Photographer Peter Magubane, now 87 years old, is regarded as the greatest photojournalist of the Apartheid era. His powerful images immortalised the sacrifice of many South Africans, exposed Apartheid horrors, documented indigenous cultures and paved the way for transformation. He is still going strong. Homage by Struan Douglas.
Peter Magubane is a Johannesburg man. He grew up as an only child in Sophiatown. He travelled the cosmopolitan neighbourhoods of Johannesburg with his father on his horse-drawn vegetable and fruit cart.
In his debut book Magubane's South Africa (1978) he describes how his father was known as a man who belonged to no political organisations and fought his own battles. He bought his son his first camera, a Kodak Brownie which he used at school to take portraits.
After Form IV (Grade 11), Magubane left school and joined the legendary Drum magazine as a driver. He quickly immersed himself into the life of the publication, learning as he went.
Drum was a large format picture-led magazine aimed at the Black population--the only quality publication available to the majority at the time. The publisher, Jim --Bailey was regarded as an eccentric by the White community but his independent wealth allowed him to go into areas considered as taboo by the establishment. He wanted a South African version of the US's Life magazine. Drum, with its dramatic photos of Black life, was to play a crucial role in the political emancipation of the African population.
The picture editor was the German photographer Jurgen Schadeberg who mentored several photographers including Bob Gosani, Ernest Cole and later Peter Magubane whose images became the defining statements of the age of struggle.
Magubane may have joined as a humble driver but realised the power of the camera to tell stories in a powerful manner and as he became more politically conscious, so he ventured into often dangerous territory to capture the agony of the Black majority, as well as celebrate their love of life with his trusty camera. Among his friends were writers, Can Themba and Nat Nakasa, who went on to become important chroniclers of the Apartheid era. Schaderberg gave him free reign to learn the arts of the dark room and printing.
He photographed the adoption of the Freedom Charter and the Rivonia Treason Trial where he was first arrested. He developed techniques to outwit the police, often disguising his camera in a loaf of bread, a pint of milk or even a Bible.