The late, great Alfred Kumalo

By Frisco Rosso

Alfred Kumalo, one of South Africa’s longest serving photojournalists died at the age of 82 on 21 October 2012 after battling with prostate cancer.
With a career spanning six decades Kumalo captured many of South Africa’s most historic events from as early as the 1950s, documenting the struggle against apartheid and later former president Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 2004.

Alfred Kumalo, self-portrait from the early 60s

Born in Utrecht near Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal (formerly Natal), Kumalo moved to Alexandra, Johannesburg as a child. He found delight through images and image-making at an early age, initially by drawing the world around him and whatever sparked his imagination. Seemingly his ability to identify and understand contrasting effects through shadow, garnered as a young sketcher, proved to be a defining trait in his later years as a lensman.

A figure runs to escape a cloud of teargas during the Soweto Uprising, June 16 1976

Partly inspired by renowned Drum magazine photographer Bob Gosani, Kumalo had begun freelancing as a photographer by 1952 and had even declined permanent photographic positions in favour of working freelance assignments. He did a great deal of work for Bantu World as well as other publications before finally accepting a permanent position for Golden City Post, but his big break came in the early 60s when his tenure at Drum began. He later went on to work for the Sunday Times in the 70s and The Star in the 80s.

Desmond Tutu holds up a bullet retrieved from the scene of a police attack on Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre on the West Rand

During his career Kumalo famously documented the Treason Trial of 1956-1961, where 156 Congress Alliance activists including Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela were tried and acquitted of treason. During this time and after Kumalo developed a lasting friendship with Mandela, who became one of the photojournalist’s most photographed subjects.

Enraged mourners gather at the Doornkop Cemetery in Soweto for the burial of victims of the Soweto Uprising massacre in 1976

As a photojournalist Kumalo covered South Africa’s liberation struggle extensively, frequently photographing key resistance leaders such as Steve Biko, Oliver Tambo, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Helen Joseph and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. He also documented the Rivonia trial as well as the brutality and grief of the Sharpeville Massacre and Soweto Uprising.

Bodies lie in front of an army truck close to Mzimhlophe, Soweto days after June 16. Police had been instructed to quell the Soweto Uprising and killings took place for many days afterwards

Kumalo was also famed for his emotive township shots and beguiling studies of artists and musicians, capturing the essence of South Africa’s jazz movement and the performances and lifestyles of street artists.

Left: a child eats bread in Alexandra township in the 1980s. Right: Legendary saxophonist Winston Mankunku during the recording of his debut album Yakhal’inkomo in 1968

In honour of his contribution to journalism and documentary photography in South Africa Kumalo was bestowed with the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver at the South African National Orders awards in 2004.

A man in Evaton bows to pray following the announcement of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison

His broad body of work encapsulates the plight and struggles of millions over a period of 50 or so years, but also illuminates the camaraderie and lighter moments of those suppressed by South Africa’s former apartheid regime. Kumalo’s efforts show photojournalism at the highest level and documents history succinctly and with little contrivance.

He will be fondly remembered by millions.

Alfred Kumalo, 1930 – October 21, 2012

Frisco Rosso

With more tension than your mother’s suspension, I am Frisco Rosso. I’m likely to deliver a few lines worth at any given moment regarding film, music, sport, books and anything morally unsound that strikes a blow between the eyes in the name of entertainment.


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