Alf Kumalo being arrested at a boxing match in Johannesburg in May 1976. (Alf Kumalo Foundation and Photographic Museum)
Alf Kumalo being arrested at a boxing match in Johannesburg in May 1976. (Alf Kumalo Foundation and Photographic Museum)

Remembering South African photojournalist Alf Kumalo

Photojournalist Alf Kumalo, whose career chronicled the inception, injustice, and demise of apartheid in South Africa, passed away on Sunday in a Johannesburg hospital at the age of 82.

There was hardly an event in the history of modern South Africa that was not viewed through the lens of “Bra Alf.” His career spanned Nelson Mandela’s trials in 1956 and 1963, the 1976 student uprising, Steve Biko and the rise of the Black Consciousness movement, and the end of apartheid and dawn of democracy in 1994.

Kumalo was a self-taught documentary photographer who started his career in 1951, freelancing for Bantu World. In 1956, he became a staff photographer at the Golden City Post. He was also a member of the legendary “Drum Generation,” reporters for Drum magazine in the 1950s and 60s whose talent and cosmopolitanism were a stark contrast to the brutality and segregation of apartheid. While assigned to cover court cases, Kumalo met a young lawyer named Nelson Mandela and developed a long and close friendship with him. As a black photographer during apartheid, Kumalo not only chronicled oppression but also had to contend with becoming a victim of it. He risked his personal safety and freedom in his efforts as a photographer.

Kumalo’s passing brought rival politicians and journalists together in shared mourning for the man with a habit of forming lifelong friendships. “He was a meticulous photographer and his work will live on forever as a monument to the people’s resilience and fortitude in the face of oppression and apartheid. We have lost a great South African,” said President Jacob Zuma.

“No one could contradict the truth of what he captured so competently through the lens,” said former President Thabo Mbeki. “Aware that the power of his narrative was unimpeachable, the apartheid regime subjected him to constant harassment in the hope that Kumalo, a humble and tenacious man of integrity, would abandon his work or sell his soul altogether. He did not.”

Peter Magubane, a longtime friend and fellow Drum photographer, told the Sowetan newspaper that Kumalo was not only himself accomplished, but helped other photographers on their way up. “He was a wonderful photographer and always ready to help. Many photographers passed through his hands,” Magubane said.

After 1994, Kumalo founded a photography school and published a book collecting his life’s work, Alf Kumalo: Through My Lens. Though he was already in advanced age from the late 90s, Kumalo was still seen on the occasional story, working in his trademark Panama hat and with a camera around his neck.

Kumalo was the second well-known journalist to pass away this month. Founding editor of the New Nation, an anti-apartheid magazine, Zwelakhe Sisulu died on October 4. Sisulu was a Nieman journalism fellow at Harvard in 1984 and became the chief executive of the SABC-South Africa’s public broadcaster-in 1994.