World-renowned photographer Alf Kumalo was the eyes and ears of Nelson Mandela during his 27-year incarceration. In a new book, he reveals to the world a moving collection of never-before-seen intimate photographs of the Mandela family surviving that heart-breaking era of apartheid, violence and corruption.
Ian Rankin describes him as a man of ‘great charm’, while Muhammed Ali nicknamed him ‘the acorn’ (because of his handsomely domed bald head), but to sit down and talk to South African photographer Alfred Kumalo in person is an event I will never forget. Like his close friend Nelson Mandela, Alf is a man who endured harassment, violence and even prison in his awe-inspiring quest to document some of the most iconic moments in a troubled nation’s history.
In London to celebrate International Nelson Mandela Day on July 18 and promote his astonishing new photographic book 8115: A Prisoner’s Home, Alf arrives for our interview looking very dapper in a navy sports jacket with, of course, a monstrous-looking Nikon camera hanging off his shoulder. It’s impossible to imagine this vibrant, youthful-looking man will be turning 80 in September, but no doubt it’s his indomitable spirit that’s borne him witness to such unimaginable events as the Treason Trial, the arrest of Winnie Mandela and South Africa’s first democratic elections, to name but a few.
Here he managed to squeeze us Belles in for an exclusive chat about history, courage, passion, art, culture and what it was like getting up close and personal to one of the world’s most inspiring leaders…
How did the book come about, Alf?
Mandela asked me to take photographs of his family and the kids growing up and send them to him in prison. There’s so much history in that house [8115 Vilazaki Street, Soweto].
Nelson Mandela celebrated his 92nd birthday last weekend – what gift do you buy a man like that?
[Laughs] It’s very hard. Especially a man who’s got almost everything. Maybe I’ll take him a picture of the crowds in London celebrating Nelson Mandela Day. It’s a wonderful celebration. He’s a hero and an inspiration to people, not just black and not just South Africans.
We’ve heard you often had to hide your camera in freezer bags to take pictures without the corrupt authorities knowing…
[Laughs] It was actually in a cabbage! I would cut it up and put the camera inside it, then put the cabbage in a clear perforated bag and have it over my shoulder facing the other way, while I’d be talking to someone with my back to the action. I’d use a wide-angle lens and a ten-second timer delay so there’s no way you’d miss out on a picture. Shooting those pictures were very fulfilling professionally, but it was terrible what was happening. I remember shooting Winnie’s arrest in 1977 through a neighbour’s window and she’s surrounded by men with uzis. She was exiled for nine and a half years, but for all of that to change, for the greater achievement, it was for the country to be free in the end and it worked.
Of all the historic events you’ve photographed, what was the most emotional?
For me it was the last steps of obtaining our freedom, the final shaking of hands, having gone through the whole situation it was very emotional. I think it meant more to me than other black South Africans. When you’ve seen… [pauses] hell. Where you get beaten up or arrested by the police for just a traffic offence. The police used to get away with lying because the magistrate would automatically believe them over a black person. It continued for a hell of a lot of time. I remember photographing seven policeman beating up one guy in 1976. I waited until right after the police had taken an oath in court and swore they’d not touched him, then I walked over the judge and handed him the pictures. That ended the case, of course! [laughs]
You spent time behind bars too, didn’t you?
In South Africa, black people had a curfew and weren’t supposed to be out in Johannesburg between 9pm until 5.30am. Even though I had all my paperwork and my journalist card because I was covering a story, I was arrested and sent to the worst prison in South Africa for nearly a week. I was lucky though, because when they learnt I was working on stories about black oppression they started to respect me.
How many times have you had your camera confiscated?
They broke one camera, but never actually confiscated them. I lost a lot of film though, but not cameras! [Laughs]
Have you ever found it difficult to focus on taking the picture and resist getting involved?
Oh yes and there have been many occasions when people are in trouble and you’ve got to help.
So you’re pretty good in a fight then?
[Laughs] Well, I’ve had to defend myself so many times. Back then, it was good to know how to defend yourself. Sometimes I’d have to use my camera as a weapon.
Did you ever feel like giving up?
Yes. There was one day when the police were chasing these people I didn’t know and started shooting at a house I was hiding in. The bullets were coming in through the brick walls at all angles. There was a picture of Jesus and Mary on the wall and a bullet hit it, it spun several times and fell face down. I thought, maybe this is a sign to pray! So I prayed earnestly and even promised God I’d give up photography if he let me live. I was very sincere and meant every word, but then 10 minutes later I was taking pictures again! I felt very guilty, but I’d been so lucky so many times, I really did think that was it for me. The police raced through the house and didn’t see me hiding behind a door. To survive that… I got some fantastic shots, though.
How does it feel to live to see a black American president?
Oh just amazing. There’s been several attempts already, like Jesse Jackson, but I think the unpopularity of the Bush administration helped to a certain extent. Regardless, we were all so moved. Mandela was in tears when they announced it.
You photographed Mr Mandela meeting the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 1996 – what are South Africans’ attitude towards Britain these days?
I think we’ve got a wonderful relationship. We speak English and we have many British living in South Africa. We know we were colonised by the British and the Dutch, but that is past and there’s no problem.
There seems to be a real sense of optimism in South Africa now…
Oh definitely. We’ll surprise the world who never thought we’d succeed, even already surprising with the World Cup. There was a Plan B, like there is for every country, but now we’re the Plan B for others, this time for Brazil. The only problem is poverty now, but everyone is dealing with it. The deadline for poverty is 2014 and after that, the sky’s the limit. The creativity coming out of South Africa is just unbelievable. From music to fashion – black people creating their own clothes to show in Paris and other big cities. It’s amazing!
What role do women play in 21st century South Africa?
Women have become very strong and powerful – I’d love to do a book on women. I could easily devote a whole book using just the pictures I’ve got of Winnie. I’ve got one picture of her crying over a friend who was shot and killed trying to protect her and I managed to capture just one tear running down her cheek before she wiped it away – something you’d never see. The image is so powerful. She’s very strong yet very sweet at the same time. You don’t imagine her to be so down to earth, but I think she’s even stronger than Mandela.
You have your own museum in Soweto and also a photography school. Tell us a bit about that.
The museum is going very well and we’ve taught a lot of people through the photography school. We’ve sadly had to stop the course for a short while, mainly due to funding, but many of them have won awards. One guy I taught, James Louw, was the only one who took pictures when Martin Luther King was killed.
How can other countries learn from South Africa’s history?
The peace initiative was very effective. Coming from people who are very bitter and full of revenge, that’s a hell of an achievement. Hate doesn’t always work. I get angry at certain things and people, but I don’t have hate. Instead of seeking revenge for oppression, most black South Africans want to forgive and move forward. We just hope what happens to us doesn’t happen to anyone else.
Yes, I’m planning on having a big party and I’m determined to make it good! I’ve already invited a number of musicians to play and hope to have all my good friends and family – young and old – there to celebrate. There were many times when I didn’t think I’d get anywhere near this age, so I’m really looking forward to it.
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