Photographer Documented Apartheid Despite the Cost

Peter Magubane was beaten, jailed, for covering South Africa's racial oppression
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 1, 2024 3:15 PM CST
Peter Magubane Fought Apartheid With a Camera
Peter Magubane is interviewed at his home in Johannesburg in 2016.   (AP Photo/Denis Farrell, File)

Peter Magubane, a fearless photographer who captured the violence and horror of South Africa's apartheid era of racial oppression, and was entrusted with documenting Nelson Mandela's first years of freedom after his release from prison, died Monday. He was 91, the AP reports. He was a "legendary photojournalist," said the South African National Editors' Forum. The South African government said Magubane "covered the most historic moments in the liberation struggle against apartheid." He persisted in his coverage despite being regularly harassed, assaulted, and arrested, per Reuters. He was "someone who made very big sacrifices for the freedom that we enjoy today," his granddaughter said.

Magubane photographed 40 years of apartheid South Africa, including the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, the trial of Mandela and others in 1964, and the Soweto uprising of 1976, when thousands of Black students protested the apartheid government's law making the Afrikaans language compulsory in school. The Soweto uprising became a pivotal moment in the struggle for democracy in South Africa after police opened fire on the young protesters, killing at least 176 of them and drawing international outrage. Magubane's award-winning photographs told the world about the killings. Magubane became a target of the apartheid government after photographing a protest outside a jail where Mandela's then-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, was being held in 1969.

He was jailed and kept in solitary confinement for more than a year-and-a-half. Magubane also was imprisoned numerous times during his career and subjected to a five-year ban that prevented him from working or even leaving his home without police permission. He said he was shot 17 times with shotgun pellets by apartheid police while on assignment and was beaten and had his nose broken by police when he refused to give up the photographs he took of the Soweto uprisings. Faced with the option of leaving South Africa to go into exile because he was a marked man by the apartheid regime, he chose to stay and continue taking photographs. "I said, 'no I will remain here. I will fight apartheid with my camera,'" he said in a recent interview with national broadcaster SABC.

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The photographer also created searing images of everyday life under apartheid that resonated just as much as those of the violence, per the AP. One of his most celebrated photographs was a 1956 image of a Black maid sitting on a bench designated for whites only while seemingly caressing the neck of a white child under her care in a wealthy Johannesburg suburb. The photo spoke of the absurdity of the forced system of racial segregation given that so many white children were looked after by Black women. In 1990, Magubane was appointed official photographer to Mandela. He said his favorite photograph of Mandela was him dancing at his 72nd birthday party, months after being released after 27 years in prison. "You can see the joy of freedom shining in his eyes," Magubane said. The International Center of Photography has several of his photos posted here.

(More obituary stories.)

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