Acclaimed photographer Ranjith Kally owes his success to the country’s one-time racist laws.
“I come from a background where white newspapers would never employ me as a photographer, if it wasn’t for the apartheid era, I would not be getting this recognition,” said Kally.
The 87-year-old is one of nine people who are to receive honorary doctorates from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in April for their role in shaping South Africa.
The nine, who will receive honorary degrees are: Ela Gandhi and Daisaku Ikeda in social sciences; Johnny Clegg in music; Dr Uche Veronica Amazigo and Dr Mosibudi Mangena in science, Kally in literature; Professor Welile Shasha in medicine; Carl Wright in administration; and Professor Hugh Paul Africa in education.
Kally, who learnt how to take pictures by trial and error, said his journey into photojournalism came after he grew tired of working at a shoe factory.
He bought a Kodak folding camera for sixpence (in the days when South Africa’s currency was, like the UK, pounds, shillings and pence) at a garage sale in Isipingo.
Soon he was shooting social pictures for The Leader, an Indian newspaper.
Next he applied for a job at the Golden City Post and Drum magazine.
“It was a very nice experience, we used to concentrate on the stories that the white papers wouldn’t carry, stories about our suffering under the apartheid government,” he said.
“Anything that the white man did against the black man, we did that story.” he said.
During this period Kally said he became close to Chief Albert Luthuli, working with the former ANC president. He said documenting Luthuli’s struggle has been the highlight of his career.
Kally was also around to record history being made, like at the meeting between the ANC and the National Indian Congress.
His work took him all over the place as he trained his lens on everyone from movers and shakers to common folk going about their daily lives.
“You felt safe in the townships in those days, the people were friendly and they knew us and what we did, it’s not like now when people get attacked in the townships,” he said,.
He described the honorary degree as “my biggest accolade”.
“I owe it to Drum and the Golden City Post, they gave me the chance,” he said.
Kally released a book in 2004, “The Struggle: 60 Years in Focus”, and plans to release another soon, drawing on his vast collection that documents a tumultuous period in the country’s history.
In a nice piece of symmetry, Ela Gandhi will be receiving her honorary degree from the successor of the very institution she rebelled against in the late 1950s and 1960s.
She said her first accomplishment as an activist was when she and other students forced the then University of Natal to change its graduation rules.
Gandhi instructed students to boycott their graduations as the different races held ceremonies on different days.
Under pressure, the university combined the ceremonies but separated the students by race.
But this was rejected too, and in 1963 graduates were seated in alphabetical order – Gandhi’s first triumph.
“We had very few ways of expressing our discontent back then, so as a former student, to come back and receive this honour, I feel very encouraged,” she said.
UKZN approached Gandhi last year to receive a degree and she gladly accepted.
Last year she was honoured by the Durban University of Technology for her contribution as a social worker and peace fighter.
She said it was wonderful to be recognised alongside Ikeda, of Japan, a man she described as a role model, and an outstanding figure in peace, non-violence, education and politics.
Ikeda has received over 300 honorary doctorates from universities across the world.
Musician Johnny Clegg, is widely known for his grasp and articulation of the Zulu language.
He is credited with bridging African traditional music forms, promoting inter-racial understanding in difficult apartheid conditions and working for a non-racial society.
Hugh Africa died in November, so his posthumous doctorate in education will be accepted by a relative.
A committed educationist, Africa worked in higher education for more than 50 years and was the chairman of the US-SA Fulbright Commission Board and the Higher Education Quality Committee.
He served as the interim vice-chancellor of the University of Zululand among many other roles.
Wright, who will get an honorary doctorate in administration, has worked for 40 years in local government structures and public administration.
He played a role in the policy making and public administration of the Commonwealth Trade Union Council and the Commonwealth Local Forum in London in 1995.
Shasha is a medical scientist and a former World Health Organisation (WHO) liaison officer.
He also heads an NGO and promoted public health initiatives that has made a difference to the needy. He is a consultant to the Department of Health.
Nigerian public health specialist and scientist Amazigo contributed to the control of river blindness, a neglected disease afflicting rural communities in many West African countries.
She researched and was instrumental in establishing the UN/World Bank-administered African Programme for Onchocerciasis Control.
She is a former WHO scientist and University of Nigeria medical parasitology senior lecturer.
Mangena was the first science and technology minister and gave the go-ahead for the Square Kilometre Array telescope (SKA). He was the Southern African Development Community’s science and technology chairman.