Dear South Africa (A Tribute to Alf Kumalo)

On Sunday the 21st of October, I got the tragic news that iconic South African photographer, Alf Kumalo died of renal failure. It was traumatic to hear, but at 82, his had been a life well-lived…in spite of you, South Africa.
I met Alf Kumalo back in 2004 after I had just returned to South Africa. Unable to find a job in the field I had studied for despite numerous applications and what I thought was a pretty impressive portfolio (to be fair none of the newspapers I applied to ever got to see my portfolio because they never responded to any of my application letters), I had been volunteering at some community organisation. It was here that I met Alf through another late great, Aggrey Klaaste. Alf had his trademark Nikon

Alf Kumalo and I Photo Credit: Alvin Pang

around his neck (I cannot recall ever seeing him without it, not even at black-tie functions), and I half-joked that he should teach me photography. He informed me that in fact, he had a photography school in Diepkloof and I should come through the next day.
With my self-esteem on the lower end of the scale, I went to meet Alf Kumalo holding my portfolio. I was anxious to show that I was accomplished and was not just some loser child who was trying to find something to do with her time. When I arrived at the Museum, I left my portfolio at reception while I went into a class taught by Nick Makgamathe. When I got out of class after an hour of being told what a shuttle, lense etc was, I found Alf waiting for me with an Italian coordinator of some NGO that was funding the school and the museum. And thus the narrative went. Unable to find funding in South Africa for this wonderful and innovative project where post-matric students were being taught photography for free, it was an Italian organisation that realized Alf’s brilliance and funded his dream – at least for two years.
The coordinator had seen my portfolio, he asked me whether I would be interested in being employed by the museum doing some write-ups, archiving, and captioning some of the material in the museum. Finally a paying job? Are you kidding me? I said yes. I never did get to learn photography. Did not do much archiving either – the brilliant Jacqui Masiza then at Bailey’s and now at Apartheid Museum did some of that. But I got to learn Alf’s photographs. I captioned. I wrote the text for the website. In the gaping moments while we hoped for guests to visit the museum, I wrote the first draft of The Madams. I discussed literature via email with Lewis Nkosi. I gossiped about which photographer was caught under the bed of which leading politician with Doc Bikitsha. I also wrote numerous proposals.
The Italians were about to leave. Time was running out. We needed funding to keep the museum and school running. Nick, Ruth Motau, Jacqui – anyone and everyone who was working at the museum at that time was earning peanuts, but they believed in Alf’s dream. Here was Alf, fighting and knocking on the doors of all these cadres he had photographed. There he was going to meet the Minister or the DG of a Ministry which-shall-go-unnamed. Here he was being invited to the Foundation where the mining mogul who called him Bra Alf would be present. And there he was honoured with the Order of Ikhamanga Silver for his contribution to the arts and to history with all the big guns present. We took to keeping at least four printed proposals in Alf’s car on a daily basis. He would hand them out to all people of influence he met. Surely, just surely one of these people would start sharing Alf’s dream?
None of them did.
Or maybe they just did not care.
What would have been the return to them on teaching township children visual art anyway? And who goes to museums? It’s not as though we are tourists. We experienced ’76, we do not need to see the pictures.
At some point in time, I gave up on the dream. I left the museum. Alf, or Mr. K as I called him, did not. He used the funding that he received from a photograph he sold to Total to pay the skeletal staff left. He would use money that he received from exhibitions he did abroad to fund his dream. He never gave up on it. He always called me a pessimist, ‘Hhawu, you are too young to be such a cynic,’ he would say. Before telling me he was off to meet another bigwig and he was sure he could convince them to make this their social corporate responsibility gig.
Alf and I would remain friends even after I abandoned his dream and started chasing my own. In 2010, we collaborated on 8115: A Prisoner’s Home, a story on the Mandela home that is now a museum. IDC funded this project. In all the time that I knew Mr. K, IDC was one of the few organisations who put their money where their mouths were.
A few years ago, Lewis Nkosi died. Prior to his death, people were collecting funds because his medical bills had escalated. When he finally died, the Ministry which-shall-go-unnamed, were kind enough to help with the funeral. Jazz legend Zim Ngqawana died.  And we heard talk of some music scholarship in his name (it has not happened). Miriam, Brenda, Busi…you celebrated all of them after they died but cared little when they lived.
On Sunday, Alf Kumalo took his last breath. His dream was never realized while he was alive. Mr. K’s death with a dream unrealized should be yet another indictment on you, South Africa. He gave so much of himself and you gave nothing back. And many people who believe in South Africa realize too late that, alas, the love and belief is one-sided.
Today, I have some questions for you, My Fatherland.
Are you giving Dada Masilo and Greg Maqoma their just credits? Do you know the name of Neo Ntsoma or Paballo Thekiso while they are alive? How many international awards will Xoli Sithole receive before you can fund her internationally celebrated documentaries? Are Rian Malan or Napo Masheane coping? Will Shafinaaz Hassim and Kgebetli Moele matter only when they are dead?
And today too, I have a request, South Africa.
When I die, leave my loved ones to grieve in peace. Do not celebrate me, or hypocritically mourn me. If I were worth acknowledging, you would do so while I am alive. Because you and I know, South Africa, even criminals are spoken highly of when they die.
Against my better judgement South Africa, I love you. You,a country that cannot afford three million a year for a visual arts school to educate some of your poor but fails to blink while spending hundreds of million to build one man his own town. Right now though, regardless of my misplaced love, right here….all I would like to say to you is: FUCK YOU VERY MUCH. Alf Kumalo deserved better.


