A snapshot of Alf KumaloThe first things you notice when Alf Kumalo walks into a room are his snazzy black patterned shirt and a feather, jauntily tucked into the brim of a black fedora.
You half expect him to whip out a saxophone and blow you away with some jazz. But he’s carrying a camera the size of a saxophone instead, because at 81, Kumalo is still one of South Africa’s most renowned photographers.
For an old guy he’s remarkably sprightly, and a gentleman too, removing his hat and placing it neatly by his camera as we start to chat. He’s a superb raconteur, as good at telling stories with words as he is with pictures. Every tale is elaborately told, oozing with rich memories and descriptions, and soon I’m enjoying a vivid history lesson from one of life’s eye witnesses.
Kumalo has won numerous awards, produced four books and been published in newspapers around the world including the New York Times and The Observer. He’s even got his own museum in his former house in Soweto, and few people can boast of having a museum dedicated to their work while they’re still alive.
The museum was opened in 2002 with funds from an Italian non-governmental organisation. “I’d sold the house and told the buyers if they ever wanted to sell it, I’d buy it back,” he says. “One of the compelling things that made me want to use it as a museum was because I was raided there at four in the morning by police looking for guns and terrorists.”
His nickname was AK, and the police believed that was because he was harbouring AK47s. It was actually A for Alf and K for Kumalo, but the cops weren’t smart enough to figure that out, he jokes. But the raid was no laughing matter, with 17 armed men surrounding his house and a gun being used to pull back the blankets from his sleeping seven-year-old son.
“Police holding guns went through my wardrobe in case anyone was hiding there, and if there was someone there they’d have shot him,” he says, thrusting his arms back and forth to imitate the searching motion. “If you’d been in my wardrobe, you’d be passed on,” he says. Well at least I’d have been dressed nicely, if I’d had time to borrow his clothes.
Ironically it was Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok who saved Kumalo from arrest. The police inevitably found photographs of riots, men deemed terrorists and politicians, including one of Vlok. “They wanted to know where I got it and I said I’d photographed him. I said I often met him and he was always nice to me. That changed their attitude completely, and eventually they left. But only after they used a walkie-talkie to tell their superiors they didn’t believe I was a terrorist because I knew Vlok.”
He illustrates the story with his expressive face and hand movements, but soon he’s up on his feet, pacing the room in a regal manner to impersonate a lawyer he often saw in court when he started work as a journalist. He’s a lovely mimic, strutting smugly with his hands behind back, before a quick about-face to deliver a pointed question.
His love affair with photography began when he first tried using a teacher’s camera, then he borrowed his cousin’s camera to photograph his Boy Scout troop. Before long he was taking photos to illustrate his stories.
Kumalo has a brilliant memory and conjures up a ream of names from the past and present. It’s all in there in his head, as sharp as the day it went in. Inevitably we’re soon talking about the worst memory in his life, the Sharpeville Massacre. “I’d wake up at night still feeling the pain of what I saw. That’s how bad that massacre was. You just saw a lot of people lying all over the place, 69 people in one place, gunned down in less than five minutes. Tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. Just like that. Even now it stands out as the worst thing ever in my life. Jeez...” Kumalo has run out of words for once, 52 years after it happened, and I’m glad I can't see the images he’s recalling behind his now cloudy eyes.
To lighten the sombre mood I ask if that was his most harrowing assignment, what was the most brilliant? The answer is instant. “Mandela’s release. Mandela taking the podium.” He knew it would happen, he says. Even when nobody could see a bright future, Kumalo knew the blacks would triumph. “The situation was so bad that it was hard to imagine it could ever change. But I couldn’t imagine black people just folding their hands. We were in the majority and I knew the bitterness and the desire for freedom. I knew people were ready to sacrifice their lives for freedom. And they did.”
The memory is shared with such passionate conviction that my arms go goose bumpy, but this time in a good way, not a bad way.
Kumalo was also risking his life by going into dangerous situations to take photographs that would inform the world. “I knew that at any moment I could die.”
He was harassed and jailed several times, and tells a funny story - well it’s funny now – of police trying to arrest him in a boxing ring. I can just imagine the dapper, besuited Kumalo clinging furiously to the ropes as burly cops tried to hurl him into the audience.
Once the police hit him on the head with a gun butt, leaving him with a fractured skull and regular migraines. “But I recovered and I think I can still talk sense,” he says. “Not yet,” I joke, “I’m still waiting.” Kumalo roars with laughter, his face finally showing its age by creasing into deep grooves of laughter.
Now he can’t resist demonstrating how he took so many amazing pictures when the police were stopping photographers from capturing the action. He stands up and plonks the whopping big Nikon on his head, lets go, and dances around the room. “You could be looking at me and not see that I was taking pictures. I’d set the camera on a timer to take a picture after 10 seconds. Then I’d put the camera on my head and dance and clown around. They’d think I’m being a silly fool, but the reality was I’d get pictures that no other photographer would, and the newspapers would splash them. It worked so well that the newspaper bought me a remote. I’d put the camera on top of a car and stand away and shoot the whole 36 shots without touching the camera.”
Kumalo isn’t just a great photographer, he’s a highly intelligent, resourceful man. Which is why he’s survived for so long in an industry that takes its toll on those who love it.
By now I already know the answer to my next question, but I want to hear it anyway: does Kumalo have any ambitions left, or are ambitions best left to younger men? Oh yes, he says, he’s now scanning his images for another four books. Books on Mohammed Ali, Winnie Mandela, his own autobiography, and a new tribute to Nelson Mandela, featuring photos that have never been published. “I have powerful pictures of his mother sobbing in court when she thought he was going to be sentenced to death. I have so much material on Mandela – I travelled with him to Buckingham Palace, New York, Italy, France and Norway for the Nobel Peace Prize. The images I have are compelling, they’re just so good.” That doesn’t sound boastful, it simply sounds true. Kumalo is guileless enough not to invoke silly false modesty.
He’s also planning a documentary on the life of his ancestor King Mzilikazi, a one-time ally of Shaka Zulu. Finally he’s preparing a documentary called “The Mandelas I Know” with his son Mzilikazi, a film director. “It’s not limited to the old man, it’s the entire family. I’ve got some amazing stories,” he says.
That’s six projects on the go, and the man is 81. I’m beginning to suspect he’s dyslexic and still thinks he’s 18.
Kumalo agrees that he’s in excellent health, and puts it down to good genes, positive thinking, not drinking or smoking and being very particular about what he eats. He frowns to remember that he hasn’t been to gym for six months, and makes a mental note to reactivate his membership.
He’s married to his second wife, and I ask how many children he has. “Twenty one” he beams. I say nothing, just give him a sceptical gaze. He holds my look with a deadpan gaze of his own. I crack first. “You’re lying,” I say. “I am,” he hoots, “I’m joking!”
That ability to tell such blatant lies must have been extremely useful during police interrogations, I say. Now we’re both giggling so much that I forget to ask how many children he really has. Besides, we’re out of time, yet he has hundreds of fascinating stories left to share. I’ll be first in the queue for his autobiography.
*First published by Prestige Magazine