Alfred (Alf) Kumalo was a smartly-dressed walking library filled with books that housed pages of South Africa’s history. Born on 5 September 1930, he witnessed some of the most poignant moments during and post-apartheid.
He was there in 1956 when more than 20,000 women marched to the Union Buildings to petition against carrying passes. That same year, he was at the Treason Trial, when the likes of Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo, Walter Sisulu, and Helen Joseph were arrested and charged with wanting to overthrow the government. When Nelson Mandela and WinnieMadikizela-Mandela exchanged wedding vows in 1957, he was there. The 1960 Sharpeville Massacre where 69 people were gunned down by police forces—he was there. The Soweto Uprising, where thousands of young students marched through the streets of Soweto in 1976 protesting Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in schools—Alf Kumalo was there.
Photo by René Del Carme – Alf Kumalo in front of his photograph
of a young Nelson Mandela and Joe Slovo; Johannesburg 2011
Lucky for us, all the while he was snapping away at the camera draped around his neck, or sometimes hidden in a hollowed loaf of bread. It was a dangerous job for him and other photojournalists during that time. They were hot targets. Kumalo was beaten and arrested many times, yet he continued taking photographs. He dedicated his life to his craft, up until the very last as manager of his Photographic Museum in Diepkloof, Soweto, which is housed in the home he once lived in.
I remember walking into the museum for the first time. Kumalo led me to the exhibition room where we would set up for our interview. There were prints scattered everywhere, some on the floor, others on a table in one corner of the room. There were even boxes of unsorted negatives, a true treasure-trove of South African history. Kumalo couldn’t tell me exactly how many photographs he took during his career, nor could he say which one was his favourite. But he did light up when he showed me an “in-the-moment” shot taken of him and Desmond Tutu, which involved pigeon guano (on whom, I can’t recall).
On Sunday, 21 October, news broke that Alf Kumalo died, just over a month after his 82nd birthday. He had been suffering from prostate cancer.
Kumalo had won many local and international accolades for his work (including the Order of Ikhamanga, South Africa’s highest award for contribution to creative arts), held exhibitions across the globe, and published at least three books (the latest, Through My Lens: A Photographic Memoir, released in 2009). Despite these successes, just a week before his passing, Kumalo made headlines in local media. His Soweto Museum had run out of money. Their funding application to the National Arts Council was rejected—apparently because all the required documents were not submitted on time. Volunteers were left to sell his darkroom equipment to keep the doors open.
When I heard of his death, I thought of his family, then of the thousands of photographs seen and unseen that he took. South Africa is richer because of them, and we’ll be poorer if a worthy space is not provided to show them.