31 thoughts on “Dear South Africa (A Tribute to Alf Kumalo)

  1. I really hate this hypocritical posthumous celebration of the lives we never took time to cherish before death. Sadly, too many of us have embraced a somewhat narcissistic form of patriotism; one that honours national treasures with a mere #RIP and nothing more

  2. To be quite honest, I’m more than blown away. Your truth is heartfelt and I a. m privileged to have read your articles. Continue to let your pen bleed its truth.

  3. Wow I must say u made pretty valid points,especialy da part where u spoke of mirriram makeba & mam busi mhlongo. I also find it strange dat people wait 4 adaz 2 die dan they celebrate them,diz women gave al dey had 2 da nation & dey got nothing back.I’m rily sori bwt alf khumalo & dat his dream neva lived 2 c da light of day. I knw u must b hurting bt u r language @ da end is nt pleasing.I knw we have a ryt 2 speak our minds bt its also our responsibility 2 make sure dat no1 is offended by it,as hurting as u r it was unecessary 4 u 2 speak lyk dat.I dnt knw da pain ur going thru bt I also feel da same u fil bwt mam busi mhlongo nt being celebrated 4 da contribution she made in dis countries music,she was a legend alive bt people were 2 blind 2 c it,people only realised dat when she died which also hurts me u mourn his death,remember what he stood 4,what he believed in,his dream & passion bt dnt go cusing da whole country 4 da mistakes made by a few people,who knws maybe dez people dat know & celebrated him while he lived dat u dnt knw of,urs sincerly.

  4. Zukiswa, thank you for this fantastic tribute and for saying what all of us were thinking, but did not take the time to say. Bra Alf deserved more, he was not only a legend of photography, but a gentleman who ALWAYS had time to stop and chat to those who would take the time to listen.

    I cherish every moment ever spent chatting to him in the Star’s photographic department. I loved his stories about his time with Ali (every time he told me the story).

    He may not have gotten the credit from the “big wigs” but he got it from people like you and in the end that is more important.

    Thank you, Shayne.

  5. I am sad to hear about the museum and photography school. I didn’t even know of its existence. Yes, I agree, he deserved better, and so do people in SA at this point in time. Do you know if anyone is going to continue to maintain and upkeep this school/museum?

  6. Pingback: What a blog piece…

  7. Well said, Left me very sad cos it’s so true, I just hope someone decides to save his legacy, it would be a very big shame if he were to fade away and his pictures be hidden from view.

  8. Am ashamed myself for only finding out yesterday that he had a studio like this right in Soweto where I stay. I’ve always been interested in his stories but never made an effort to find out about this great man. Quite a gr8 symbol of history!

    You tribute touches me in the core of my bleeding heart! So true…… careless can we get as a country & as individuals. I am ashamed..

