Bidding farewell to prolific freedom fighter Peter Magubane

Legendary photographer Peter Magubane garnered international praise for his remarkable images and was especially revered for his extensive photographic record of the life and times of Nelson Mandela. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng

Legendary photographer Peter Magubane garnered international praise for his remarkable images and was especially revered for his extensive photographic record of the life and times of Nelson Mandela. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng

Published Jan 14, 2024


By Tswelopele Makoe

THIS past week, the nation laid to rest the illustrious award-winning photojournalist and anti-apartheid activist Dr Peter Magubane.

Magubane was acclaimed for his genuine encapsulations of the atrocities of the apartheid regime. He garnered international praise for his remarkable images and was especially revered for his extensive photographic record of the life and times of Nelson Mandela.

President Cyril Ramaphosa read the eulogy at the 91-year-old freedom fighter’s Provincial Official Category 2 funeral, which took place on Wednesday, January 10.

Magubane was a veteran photojournalist who began his career at Drum magazine in 1955. His enthralling lifetime of photography not only exposed immensely critical moments in the history of South Africa, but also exposed the extremity of the brutality inflicted by the apartheid government.

He has various accolades, including being the first black South African to receive the “Best Press Photo of the Year” award in 1958. In addition to this, he was an awardee of multiple distinguished awards, including a Martin Luther King Luthuli Award, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mother Jones Foundation and Leica Cameras.

The New York Times obituary for Magubane highlighted the significance of his images, emphasising that they “drew global acclaim, but punishment at home.” In his latter years, he worked for Time magazine, the United Nations, and many other organisations.

His prolific works unveiled the apartheid government’s atrocities and a litany of crimes against humanity; however, he endured violent retaliations and torment by the apartheid regime as a result of this.

He suffered relentless beatings, imprisonment, and 586 consecutive days of solitary confinement. Speaking of his activism in the fight for freedom, Magubane said that he “did not want to leave the country to find another life - I was going to stay and fight with my camera as my gun.”

At the very ascension of his career, Magubane captured the crucial moments in South Africa’s history. Magubane’s confrontation with the brutality of the apartheid regime was his exposure of its inhumanity through his imagery.

He was notable for his astounding images of the harrowing condition of tyrannised people of colour under apartheid. He captured the annihilation of his home, the black cultural hub that was Sophiatown.

He was at the forefront of the most prominent images of the Sharpeville Massacre, the 1956 Women’s March to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the Rivonia Trial that featured Nelson Mandela, the June 16 Soweto Uprising, the release of Mandela from 27 years of incarceration, SA’s first democratic elections in April 1994 and various other historical events and moments.

Following his assignment to photograph a demonstration outside Winnie Mandela's jail cell in 1969, he was arrested and placed in solitary confinement.

He was imprisoned for long periods of time, spending almost half a year in prison and solitary confinement at a time. In fact, he was banned from photography for five years in 1970.

Despite this, Magubane continued with his photojournalism work, using his images as a form of defiance of the apartheid government’s harrowing treatment of black people in the land of their forebears.

When speaking of his entrance into photojournalism as a career, Magubane stated that his attraction to iconic Drum magazine came from the publication’s commitment to covering social issues that affected black people in South Africa.

He is a testament to the power of photography in driving a revolution and contending injustice.

Magubane’s work is a testament to the importance of photography in society. Ultimately, photographs tell a story, incite emotions, and offer a viewpoint into a far-removed context.

The need to create images has been around for generations. A good image not only captures a point in human history, but it is also largely more recognisable than any other form of written text.

Photography is not merely an art form; it is a way of preserving reality for future generations. Photography, more importantly, gives one the opportunity for engagement. Photographs evoke curiosity and expose the magnitude of certain events.

Photographers in our society hold an extremely vital position. Being a photographer requires a certain level of stealthiness and creativity.

Magubane emphasised the need to be constantly inventive in one’s work as a photographer – at times, needing to disguise his camera in a hollowed-out loaf of bread, hollowed out Bible, or a hollowed-out milk carton.

As observers of the final product, we do not often consider the various fears, traumas, risks, and emotions that are involved in the work of photographers.

Their work is not only that of creativity and fascination, but also meant to compel and engage pertinent public discourses and expose truths that are intentionally concealed.

One of the foremost journalists in South Africa, Mr Mathatha Tsedu, described Magubane as a “freedom fighter, from a cohort of revolutionary media players, who were guerrillas with their cameras, notebooks and pens.”

Photographers like Magubane risked their lives to capture moments that were not only transformational to the nation, but to the entire global society.

Their work is pertinent not only to the past, but also to the present. We need to look at their works, not only as images that give us a closer look into a context, but also as a symbol of the lived realities of a society.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation says it will always value Peter Magubane’s body of work which carried great historical and artistic significance.

Magubane was also Mandela’s personal photographer. He has been praised as a key player in shaping our democratic South Africa. Magubane’s works, his bravery, and stealthiness, should serve as an inspiration to current and future photographers.

Despite the spine-chilling, petrifying, and life-threatening encounters one has, the work of photographers is momentously meaningful to our society and should be regarded with the importance that it deserves.

As precisely spoken by President Ramaphosa when reading Magubane’s eulogy, we indeed “bid farewell to a distinguished lensman, and one of the finest and most fearless journalists our country has produced.”

* Tswelopele Makoe is a Gender Activist. She is also an Andrew W Mellon scholar, pursuing an MA Ethics at UWC, and affiliated with the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice. The views expressed are her own.