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Alf Kumalo

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Lensman says he'll never stop working and believes there's humour in every situation.

Alf KumaloBORN in Utrecht, near Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal in 1930 and raised in "dark city" Alexandra, Bra Alf, as many call him, has partied with presidents, hung out with gangsters and musicians, been shot at — and recorded it all on film.

A school teacher told me when men of stature are talking I should listen. I've never stopped listening. When I was young, things weren't right in this country and I became interested in politics, particularly in Robert Sobukwe, the first president of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). My older brother was quick to point out that as I was with the media I s h o u l d n't join any party. That was great advice as I was able to cover everything from Ver woerd's funeral to AWB gatherings — although they threatened to kill me and nearly succeeded a few times.

When kids show ability, you must take them seriously. When I was young I loved to draw people running, houses, cars, anything. I drew a house which I proudly presented to my father, who said: "One day I'll build a house just like this" — and he did. I couldn't believe it. I've got to know art and the way you compose pictures is the same in photography.

LIVING HISTORY: Kumalo at his museumWhen I started as a photographer I really concentrated on composition. T h e re 's never just one job a person could do. I started out as a freelance photojournalist and at the same time worked as a car mechanic, being promoted to a paymaster — big name for someone who gives out pay slips. I eventually became a full-time photojournalist.

Thinking back now, I remember how great it felt playing the clarinet; maybe I could have been a musician. Why the clarinet? I've always been a sharp dresser and the clarinet fitted right under my arm; the saxophone was way too big to carry around. Always look for the positive. I think I've achieved so much because of my attitude. I'll go against anyone if I feel strongly about something, even if others say it's impossible.

Bad times never last forever. I remember standing in the Union Buildings in the '60s with Joe Gumede, who was a subeditor on Drum. We were there to record a historic meeting between President Verwoerd and a Lesotho chief. I said to Joe: "One day it's going to be Alf in these corridors." And he said: "It will never happen." I took a photo to record that moment and told him one day we 'll look at this photo and remember.

Alf Kumalo meeting Muhammad Ali in 1963Real change takes time. It's bad when politicians talk strongly about people's pain and then you hear about fraud and corruption. I never anticipated that, but I know it will pass. When people were dying on the trains, I said the day will come when it will be like it never happened.

Yo u've got to dream big. I remember telling a girlfriend that the sky was my limit. The harder the journey, the more I enjoy it. Meeting my hero, the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali in 1963 in London, I never dreamt we'd become friends. I followed his career on film. The same day I first met Ali, I also found out I'd won the first of what would become many photography competitions, with that prize being an Austin Cambridge car. I was so proud to take this home to my parents — our family's first car.

Hard work is always rewarded. There was so much happening politically in South Africa in the '60s, but getting the true story wasn't always easy. One day we heard there had been an explosion at a dynamite factory in Modderfontein and 47 people were dead. Terrorism was immediately blamed.

Journalists descended on the place but were being turned away. We arrived and quickly saw that the way in was to join the throng of people getting off the trains and going through the pedestrian gate. No one bothered to really look at our IDs.

Once in we headed for the bar and soon got first-hand accounts of what had happened. I discovered only five people had died. My editor was over the moon and that story got me an overseas trip. There's humour in every situation. We were covering one of many raids on Winnie M a n d e l a's house when, as we were beating a hasty retreat from the cops ourselves, we noticed the number plates: KGB1 and KGB2. I suggested the headline — Today the KGB arrest Winnie!

Alf Kumalo covering AWB eventsBeing older has its pros and cons. When younger guys call me Bra Alf that's fine, but I c a n't get used to being called Mkulu. But with age comes respect and you're able to pass on what lessons you've learned. Always remember to say thank you for what you've got. Sometimes I think I don't do this enough. I've been through so much, I'm lucky to still be around. I don't see my job as work. The satisfaction I get from shooting a great assignment is amazing. Having a six-decade career working alongside such legends as Can Themba, Bloke Modisane, Todd Matshikiza and so many other great guys, how can you ask for more?

Preserve the past. I knew I had to hand down the history I had seen and was able to do this in 2002 by opening my museum in my old house in Diepkloof, Soweto. Here I'm able to show people real history; walk them through the story of South Africa and its people — none greater than our own Madiba. I've had the privilege of recording his life and my greatest joy was seeing him page through my book, burying his face in the pictures. "When are you going to retire," he asked, quickly shushed by Graca, who was worried I'd be offended. "Never, tata, never."

Alf Kumalo's Through My Lens (Tafel berg) is available at book shops.
Call 011 985 5958 for inquiries about the Alf Kumalo Historical Photography Museum




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