Farewell to a great and yet humble man

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Aspecial old man and a great South African was laid to rest at a cemetery in Joburg on Saturday.

Alf Mangaliso Kumalo, a man who spent the better part of four decades telling the story of South Africa, warts and all, through his lens, died recently after a battle with a pathology that is the bane of many men – cancer.

To describe Kumalo as a photographer would be to insult him. This great old man, a swanky dresser who walked the streets of Sophiatown, Soweto and many other parts of South Africa, capturing images that exposed the ills of the country, was much more than that.

He was a journalist, father, mentor, friend. Not only did he have the eye for a great shot, but he also had a way with people – from some of the world’s most powerful individuals to ordinary people.

Bra Alf captured private moments with the great Nelson, Winnie Mandela and their children. He photographed our former president when he was putting a nappy on his daughter, Zinzi, when she was a couple of months old. Later in life, he was to capture that moment when Mandela, flanked by Thabo Mbeki and F W de Klerk, was sworn in as our first democratically elected president.

He so impressed the legendary Muhammad Ali that he was invited to his home in Los Angeles.

His outstanding frame of Robert F Kennedy, brother of US president John F Kennedy, in Soweto atop his black Lincoln earned him respect among his peers around the world.

All these exploits and many more turned Bra Alf into a legend. He and Mandela shared one great strength – the ability to remain humble and make the next person feel as if they were the legend.

We shared many moments with Bra Alf on assignments. A few years ago, we arrived in Ventersdorp, then the home of right-wing racists. We were in town to cover the response by the townsfolk to a strike by mainly black municipal workers. The white residents of Ventersdorp had decided they would not allow municipal services to be paralysed. They would, for instance, sweep the streets and pick up rubbish bins – something white people did not do during apartheid.

We rolled into town and were confronted by an unusual sight, an Afrikaner woman dressed in a khaki suit with Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging badges. We stopped to chat to her. It took a few seconds for her to dismiss us. The few seconds was all Bra Alf needed to get a great picture.

We were driving back from the AWB headquarters where Eugene Terre’Blanche had politely refused to talk to us. And we saw scenes reminiscent of Mississippi Burning – a pick-up truck driving at high speed with right-wingers, armed with huge rifles, hanging from the sides. We agreed with Bra Alf that he wasn’t going to lift his trademark Nikon camera for that one.

The pick-up truck made a U-turn and chased us. We panicked and decided to dash for our lives. As Wilfred Mbongwa placed his foot hard on the accelerator pedal, Bra Alf quickly removed the film from the camera and hid it.

The pick-up truck was joined by two cars. We were just about to leave the town when Bra Alf, at the top of his voice, instructed Mbongwa to stop.

“It’s better if they kill us here because there will be witnesses,” he said. We stopped and were quickly surrounded by a gang of armed right-wingers, their rifles knocking on our windows. “Maak oop,” they barked.

Our response was to place our press cards on the windows to show we were on duty. They swore at us and knocked harder. Bra Alf did not lift his camera, but we could hear that shutter going.

Click click… followed by a slow winding movement of the film. So, even as we faced death, this great lensman would not hesitate to capture the moment. He wanted our families to see the faces of men we believed were seconds away from shooting us.

We were saved by a white colleague who noticed the commotion and stopped. He vouched for our credentials and the guns were removed and we drove off. One of the pictures was on the front page of our newspaper, not the first time images captured by this great, hugely talented yet humble man had occupied prime spot in a newspaper.

All of us meet people, from time to time, who have a profound, positive impact on our lives. Bra Alf was one such man.

Once your life had been touched by Alf, you could never be the same.


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