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Alf Kumalo celebrates 50 years in journalism

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This is Alf Kumalo’s year. The veteran South African photographer has not only been feted for his golden jubilee in journalism and had his work exhibited internationally, he has received the Order of Ikhamanga, awarded to South African citizens who have excelled in the fields of arts, culture, literature, music, journalism and sport.

“I’ve been in journalism for more than 50 years now,” he said this week. “I covered the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, covered the emergence of the PAC, when Robert Sobukwe moved from the ANC to form his own party…

“I covered Chief Albert Luthuli, the Sisulus, I was locked up briefly with Andrew Mlangeni (later a political prisoner on Robben Island) in Leydenburg after doing a story exposing the forced removals of people there … we did a lot of stories about forced removals in those days.”

Kumalo’s career in journalism was a long time coming. Born in Fietas (Vrededorp), Kumalo was schooled in Alexandra and Evaton.

His first “serious” job was at Connock’s Motors where he oiled and greased cars before becoming a clerk and, ultimately, paymaster.

It was at Connock’s that he first approached Bantu World about freelancing as a journalist.

“I started with reporting … as I stood up to leave (from the interview), Todd Matshikiza said to Henry Nxumalo; ‘let him write a story here, otherwise he’ll get someone else to write it for him’.”

Kumalo sat down again and wrote four drafts of the story until he was satisfied. His story passed muster.

“When they accepted it, I was overjoyed,” he said, “their offices had so much aura, just to be there was something special. They (Matshikiza and Nxumalo) had so much respect.”

Kumalo was sent off clutching paper and pencils, enjoined to send whatever stories he could find.

A permanent appointment on the Golden City Post followed in 1956 and three years later Kumalo won his first major award, the Ferrania. Other triumphs would follow, based on Kumalo’s legendary persistence.

One of these was a picture of Todd Matshikiza and his son, John on board a flight to London with the rest of the cast of King Kong in 1960. Another scoop was a picture of Hugh Masekela waving from the door of the aircraft, shot from the airport’s apron.

“I’m very persuasive,” Kumalo explains, “I don’t let go.”

In 1963, he scooped an assignment for Drum magazine that had originally been intended for another photographer. There had been an explosion at Modderfontein explosives factory and the other newspapers had claimed fatalities of between 45 and 54.

Harry Mashabela and Kumalo did their own investigation and discovered that only five people died.

“This turned the assignment in my favour and I was selected with Harry Mashabela to go and shoot a story about African students in the Iron Curtain countries. They went overseas to study and a couple from Lesotho had been killed by Communist youth.”

The assignment was very successful, so much so that the two made the front cover of the next edition of the magazine, “Drum men go to Europe”.

Flying back from Germany to London, Kumalo became very excited to read that Cassius Clay (later to change his name to Muhammed Ali) was there. Clay was a huge hero after the recent Olympics and was in London to fight Henry Cooper.

“When we got to London, we struggled to find him. I tried all of Fleet Street, but kept being put off by the receptionists.”

But he finally got Clay’s hotel address at the Observer newspaper. He phoned the hotel and was told to be there at 11.

Clay punched a fist and held up his other hand outstretched, “He’ll go in five,” he boasted. That was the picture Kumalo shot. Later the two got talking and Kumalo asked him what would happen if Cooper didn’t go in round five. “I won’t go to Louisville for 90 days,” Clay said alluding to the security legislation in South Africa at the time.

“In my whole life, that was the happiest day of them all,” Kumalo said, “because Ali was so full of life. It took an entire hour for all of us to walk the short distance to Piccadilly Circus, because Ali talked all the time.”

But the best day of Kumalo’s life was about to get even better. He went with Mashabela to Fleet Street to check for messages from home. At the cable office was a telegram – he had won first place in a photographic competition. The prize was an Austin Cambridge motor car.

Kumalo was supported in his decision to enter the competition by Dave Hazelhurst, his editor at Drum and today, Creative Director of the Star.

The award was particularly important to Kumalo. He had entered under his African names, Mangaliso Dukuza, because he wanted his work to be judged on its merits and not his reputation.

The Star published a picture of him and his award on its front page. “A lot of black people talked about it for days afterwards, because in those days they would only get on to the front pages of white newspapers if they were thieves.”

Kumalo was under constant pressure to leave journalism, especially after “Mr Drum”, Henry Nxumalo was killed. “My brother, Kaizer, wanted me to leave, but I was too passionate … he was scared I would be killed, but I survived those terrible days. (Colleague) Ralph Ndawo was also assualted by the Russians (a notorious reef gang in the 50s).”

It wasn’t the last time Kumalo’s life would be in danger. He left Drum in 1972 to join the Sunday Times, where he stayed until 1977. During the Soweto riots in 1976 a young woman threw herself between a policeman and Kumalo.

The next year, covering the first anniversary of the riots, five policemen set upon him.

“They were beating me up too badly and I though ‘I’m not going to take this’, so I started fighting back and disarmed one of them, ending up with his gun in my hands. One of the cops kicked me in the solar plexus and saved my life, because I dropped the gun.”

Kumalo was arrested and the case against him dragged on for 18 months because witnesses kept failing to turn up at the trial.

“I missed the Ali fight because of this,” Kumalo said, “so the next time I appealed to the magistrate: ‘I can’t go on living without a passport, the case can’t go on without witnesses’.”

He was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, which was suspended on appeal.

After a three-year stint as editor of Drum between 1977 and 1980, Kumalo started work at the Star. It wasn’t the first time he had worked for the paper. He and Ron Anderson, then a sports reporter and later editor of the Star, had covered the first multi-racial boxing match between Bennie Niewenhuizen and Joe Ngidi in Maseru.

At the Star, Kumalo would become a mentor to the new generation of photographers who would make their names documenting the death throes of apartheid.

The unrest was a busy time for Kumalo; white photographers had not begun to document the township violence that was soon to render the country almost ungovernable. “I’d come back from one assignment, only to be sent out to cover another one, there was no way to file these pictures and negatives … I’m still trying to find time to archive them.”

Kumalo retired from the Star in 1995, but he walked into the Star soon afterwards with a bag full of pictures. “They gave me an office to start archiving my work and occasionally I provide them with an old picture.” Kumalo still has an office there today, almost 10 years after his retirement.

Just this week he was shooting a portrait of former president Nelson Mandela.

Last year he started the Alf Kumalo museum and photographic school in his old Diepkloof home.

Over and above all this, Kumalo has been busy preparing international exhibitions. In 2002 his work was exhibited in Bogota, Columbia and in Italy. In May this year, Barbara Masekela, South Africa’s ambassador to the US, opened Kumalo’s exhibition in Memphis, reprising a role she had in France in 1996, when as SA ambassador to France she opened one, and Mandela the other.

In June, Kumalo was in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and then in September he was invited to exhibit at the United Nations in New York. In Ethiopia, he was invited to launch a photographic school for youth there based on his Soweto model.

The award of the Order of the Ikhamanga at the end of October was very special for Kumalo.

“I committed too much of my life to the struggle – I could have gone into business, into commercial photography, but I never did. The award was a proper recognition of that sacrifice. The pictures … they drew the attention of the outside world …which was why photographers were the most hated group.”