media Freedom Day.

This account of the event is just a fragment of the picture-driven and song-supplemented presentation. But posterity takes precedence so that the limits of text notwithstanding, what Magubane states still calls out to be documented, even though it is, reflected here, in the form of words without sound or image.

His message, however, ought to be none the less powerful, because it comes from the heart - and goes straight to it. Going straight to the heart of the matter, Magubane's life and work shows and tells how Apartheid's worst - and most central - feature was the pass law system designed to shackle black people, including children, into slave labour.

Without rancour, the man recounts a history that is huge in its extensiveness, and hideous in its effect on humans. There is little race hatred in all this.

He covers the non-racial resistance movement against the Apartheid era horrors, and he presents his images of the individuals who make up rural Afrikaners. He does not hide intra-racial brutality of kangaroo courts, or of the hostel-residents and incensed crowds whose rampages left black carnage and charred corpses of informers, militants and innocents. In the end, it is with deep emotional relief for, everyone at his presentation, that the image of Nelson Mandela at the ballot box comes up.

The nightmare is not easily forgotten, but considering how bad it was, the emotion after the show confirms that what is amazing is that today's problems are not 100 times worse. A society coming out of such violent brutality and dehumanisation could be expected to be far more damaged. That it is not, is a tribute to people like Peter Magubane.

Indeed, the man proves to be something of a doctor. He graphically pinpoints the pain, but he also holds out the prospect of healing.

He's certainly not lacking experience in both. This is a man who was incarcerated for solitary confinement for 586 days, was banned from public activity for five years, and who suffered a broken nose and 17 buckshot wounds courtesy of the South African police. He emerged from all this with his humanity intact and his spirit stronger than ever.

"I have taught myself not to hate, because I will not be able to do justice to my work. In my detention, I said I was not the only one. There were people worse off than me, in terms of detention and torture.

"I used to keep my mind from going crazy by counting the bolts on the door - adding and multiplying any figures by 11. If you ask me today, I couldn't do it. I went through the Bible from first to last page, but if you ask me today, I don't know it.

"I would stand by the window sill, see birds flying away, and think they were freer than I was. There were rays of sun that came into the cell. They had zebra stripes, and I knew what time it was when they hit the wall. When I came out, I got a model to strip naked and I captured the same zebra pattern of the sun. I cut the pictures up and made something beautiful. It grew into an exhibition called Solitude, which I had to get special permission to hold, because I was banned and unable to make speeches. So, I came out of prison and I made use of the experience. You can do the same with your experiences. "

His advice: "Start with your own backyard. All this time, we accused whites of exploiting child labour, but there is also this in the townships. For every finger pointing forward, there are four pointing back at you."

This is a man whom no amount of repression could cause to lose his love of photography.

"I never think about my safety. Otherwise, I will not get my pictures," he says. "No one comes between me and my camera, no one dictates terms to me. The pain of my nose being broken by the police was not as much as the pain of being forced by them to destroy to images I had taken."

"The camera was my platform and I made use of that platform effectively."

Of his photos of pass law enforcement, of mine workers' sleeping quarters that are effectively a row of concrete coffins, of their privacy-less toilet facilities, and of adult men having to strip naked simply for chest x-rays, he says: "This is the type of thing I wanted to get rid of, because it affected me and my people."

Employed at the showgrounds in Johannesburg in 1956, site of the current Wits University east campus, he tells how he was exposed to the first photographic exhibition he had ever seen. "I thought, if these things are made by men, then this is what I want to do."

His career began as a driver on Drum magazine, encouraged by Can Themba and Bob Gosani. "I had just finished my matric. The only opening was as a driver. I lied to the transport manager that I had a licence. I could drive, but I didn't have a licence. So, I got the job and told them: 'buy me a camera, I'll pay it off'".

So it was that he acquired a Yashica, and his career began.

Of covering the Sharpeville massacre for the magazine, Magubane said it had been the first time he had seen so many bodies - 69 people were shot dead. His photos were taken from a distance, with the result that he came in for criticism by his editor Tom Hopkinson. "He said: 'there are no close-ups, no photos here that will sell the magazine'. I explained that I had been shocked. He said: 'Get the pictures first, then you get shocked.'. He was right".

Come June 16, 1976, Magubane found himself taking photographs of the historic student protest march against the use of Afrikaans. Symbolic of his rejection about racial generalisation, he adds: "they protested against Afrikaans not as a language, but as a language of instruction."

When the demonstrators told him to stop taking pictures, he made the case for photojournalists to have free access. He told them: "A struggle without being recorded is no struggle. Whether you win or lose, a struggle without documentation is not a struggle." The result was that photographers were accepted, including white photographers.

The pictures of those times - which he still speaks about in the present tense - clearly still scar him. "Sometimes I became an ambulance man, picking up people and taking them to hospital. Only yesterday these people were alive, and today they are statistics. These children put their heads on the block, to free this country, to free you and me. Some had to become refugees at an early age, and some never came back."

His picture of bereaved twins, the older one weeping, captures the times. "I still visit them," he says. "One is now a hairdresser. They live together."

The conflict from the 1970s onwards was intense. "You woke in the morning, and said you did not know how you are going to come back, but I hope I am going to get back with my pictures. It is a calling. It has always been my wish to be a photographer."

And yet, with deaths there are also weddings and children at play in Magubane's pictures. "It is not just grimness, there is also happiness."

He concludes: "I have done my country proud, and I have done photography proud. Those with cameras should be documenting our country, so that we can see in 40 years time what life was like now. We should work together to better our country through photography.

"In the past, photographers were treated like traitors. We must make people love photography. When we have exhibitions, they should come in their numbers.

"I'm glad the Lord has spared me to have something to show the generations today, tomorrow and yesterday."



Coming: audio of a lecture by Peter Magubane, 19 October 2002