An Iconic Collection Launched in Johannesburg: Man of the People
Peter Magubane sang a praise song as he walked to the podium and was greeted by ululations and cheers at the launch of his masterpiece, Man of the People: A photographic tribute to Nelson Mandela, at Exclusive Books in Killarney Mall last night.
Mothobi Mutloatse, Chairman of M2K Investments, introduced the photographer as a “truly humble man and a favourite son of the soil” who had demonstrated his love for and dedication to his country. “If we were in Britain, he would be knighted already. We would call him ‘Sir Peter’!”
Magubane, who first met and photographed Nelson Mandela in 1956 during the Women’s March to Pretoria (and again during the Treason Trial), spent 586 days in solitary confinement, wondering if he would ever emerge from his cell.
“Don’t think that people in prison do not know what is going on in the outside world,” he said. “The common-law prisoners used to bring newspapers to us in the shit bucket – and that’s how it got sent out again,” he said, recalling the dark days of our country’s history.
“A bird used to alight on my window sill. When I glanced at it, it would fly away. How I wished I could be that bird,” he said, “but I resolved that I would not allow myself to be messed around by detention. If the Robben Islanders could endure being beaten and tortured, I would survive as well.” (The history of his many clashes with the Apartheid government is well-summarised on Magubane’s Wikipedia page.)
After Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, Magubane was asked to be his official photographer and he accompanied the president-elect on his travels around the world. Magubane reflected on his travels and travails since his own incarceration and said that by comparison it had been “easy after the hard run”.
He recalled the days of Drum when he learned his trade. “We were taught not to ask permission to take a photograph, but to apologise – if there were any objections – once you had taken your picture. I learned to think ahead, to be faster than the system.” At Zeerust, during a trial of women accused of pass law violations there was a complete ban on all press. Can Themba and Peter Magubane arrived at the village the day before, obtaining the jackets worn by the local men and mingled with the crowd.
“At Drum we did not believe in being told what to do. I bought a half loaf of bread, scooped out the bread and hid my camera inside the loaf. After a while I realized I needed to change my tactics and bought a bottle of milk, emptied the bottle and hid the camera inside, using a cable release from my pocket. Drum was the only magazine to get pictures from the trial.”
This think-ahead mentality helped the photographer survive prison with more creative tactics. “When handed the ‘varkkos’ that black prisoners received, I figured I could pull a fast one on the warder. I asked, ‘Hoekom kry ek die kos want ek is nie ‘n bantoe nie? Ek is ‘n kleurling.’ The warder asked, ‘Hoekom is jy dan nie witter?’ I said, ‘Ek is mos maasbeker,’ [a mish-mash word referring to Mozambicans] and from then on I got the better quality food reserved for Coloured and Indian prisoners.”
It also helped him cement his place in a nation’s history. A Man of the People is without a doubt Magubane’s greatest work, a tribute to an icon that is iconic in its own right.
The photographer and his friends: photo gallery
- Man of the People: A photographic tribute to Nelson Mandela by Peter Magubane
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