In Search of An African Aesthetic:  Dr Peter Magubane and Revolutions Captured.

I had read about Peter Magubane as a child, I realised when I met him, that I had known his name and work but not his face. I had known the Photographer who worked at Drum Magazine in its hey days; when black writers in  the midst of oppression wrote objectively. Their objectivity seemed to have an air of detachment as if they were just observers meant to record ever so carefully the happenings of the era with a complete disregard for their own feelings and how these might interfere with the story. I had seen some of Babu Magubane’s photos as a youngin’… one forever ingrained in my mind is the photo of a native South African domestic worker minding a white child on a whites only bench she was prohibited from sitting on. Again, here we were, our Rendezvous, a totally white table clothed, carpeted, warm smelling cake shop, pristinely settled on melville’s 7th. 

DR Magubane seemed obsessed with the mundane happenings of everyday, the spaces in between the important moments that we all remember. “Human interest pictures” he tells me, “I prefer taking pictures that will spark human interest”, I imagine a sense of wonderment nudging the observer to know what was going through the mind of the subjects trapped in the mostly black and white photographs. 

I ask how he ended up with a camera in his hands so many years ago. He tells of how he came across a magazine once and he paged through it and admired the pictures wanting to be the one to put the pictures in the magazine. He applied for a job as a driver at Drum Magazine, driving around Bob Gosani, one of Dr Magubane’s inspirational heroes. He had to learn to be a photographer somehow, shadowing a photographer for a drivers salary seemed like a good idea, and it was,  as every once in awhile, Bob Gosani would allow Peter to take some photos. At the time, black photographers, especially press photographers were a rare, barely existent feature of South African black life.

The years circa 1954 onwards were very pivotal years in South African history, a time of endings and beginnings… Revolutions – the rise of MK, the military wing to Liberation movement, ANC, Mandela was arrested, the ANC was banned, the rise of Steve Biko’s popularised Black Consciousness Movement and The  student uprisings in Soweto… Dr Peter Magubane was there for all of that, documenting the struggle of black people against an oppressive state on occupied land. A messenger of the revolution who’s protected by a proverb… But the boers and their guns cared not for proverbs and their amulet properties. The outsider within, media creates enemies on both sides.

At times the township folk would want to harm the media but Peter and his gentle bravado would diffuse the situation by explaining “a struggle without documentation is no struggle”. Once, he saved a fellow journalist’s life, a life he was about to lose to a necklacing (a mob justice tactic involving a burning tyre around a victim’s neck). It was around these times when Dr Magubane would face the harshest conditions. He was once shot 13 times during a violent protest but survived to compose another photo. Magubane is said to have spent the most days in solitary confinement, a total of 586 days, according to Mam’Winnie Mandela, this  is a record that none of the other comrades can claim.

He maintains he was non-violent and hated guns, even to this day he hates violence as he has seen what violence leaves behind, regret or death. He comments on the recent #Feesmustfall protests and how they remind him of the ’76 Soweto uprising, “but why must they burn libraries and property that would benefit them in the future.” “My camera was my gun” he keeps on saying every now and again, he’s an aged man now, old age has its habits, he’s enjoying his ice cream, seeming to have lived a full life. He documented the struggle, revolutions in motion, captured some of the most memorable events in the history of South Africa, such as the Rivonia Trial (1963-64), the Sharpeville massacre (1960), and the release of Nelson Mandela (1990). He was Nelson Mandela’s personal photographer from his prison release  until his presidency, they maintained a close relationship built on many trips and moments in those times.

Dr Magubane hasn’t retired, he still enjoys taking photo’s only now with a digital camera and he loves how quick it is to take a picture these days… Every now and again he takes a walk as he used to in those days in the office when he had filed and processed his pictures and there was no work left to do. He would walk to go see and capture people going about their days, caught up in everyday life. The mundane beginnings and endings that lead to the days of our lives. These days the good DR publishes books using all the content acquired over the years, he has published 10 books to date and this year will b embarking on a journey capturing disappearing aethetics that were once commonplace in South Africa. His advice for the young creative is, “as an artist you need to be brave, just don’t get yourself killed unnecessarily”.  

To be a willing to be matyr and die for an idea is honourable, but it is those who deliberately stay alive and keep working for the realisation of the idea that we should celebrate, because they live alongside the idea, keeping it alive, documenting the idea for those who’ll take over the reigns in the future. Those who compromise and not lose themselves are the ones pay ear to… Knowing comes by doing… You need vitality to do… You need to be alive, by all means… But don’t lose yourself. Tricky.

When the young ones look back and chant “Aluta Continua” we can have the courage and hope to look back at the pictures to see how far we’ve come and  believe and continue to shout… “Victoria Ascerta”… because it is. 

It was revealed Our revolutions are only to be captured by our artists… And even them, only as a reflection of us.

Thanks Doc. 

An original of this article was published in Conte Magazine’s 5th issue, titled #20Something.

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