The Portfolio: ‘How photographer Bongani Mnguni saw his death coming’

Bongani looked after me and was very good to me. You know how men are if they want you! He would lie to me and say, “At work we must go with our partners to this place”, so everywhere he wanted to go, I would tag along. This was until I found a proper job and he had to go alone. However, every morning he would take me to work, and, in the afternoon, he would fetch me and take me home. During his spare time, Bongani would always be with me, until his death in 2019. We went out for about 10 years, but he finally paid lobola in 1995 and we got married on 15 December 1996.

  Bongani was a photographer first — everything else came after. Also, he was not afraid and would say, “You get scared after, but at that moment you are in that thing, and you just want to see how it’s going to unfold, instead of helping.” He photographed 16 June 1976 and in his archive, he kept pictures of scary things. Burning people. A person’s head lying here; their bodies lying there. Tyres on necks. I didn’t want to look at some of his photographs.

 Along with Peter Magubane, Alf Kumalo and Sam Nzima, Bongani created the Hector Pieterson Museum. They exhibited their photos in Transnet containers until the council took over. The council never involved them after that, although they did get paid a certain amount of money. However, they were never recognised, and Bongani was not happy about that.

There is a lot of stress carried by photographers. I don’t know about writers, but many photographers are unable to use their material. The government has access to the pictures, but they say, “We can show history through your pictures and not compensate you.” And when you are dead, nobody knows that you contributed so much. It hurts a lot. 

  Bongani wasn’t okay at all for a very long time. He stayed home from 2008 and couldn’t get a job anywhere. He would cry, “Nobody is helping me: I am trying — I am talking to this one and that one — nobody is listening”. At one stage when Bongani couldn’t find work, he wanted to go and teach deaf kids in Soweto. He was looking for a sponsor to get cameras and someone who could use sign language to open a school. There were a lot of things he wanted to do, but he failed.

  Staying home and not working for that long — and you don’t know what you are going to eat tomorrow, or how you are going to support your family — is hard. It was nice that we were close, him and I. Even when I was working and not earning that much money, the little that we were getting, I was getting for us.

  In 2012 Bongani was admitted to hospital. He was still working for the Sowetan then, not full time, but on contract. He called me one night from the office. “I don’t feel okay; I have a problem — my chest — I don’t feel okay.” He came back home that night and he slept. 

The next morning, he wasn’t feeling well, and I took him to the hospital. The doctor immediately admitted him into intensive care, because when they checked, he had a blood clot in one of the veins to the heart. They had to dissolve that. He stayed there for about 15 days and discovered that he had diabetes and high blood pressure, for which he was put on treatment for cholesterol.

 You know, sometimes people prophesy their own thing. He put a palm leaf on my door in the bedroom, like a cross, and kept it there for quite a long time — more than five years. One time, he even told me that he would die in my hands. He died on Palm Sunday, and we buried him over the Easter weekend. I was the one who was pumping his heart before he died. I was looking at him when he passed away, with my daughter. I am glad I was there. I’m glad I could say goodbye to him.

This account by Lucia Mnguni, in remembrance of her husband, photographer Bongani Mnguni, appears in Black Photo Libraries, a book by the Market Photo Workshop. For more on the book, visit here

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