/ 4 January 2024

Great shot: Peter Magubane’s weapon was his camera

Black Power (1)
In black and white: Many of the images taken by photographer Peter Magubane, who died on New Year’s Day, explored apartheid. Powerful pictures: Award-winning photographer Peter Magubane is famous for his iconic images of the 16 June 1976 student uprising in Soweto as well as his photos of life in Johannesburg, the city where he was born.

The acclaimed photographer Peter Magubane died peacefully on the first day of this year, surrounded by his family, 17 days before his 92nd birthday.

Since then, the nation, and members of the creative fraternity all over the world, have been sharing their favourite images, articles and heartfelt messages of condolence to the Magubane family on social media. 

The great man’s influence on  my career as a photographer was immense too.

In 2018, working on my long-term project Resistance Heroes, which pays tribute to people who fought against apartheid by using their different talents in different disciplines, I visited Magubane. He was an obvious inclusion in my work.

He warmly welcomed me to his Melville, Johannesburg, home on 12 May that year to take his portrait. 

After the photoshoot, while I was packing up my equipment, his archivist and manager of over 20 years, David Meyer-Gollan, invited me to join them for a short walk along Melville’s popular 7th Avenue. The frequent walks, I was told, were therapeutic to the elderly snapper as he was battling prostate cancer. 

While strolling side by side with the legend, I realised how privileged I was to be in his presence. 

Upon arrival at one of the restaurants, strawberry milkshakes were ordered, which were the old man’s favourite. 

Our cordial conversation was frequently interrupted by admirers who came to greet the anti-apartheid freedom fighter — because he undoubtedly was one. 

It was a day of good luck when I had milkshakes with Magubane. Opposite the restaurant was a second-hand bookstore which I often visited when I was in the area.

I excused myself for a short while to visit it. 

To my delight, I found and bought the rare House of Bondage by Ernest Cole, Magubane’s former colleague at Drum magazine, which I had been searching for in vain for years. 

Both were more than photographers. As Magubane told The Guardian in 2015: “I did not want to leave the country to find another life. I was going to stay and fight with my camera as my gun. 

“I did not want to kill anyone, though. I wanted to kill apartheid.”

Peter Sexford Magubane was born on 18 January 1932 in Vrededorp and grew up in Sophiatown in Johannesburg. The mixed-race suburb produced many famous writers, musicians, politicians and artists. 

In 1948, the National Party came to power, making apartheid official policy. It passed the Native Resettlement Act in 1954, allowing the government to remove black people from any area within Johannesburg, targeting specifically Sophiatown. 

In 1955, the prime minister DF Malan sent in 2 000 policemen, who destroyed the suburb and removed its 60 000 inhabitants to Meadowlands in Soweto. This included Magubane and his family.

From his teenage years, while he was still at school, he was a keen photographer, using the Kodak Brownie box camera that his father Isaac had bought him out of his meagre income from selling vegetables. 

He found inspiration in documenting the evils of apartheid after reading Drum, which reported on urban black lives and culture. 

In 1954, he found employment at the magazine as a driver. 

Because of his determination, and being street smart, he was subsequently given photography assignments under the mentorship of the German-born chief photographer Jürgen Schadeberg. 

“We were not allowed to carry a camera in the open, if the police were involved, so I often had to hide my camera to get the pictures I wanted. On occasion, I hid my camera in a hollowed-out Bible, firing with a cable release in my pocket,” recalled Magubane about the challenges he faced as a black photographer. 

Despite the hurdles, he took his camera into the heart of anti-apartheid and defiance campaigns and treason trials. 

After leaving the magazine, he joined The Rand Daily Mail in 1967 and continued with his daring reporting. That came with brutal retribution from the police, constant harassment and even torture. 

Magubane was arrested for photographing a demonstration outside Winnie Mandela’s jail cell in 1969 and served 586 days in solitary confinement, the longest period any person has served in South Africa. 

Being declared a “banned person” upon release restricted him from photography for five years.

In a 1978 essay quoted by The New York Times, Magubane wrote about living “five years as a ghost”.

“There was no one to talk to, even my sweethearts ran away like rats.” He also said: “My job as a newspaper photographer was finished. It meant the end of my profession.”

His Soweto home was burnt down by police in the hope that it would destroy his negatives. 

Magubane’s nose was broken with a truncheon when he refused to expose his film to light while covering police brutality in Alexandra township in 1976. He was shot 17 times with buckshot and rubber bullets at a student activists’ funeral in Natalspruit in 1985. 

Magubane lost his son Charles, who was also a photographer, in 1992. It was suspected that he was murdered by hostel dwellers during the deadly friction between ANC and IFP members during the transition to democracy. 

He had two failed marriages and lost his third wife to cancer in 2002. Magubane leaves behind his son Linda and daughter Fikile and grandchildren.

His coverage of the 1976 Soweto uprising and its aftermath brought Magubane worldwide acclaim and led to numerous international photographic and journalistic awards. 

These include the American National Professional Photographers Association Humanistic award in 1986, which recognised one of several incidents where Magubane put his camera aside to save people’s lives. 

In 2010, he received the prestigious Cornell Capa Infinity Award.

From 1978, he worked as a correspondent for Time magazine and contributed for several UN agencies, including the High Commission for Refugees and Unicef. 

After Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, the struggle icon was his personal photographer until he was elected president in 1994. Magubane then focused his lens on South African people and culture, producing 23 books. 

On 10 May 2023, he was honoured with a Van Toeka Af Living Legends Recognition award and the following day bestowed with his ninth honorary doctorate, this time by the University of Pretoria, which coincided with a retrospective exhibition showing images from 1955 to 2015. 

Magubane was an inspiration to many photographers, such as me. His home was open to everyone who wanted their share of wisdom and encouragement. 

He wanted his images to inspire future generations and the world to continue to fight for justice and equality. They will most certainly do that — especially at a time when we are sorely in need of inspiration.