A 21 Shutter Salute for An Eye Like No Other

A man like no other : Alf Khumalo

How do you honour; where do you begin to pay tribute to a man whose eye albeit behind the camera has seen you in your most vulnerable, intimate, private and perhaps, powerless moments.  A man who risked his life to bring your mother, aunts and cousins to see you while you were in exile? Or who brought you shoes “izimbatata” from home to soften your feet when your soul was starving  between the meshed  cold Skycrapers  of  New York City.  Or better still how do you pay tribute to a man who captured your defiance at the Evaton Bus Boycott, the hopeless despair of the Treason Trial, the bloody pain of the Sharpeville Massacre, when you were silenced during the banning of liberation movements, during the rise of the angry voice of the Black Consciousness Movement, the nervous states of emergencies in the 80’s, the glorious dawns of the release of Nelson Mandela, The Codesa Talks of the early 90’s and the triumphant rainbow moments of Nelson Mandela’s Presidency? How do you pay tribute to a man whose plea’s you turned a deaf ear to, refused to hear until it was too late? That was the hard and painful question that confronted some of the dignitaries, media executives, artists, musicians and politicians who attended veteran photographer and journalist Alf Khumalo’s memorial service at The Forum auditorium in Gauteng Legislature offices in Johannesburg.  Among them sat, singer Sibongile Khumalo, Judith Sephuma, Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbuli  Sipho Hostix Mabuse and Keorapetse Kgositsile, including Pulitzer winnining photographers, Joao da Silva and Greg Marinovich.  The auditorium  proudly displayed eight larger than life panels depicting the history of the liberation party the African National Congress ‘s centenary celebrations through photographs many of  them taken by Alf Khumalo, 82, himself in over  50 years of his illustrious career as a photojournalist.  There was not mention of him on the panels, no mention of the man who former President Nelson Mandela, described as a historian, taking ordinary moments he shared with his dog at his home in Soweto or the man who former President Thabo Mbeki honoured with the order of Ukhamanga ( ), No even a single panel gave tribute to the man Winnie MadikiZela Mandela described as “one of the few photographers who fought oppression through the lens”.  Khumalo adopted the Mandela family back in 1951 when he was a young photographer experimenting with his camera” Winnie invited the audience into her world.  Khumalo was then a  part-time journalist with the Bantu World Newspaper, documenting life under apartheid by taking pictures of everything that was newsworthy including arriving uninvited and taking photographs of the goings on Mandela home in Orlando West, Soweto, which was also turned into a Museum [Nelson Mandela Family Museum] three years ago, around the same time that Alf Khumalo turned his Dobsonville home into a museum and school of photography in Diepkloof, which as his obituary read, “young men and women growing up in the dusty streets of Soweto, Alexandra, and Evaton, could literally walk into and learn photography directly from bra Alf Khumalo.”  If the audience was blind to the irony displayed so elegantly on the towering plinths, the Chief photographer of the Saturday Star newspaper and a representative of Alf Khumalo’s Photographic Museum in Diepkloof Soweto, Paballo Thekiso, gave voice, almost involuntarily to Alf Khumalo’s pain of not having realized his dream of building a photographic museum and photography school before his soul left his body, on the 21 of October from renal failure.  Through tears, Thekiso described Bra Alf’s dream which he shared with him while they were sitting under a tree one day “he said you see this place I want us to make it into a double storey, oh no-no let’s make it a triple story. On top it will be the  hall of fame , in the middle you can put whatever you want, and  leave this bottom part the way it is” Thekiso  who described himself as a living example of  Alf Khumalo’s legacy described the conversation he had with his mentor  of  ten years almost  verbatim. “I am sad that he didn’t live to see his dream, he asked, asked everyone, everyone. I saw him do it. He’s been knocking on doors, and no one listened and today he’s gone” Thekiso’s voice broke into a searingly sharp wail that made former ANC Women League President, Winnie Mandela including the audience whose heads were already bowed to wince in pain.  He interrupted attempts to console him through song insisting “I want to speak about this thing. Let us celebrate people when they are still alive. Today I have a family, I have a wife, I have a stable life, because ubaba gave me his time to teach me, he gave me a future, this unfortunately stopped because in 2007, 2008, 2009 we didn’t have funding”.  And as if to continue where Bra Alf Khumalo had left off he continued to knock on doors. “If you are sitting in here today, and you have money please give some of it to the museum”.  Thekiso deftly answered jovial requests by some  including musician Caiphus Semenya to have some of their more private  images taken by Mr Alf Khumalo  returned back to them  by saying “ until those boxes of negatives are scanned properly, you will never see those pictures”.   Perhaps it was veteran Poet and writer Don Mattera who opened the door wide for Paballo Thekiso to bravely deliver his pain-filled tribute. The poet and scribe was  one of the first people to speak, asking the newspapers for which Bra Alf Khumalo worked for almost half a century to put their money where their talk of legacy is and preserve and nurture Alf Khumalo’s dream.  Mattera whose prominence in South Africa’s literary landscape  rose with his seminal book, Memory is Weapon also spared a moment to address the political situation in the country “This is a beautiful country, we must not allow issues like Marikana  and others  to destroy who we are and what we are. We must not bring our country down because we don’t like a government. What we must do is help to heal the wounds of our past ….so that our children can have something to hang on to.  Winnie Madikizela Mandela joined him later saying “one bullet fired under a democratic government to workers asking for bread to eat is difficult to justify”. “Our country “she emphasized “Will be lucky to survive the negative image it projected to world of itself. On that day (August 16th) I was proud of the journalist in this country.” Madikezala Mandela concluded her tribute with a pledge to “realize bra Alf dream of his museum in Diepkloof, by knocking on my own doors and opening them”.  Mattera who looked frail at 77   described Alf as a soft and gentle man whose rivers flowed deep.  “ By the way” He reminded the audience “ it’s on your marks, get set, ready, before you go, turn around to see who you can take with you, that’s what bra Alf did, hola hola,” he greeted in the language  of the old township, Sophiatown.  Perhaps there were those in the audience who wished the memorial service was one of those irritating moments described to laughter by his colleague at the Sunday World newspaper Juby Mayet, when he would stall at the moment when everyone was ready to go on assignment saying “sorry please, just two minutes I’ve forgotten something”.

By: Jedi Ramalapa

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