A life lived vividly, loudly

Alf Kumalo. What a man; what a life. He is gone now, after a life lived to the fullest. I remember him as jazz saxophonist and composer Benny Golson remembered the trumpeter Clifford Brown in his mellifluous threnody I Remember Clifford. If I could sing, as our poet laureate Keorapetse “Willy” Kgositsile would put it, I would sing a dirge that would astonish even the gods. But I can’t sing, so I write this tribute instead in memory of a fantastic gentleman and, most especially, a man who lived to bear witness to the brutalities of apartheid with his camera.

The legend that was Bra Alf was known to me before I came to know the man personally, and my first meeting with him was occasioned by an assignment I was doing for an advertising agency years ago.

I was at a café in Rosebank waiting for Bra Alf, because the nature of this assignment necessitated that I speak to a man like him for purposes of ­historical exactness and his was my chosen authentic voice.

He arrived. I saw him. But he looked about, as if searching for somebody other than me. In the end I called out to him. He came to my table and in that twang of his asked whether I was the guy from Holland. This despite the fact that when I had called him to the table, I’d shouted out his clan name, Mtungwa. This despite the fact that over the phone I had called him by his other clan name, Mbulase. So when I pointed this out to him, that a Hollander couldn’t possibly know this, he laughed and laughed and I also laughed in a way that made other patrons look at us askance.  

That was Alf. Bra Alf. Alf Kumalo. Then I visited him at his museum in Diepkloof, Soweto, where I first met would-be novelist Zukiswa Wanner.   

Bra Alf took me on a tour. He showed me all his great photographs, including, of course, those of the Mandelas, Winnie and Nelson. Then he showed me one of his favourites and we stood for a long time looking at this particular photo. It was of Muhammad Ali in that famous fight of his against George Foreman in Zaire (now the DRC) in 1974, the fight that was called Rumble in the Jungle (Zaire was not a jungle, but anyway).

“And how I got this particular image,” said Bra Alf, “is that I shouted: ‘Ali, look at me!’”

Of course, that is highly improbable if you know what boxing is all about, but it made for a fantastic story and Bra Alf liked to tell it.

Then we moved to another photograph, this one of a jazz musician. If my memory serves me correctly, it was of jazz colossus Kippie Moeketsi, a contemporary of Bra Alf’s back in the Sophiatown of the roaring Fifties. Those were the days of what we now call the Drum generation: that group of writers, poets and photographers — Bra Alf included — who lived by the maxim: “Live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse.”

Bra Alf showed me this photograph. There was something funny about it; there were lines that looked like some child’s wild scrawl that I couldn’t make out. So I asked him what they were. He laughed the way he had laughed in Rosebank. Then he declared, to my utter amazement, that those were lines of sound. Can you believe that? Bra Alf said he had captured sound on camera! Ah, Bra Alf was something else.

It was the poet Sandile Ngidi who had shocked me several weeks ago with the news that he had seen Bra Alf looking gaunt and not at all hale.

“The way Lewis [Nkosi] looked before he died,” he said. “You are not saying …” I replied. “Well, I am saying it,” he said. “I, too, was shocked.”

It was then, I think, that for an infinitesimal moment my mind took leave of me and speech, as Ngidi said on learning of the death of his friend Chimid, froze behind my tongue.

Alfred Kumalo (1930-2012)

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Obituary: The pointillist detail and zen brush strokes of Jürgen Schadeberg

‘Drum’ photographer Jürgen Schadenberg, who died on Sunday, displayed a profound humanism, writes his friend and sometime collaborator Hazel Friedman

Why we need a South African jazz photography archive

We need more books about South African jazz, focusing on both the verbal and the visual, to fully capture and appreciate the unique ‘river of culture we’ve been bequeathed’

Exposed: SA’s iconic pics plundered

Our photographic heritage is being stolen by pirates peddling ‘pictures of pictures’

Entitlement conspires with Public Works

The jobs programme further demeans those who won't contribute but take state largesse for granted.

Fish tales and faded hope on the famished road to Mangaung

Tiisetso Makube takes a ride to find some answers about the succession race but instead finds more questions about the troubled state of the nation.

Dispatches: Reading the Reporter

In KwaThema on Gauteng's East Rand, news and memories merge at Sis Poppy's speakeasy.

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Why anti-corruption campaigns are bad for democracy

Such campaigns can draw attention to the widespread presence of the very behaviour they are trying to stamp out — and subconsciously encourage people to view it as appropriate

Tax, wage bill, debt, pandemic: Mboweni’s tightrope budget policy statement

The finance minister has to close the jaws of the hippo and he’s likely to do this by tightening the country’s belt, again.

SA justice delays extradition of paedophile to UK

Efforts to bring Lee Nigel Tucker to justice have spanned 16 years and his alleged victims have waited for 30 years

Former state security minister Bongo back in court

Bongo and his co-accused will appear in the Nelspruit magistrate’s court in Mpumalanga over charges of fraud, corruption and theft

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday