As all signs point to the inevitable reprise of student fees protests, in the year that marks the 40th anniversary of the Soweto student uprisings, MR SIPHIWE MPYE sat down with veteran photographer Dr Peter Magubane to reflect on photojournalism, means of protest, the Afrikaner and his recent retrospective coffee table book on that fateful day in 1976.
Notedman (NM): Was it an easy decision to do the June 16 book so many years later?
Peter Magubane (PM): Yes, we did the first June 16 book 30 years ago and when I was approached by the publisher (the ungovernable Ms. Christine Qunta of Seriti Sa Sechaba Publishers) to revisit it, I didn’t hesitate. What South Africa is today is because of those children who put up a fight and died for a cause. That’s when things began to open (up).
NM: Is there a time, apart from June 16 1976, where you felt that as a documenter of stories, your life was in danger?
PM: Oh, many times. I have long told myself that I am not going to be told what to do with my camera. My camera is my gun, I will use it when necessary. I am killing nobody, I am covering a story.
NM: Fast forward to 2015, the student movement almost 40 years later. It’s a slightly older crop of students in the sense that they are at University but its still pretty much the same age group. There has been a lot of reflection on the parallels between these times, what is your assessment?
PM: The students in 1976 were fighting for democracy. They did not burn down schools, they did not burn down what belonged to them. They only burned down anything that was police. They did not interfere with anything that wasn’t police vehicles.
NM: How do you feel about what has transpired with the current crop of students?
PM: It’s very wrong. Let us fight for the cause, but let us not burn down anything that belongs to us. Those schools belong to those children, you burn them down, where do those children go to school? What do you do?
NM: The students and other commentators will tell you that it (the burning of infrastructure) is a sign of frustration after years of not being heard. They will tell you that this is the only way to get their (authorities) attention.
PM: But whose building is that, is that not their own building they are burning?
NM: And if they are rejecting this education system, which in many ways is not too dissimilar to what the ‘76 generation was subjected to?
PM: No. 40 years ago it was worse. It was called Bantu Education and you knew you, your schools, were not equal. But today they are equal.
NM: Well, no. The gap between what a typical Soweto school had then and what they have now isn’t that big. Yes there may some improvements, but the vast majority of schools are still inferior.
PM: Alright. If you don’t have what you are looking for, you burn down what you do have. Where do you fall back to? What do you do tomorrow?
NM: What would you say if they (students) came to you and said, ok, Dr Magubane, how do we do this? Our parents and government are not hearing us, what do we to make sure we are heard?
PM: Find a way of making your parents listen to you, don’t burn down what belongs to you. If your parents don’t listen to you, do you burn down their house you stay in? No. Find another way.
NM: Your career is long and distinguished. Is there a moment where you felt most fulfilled as a photographer?
I am not fulfilled yet. I am still photographing now. I don’t do stories that require me to run, but I still pick up my camera everyday and shoot.
PM: Well, no. I am not fulfilled yet. I am still photographing now. I don’t do stories that require me to run, but I still pick up my camera everyday and shoot. I have two projects I am working on: “The Afrikaner today, the Afrikaner yesterday.” And Sunsets. I love sunsets, especially when there are clouds.
NM: What is your interest in the Afrikaner?
PM: I want to see who and what kind of persons are these people called Afrikaners. The Afrikaner of yesterday and that of today are two different species. The Afrikaners of yesteryear, the women wore Potgieter hats, they rode in Ossewas.
NM: There may have been advancements in dress and transportation, but ideologically, is there is any fundamental change you have come across?
PM: Well, yes. You are openly accepted by the Afrikaner today. You don’t have to be a well-known person for them to accept you. It was very easy for me, the very first day I met them (in Parys, in the Free State), I told them what I was doing and the houses were open to me. I spent two years documenting this story.
NM: When I was a very young journalist, I made a mistake that many have subsequently made, and that’s mistaking Sam Nzima’s iconic Hector Pietersen picture for one of yours.
PM: You what? How dare you (laughs)?!
NM: Does this happen often?
PM: Well, not every photographer in this country is as well known as I am, so every good picture out there is mine (laughs)! It’s a compliment, but wrongly credited. I openly accept and admit when the work isn’t mine.
NM: I am intrigued by the idea of changing ones mind as they grow older, is there something, a certain set of beliefs that you have held in the past – about human nature, about work or anything else that is significant to you – that you have grown to change your mind about?
PM: As far as my profession is concerned, I have not changed. I am what I was when I started, but much stronger. Stronger in my convictions and stronger in my work. If I have a camera and see a picture, what I see with my eyes is what my camera will see. I am not a racist. One time I came across two white women fighting at the corner of Commissioner and Eloff (in Johannesburg), I recorded that, it (the shot) was beautiful. And the next time I cam across two black women fighting, I took that picture. What I see with my camera will be seen by people who are not there. That’s how I was taught.
Images by Mr Siyabonga Mkhasibe
June 16, 40th Anniversary Edition (Seriti Sa Sechaba) is available now.