  9. I went through that real tribute n reflection of what Alf represents and I must say, tears kept on rolling down my cheeks as I come to realise how embattled a country we are,especialy in de wake of what comes 2 germinate as a plethora or myriad of hardships for the youth,woman n the needy in general..Yours is a true reflection of what we all are facing as a country but only down-play as politics and lack of connection..South Africa’s indeed ailing.

  10. That a powerful story depicts the true south africa that we live in. People like alf kumalo who died still chasing their dream because the was no funding but our president spends R17.9 million on luxuries life while the young blacks in the township are not exposed to art we live in a fucked up society

  11. Pingback: Dear South Africa (A Tribute to Alf Kumalo) « Goodnews's Weblog

  12. Great write up sis, i could just imagine him with his attacking laughter loud haaa!!!!! saying did you read What Zuks wrote!!!!!!!

  13. Well said, Zukiswa … eish … EVERYBODY loved Alf …he was SUCH an unassuming sweetheart. Zukiswa’s mention of archiving made me laugh. If you ever went into Alf’s darkroom you’d know why. From floor to ceiling it was just reels and reels of film seemingly flung there like heaps of black spaghetti … yet he ALWAYS knew where everything was and could find an image you were looking for in a second! All I can hope is that the old STAR photographers like my beloved cousin Ken Oosterbroek, kevin Carter, Gary Bernard etc etc are having a PARTY of note …sheesh, talk abou the end of an era … makes me feel VERY sad …

  14. Hey love. I feel you.

    Was at the school in 2002.
    Miss him like crazy. He was such a pure man.

    Its too bad that people are hearing about him for the first time. Why must we know lady gaga and not a man like him. Argh this self hate that South Africa has is a contributor.

    Take care

    • Bra Alf’s passing is said indeed, with regard to knowing about lady gaga and all the others like her can be blamed on both the media and ourselves.

      The media influences most our actions and knowldge, however we are also so reliant on it and have not taken a stance on sharing the little that we know with each other (e.g this write up did not happen whilst bra alf was still alive, do we blame the media or the people who knew him personally?).

      My heart bleed when I hear fellow brother and sister mention people like Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Steve Jobs as their role models, yet we have people like Dr. Richard Maponya who we can relate to, someone we know and also know’s the struggle we are faced with and and has made a difference in people’s lives.

      Isn’t it time we have similar write up’s about them whilst they are alive?

  15. You know I can understand in some way that governments move the arts aside for a while for really pressing issues like housing and clean water and education. But sadly what is happening here is that delivery has slowed down and all we seem to see now is spending on “functions”. We see fat cats getter fatter. And we have no REAL policy in place to support arts and artists. It is a sad indictment on our society!

  16. Zuks, it’s not an easy feat to bring tears to my eyes, the truth of this piece did. I am a nobody in this country trying to make something for others- and I know how it feels. Bra Alf was being interviewed by Thabo Mokwele on Kaya fm a number of weeks ago, and Bra Alf could not even ask for money because he was just doing what he must as a citizen of this country! I wonder how many of us picked up the phone after Thabo Mokwele asked for a pledge to the school. Yes, while the ministry-that-shall-go-unnamed does not make it easy for the artists in the grassroots to access support, while the National Lottery easily funds kissing fests instead of educating children in music (I sent my application in 2009, 2010 and 2011 and only now do I get a response for my 2009 application!)- I believe we also collude with this system to keep it as is.
    Why can’t we- people who really care- set up a foundation and prioritise these projects of love and do it ourselves. Surely we can do a much better job as artists than the people we’ve put in government! Why can’t we? Or am I naive somehow? I want to try….

  17. Thank you Zukiswa for writing this. I only found out today of his passing. I am not from South Africa nor do I know anyone there. But I appreciated his skill and vision from afar. Though he is no longer with us in body, the truth of his work will continue to speak and inspire us. RIP Alf Kumalo.

  18. very sad and touching. I don’t get why Africa keeps spiting her stars and geniuses. The absurd bit is that this trend is not going to stop any time soon because we have egotistical self centred nutsacks for leaders. Instead of making an effort to stand out, they’re busy grooming the next gen of corrupt filth. Fuck ’em.

  19. Pingback: Zukiswa Wanner rants against ignorant white readers and cheapskate editors | James Murua's Literature Blog

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