• Thu. May 23rd, 2024

Peter Magubane, South African whose photos chronicled apartheid, dies at 91


Jan 3, 2024


Peter Magubane, a South African photojournalist who documented apartheid’s unrest and repression and was also caught in its grip, once jailed in solitary confinement for 586 days and banned from work for five years by the White-rule regime, died Jan. 1 at 91.

The death was announced by his daughter, Fikile Magubane. No other details were given. Mr. Magubane had been treated for prostate cancer.

As a Black photographer, Mr. Magubane often faced far greater risks than White colleagues but sometimes devised ingenious workarounds in places where authorities banned the media — including hiding his camera in a hollowed-out Bible and, another time, in a loaf of bread. When he nibbled too much of the bread away, he stashed his Leica 3G in an empty carton of milk.

“You had to think very fast,” he told Mother Jones. “You had to be one up on apartheid.”

His Zulu roots, however, also gave him some advantages in coverage. Mr. Magubane (pronounced mah-goo-BAHN-eh) could move through Black townships and other areas without drawing much attention. During riots in Soweto in 1976, protesters were worried that police would identify them through news photos. Mr. Magubane persuaded them to allow him and other photojournalists to do their jobs.

“I said to them, ‘A struggle without documentation is no struggle,’” Mr. Magubane recounted in 2001.

His body of work offered one of the most comprehensive archives of South Africa from the 1950s through the end of apartheid and the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela as the country’s first Black president. Much of Mr. Magubane’s coverage — first working with South African media and later with international outlets including Time — chronicled some of the worse bloodshed of the apartheid era.

At the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, after police killed at least 69 unarmed demonstrators, Mr. Magubane photographed a group of police with their backs turned to the camera, apparently indifferent to the body of a Black man behind them. During riots in Alexandra Township in 1976, a cadre of rock-throwing protesters fill the frame. In the center, one young man holds a trash can lid as a shield.

“It is only after I complete my assignment that I think of the dangers that surrounded me, the tragedies that befell my people,” he once said. “I was demonstrating with my camera. I had to use it to show the South African people and the world what was going on in our country.”

That also meant to Mr. Magubane showing the daily indignities of apartheid. At a mine, he photographed a line of Black male job seekers, stripped naked, standing in a line during a health inspection. In 1956, he saw a Black women, presumably a domestic worker, with a young girl. The girl was on the side of the bench labeled “Europeans only.” The women was on the other side, “Coloureds only.” The photo gained worldwide attention and became one of Mr. Magubane’s best-known images. He never knew their names.

“When I saw ‘Europeans Only,’ I knew I would have to approach with caution,” Mr. Magubane told the Guardian in 2015. “But I didn’t have a long lens, so I had to get close. I did not interact with the woman or the child, though. I never ask for permission when taking photos.”

In 1969, he was assigned by the Rand Daily Mail newspaper to cover a demonstration outside the Pretoria jail holding Mandela’s wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and 21 other anti-apartheid activists. Mr. Magubane was arrested on security-related charges and spent 586 consecutive days in solitary. “The only person you saw was the guard, who would say: ‘Don’t talk to me,’” he recounted.

He was released without any formal prosecution but was put under a “banning” order that effectively blocked him from working and limited his public interactions to only one other person. He was rearrested in March 1971 for allegedly violating the banning rules and spent more than six months in prison, including another stint in solitary of 98 days.

“A bird would come and sit on the windowsill. When I stood up, it would fly away,” he said in the Guardian interview. “All I could think about was how much I wanted to be that bird.”

When the banning order expired in 1975, he returned to work at Rand Daily Mail. “It was like being back from the dead,” he recalled. “But it was uphill, because I had lost my photographer’s eye.” By 1976, he said back to form and covered the Soweto uprising with “a vengeance,” he said. And again, the authorities came for him.

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Mr. Magubane and other Black journalists were detained for nearly five months in apparent retribution for the Soweto coverage. While in prison, Mr. Magubane’s house burned down. No suspects were charged.

He never considered leaving the country. The battle against apartheid, he explained, needed to be told by the people who had the most at stake. “I was going to stay and fight with my camera as my gun,” he said. “I did not want to kill anyone, though. I wanted to kill apartheid.”

Peter Sexford Magubane was born in Vrededorp, a suburb of Johannesburg, on Jan. 18, 1932, and raised in nearby Sophiatown, an area that was later razed and rebuilt as a Whites-only enclave. His father operated a vegetable cart, Mr. Magubane wrote in an essay. His mother was a homemaker.

His interest in photography started with a Kodak Box Brownie, a gift from his father. There were few options, however, to learn the craft as a profession. Apartheid rules forbid Black photographers from using the same darkrooms as White colleagues.

Mr. Magubane took a job as a tea boy at the magazine Drum, one of the rare media outlets that hired Black staff. Mr. Magubane eventually became a driver and studied photojournalists in action. After work, he took his own photos around Johannesburg and used the Drum darkroom. He had to sleep at the office because public transportation back to Sophiatown was closed for the night.

Drum gave him his first real assignment, covering a convention of the anti-apartheid African National Congress in 1955. The ANC was soon banned by South Africa, and Mandela was jailed in 1962 and sentenced to life in prison in 1964.

Mr. Magubane endured police beatings while on assignments. Once, he said, he returned to the office so bloodied and bandaged that his editor didn’t recognize him.

Mr. Magubane moved to the Rand Daily Mail in 1967; he became a freelance photographer for Time magazine in 1978 and later for groups including the United Nations. He published 17 books, with his most recent focusing on African culture and landscapes.

“I’m tired of dealing with dead people,” he told the New York Times in 2012. “I now deal with sunsets.”

His first two marriages ended in divorce. He married Lenora Taitt, an American civil rights activist, in the early 1980s. In 1992, the body of his son Charles Magubane, also a photographer, was found in Soweto. No suspects were charged. The body was found near a hostel used by members of the Inkatha Freedom Party, a Zulu faction and ANC rival led by Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

Survivors include Mr. Magubane’s wife and daughter, Fikile Magubane. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

Two days after Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he and Mr. Magubane shared a dinner of chicken curry at Mandela’s home. Mr. Magubane accepted an offer to become Mandela’s official photographer, a position he held until the presidential election of 1994.

Fresh from prison, Mandela realized he did not have a passport and might need to travel to the ANC headquarters in Zambia. Mr. Magubane made some headshots of Mandela, the first solo portraits of Mandela since his release from prison. The next morning, Mandela’s lawyer took the photos to the passport office in Johannesburg.


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