Alf Kumalo – A Legend In His Lifetime

During the treason trial, Nelson Mandela with Joe Slovo and Ruth First outside the courthouse.   A lawyer by training, Slovo was an eminent figure in the anti-apartheid struggle. During his years in exile, he was chief of staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and secretary of the South African communist party. In 1994 he became minister of Housing and died in 1995.

What you are now reading is the original copy when Alf’s interview was first Published in March 1999. Written by Hadley Toweel and published in Camera&Image Magazine. Photographs obtained from Alf Himself and used with his permission and are all copy write protected. (05 09 1930 – 21 10 2012) 82 


A legend in his time, Alf Kumalo has been documenting South African history for almost half a century. From the first time he picked up a camera during the dark years of Apartheid, until today, photography has been Alfís consuming passion. It was gripped by the visual impact of photography from a very young age, says Alf. Alfred Kumalo was born on the fifth of September 1930 in Fitas, a district of Johannesburg near Fordsburg. Until the age of nine (at the start of the Second World War), he lived with his parents and family in Evaton, Transvaal.

Protest during the Rivonia trial. prominent in the background is Winnie’s brother Msuthu Madikizela. Foreground right is Winnie Mandela’s mother Nosekeni, and below Zenani Mandela.

Four years later they moved to the Alexandra township, where he matriculated at the young age of fifteen. For a few years thereafter, he lived with his paternal uncle in Zululand, working as a herd boy. It was in 1950, at the age of twenty, that Alf started photographing weddings with a borrowed camera. Because of the volatile situation in South Africa, it was a natural progression to turn from wedding photography to coverage of the upheaval that was taking place in the country. That same year, he started freelancing for Bantu World (later known as the World newspaper). Alf’s career in photography really took off in 1951, when he joined Drum magazine, armed with his first and only camera, a Beautiflex twin lens 6 x 6. Here he worked with the likes of Peter Magubane, Jurgen Schadeberg, and the late Bob Gosani.

Although many of the journalists working at Drum lived by the motto, “live fast, die young and have a good looking corpse”. Alf’s time was consumed by his passion for photography. He immortalised the culture of the fifties era by capturing on film the antics of Jazz bands, ballroom dancers and the “amalaitas” (bare-fist fighters).


The Inkspots were a close harmony group from Springs.


Alf has, at various times during his career, photographed the most influential and often most controversial politicians of the time. These include J.G. Strydom, Hendrik Verwoerd, John Vorster and Eugene Terreblanche. He has also photographed Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Fidel Castro and Samora Machel. Alf Kumalo was there at the Sharpville massacre in March 1960, and he was there on June 16, 1976, at the start of the Soweto riots. After the Defence Force led raids into Angola, Botswana and Lesotho, Alf was there to photograph the aftermath. During those years, the security police were baffled as to who was responsible for the press photographs depicting the brutality of the police because they were often convinced that no photographer had taken any photographs. Alf laughs when he tells the story: “I would walk around with my camera balanced on my head, the way you often see Black women in rural areas balancing buckets of water on their heads. The police found this quite amusing. Little did they realise that I had pre-focused my camera and was taking pictures using the self-timer!”

Mandela, Winnie Mandela and their second daughter Zinzi in 1961


Alf, after being hit on the head by a young demonstrator,16 June 1976


Mohammed Ali enters the ring just before his fight with Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden, New York, 1974


A personal friend of the Mandela family.

Alf, a personal friend of the Mandela family, has a collection of photographs of President Nelson Mandela spanning a period of some thirty-five years. He covered the treason trial after which Nelson Mandela was banished to life imprisonment and has a very rare photograph of Mandela’s mother, who died shortly after he went to prison. This collection appears in Alfís first book published in 1990, called ëMandela: Echoes of an Era. Alf continued to work for Drum until the early sixties. After freelancing for a while, both in South Africa and the United States, he joined the Sunday Times in 1972.


Announcement for Helen Joseph’s requiem mass 1994

He remained there until he rejoined Drum magazine, but this time as photo editor. For the next couple of years, he also continued to freelance for the Sunday Times and the Rand Daily Mail. His photographs that appear in his latest book are currently on exhibition in Milan, Italy. From there the exhibition will move to Rome, and then to Brussels, Germany and eventually the USA. In the future, Alf, who has just moved with his family to Bryanston, would like to convert his house in Soweto into a photographic training school.

Chris Hani outside the Mandela house in Soweto.

“I would like to leave a legacy for the next generation,” this unassuming man says with a weary smile. Indeed, there is much to be learned from a true master whose talent and skill has earned him an outstanding reputation. In January 1980, Alf became a staff photographer at   The Star and continued there for fourteen years. He continues to freelance for The Star today. During his years as a professional documentary photographer, he has been on assignment for the New York Times, Time Magazine, and Der Spiegel.

Mswati – Swaziland

While freelancing in America in 1963, Alf met, photographed and befriended Cassius Clay (Mohammad Ali). During this stint in the States, he also photographed many famous people, such as Mirriam Makeba, Sammy Davis Jr, Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles, to name but a few. During his lifetime as a photographer, Alf has won numerous awards. For his achievements, he has won a brand new car, a trip to England, Germany and Italy, and he also won the coveted Encyclopedia Britannica award for outstanding photography. This award-winning photograph depicts a white policeman kicking a black man between the legs. Once again Alf had been there to capture a decisive moment.

In 1998, the Professional Photographerís of Southern Africa (PPSA) awarded Honourary Member-ship to Alf Kumalo in recognition of his outstanding contribution to photography in South Africa.