They put their lives on the line for the truth. They fight for justice. Few are recognized for it. These are the gatekeepers of history. Journalists—the men and women who often risk their necks for a pittance. Many journalists pay the ultimate price for their craft. Troubled Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Carter—who took the famous shot of a Sudanese baby under the eye of a vulture— took his own life; his colleague, Ken Oosterbroek, was shot dead in South African political violence in Thokoza; fellow photographer, Joao Silva, lost his legs in Afghanistan; Henry Nxumalo, a fearless journalist with South Africa’s Drum magazine, was killed in a Johannesburg back alley; Mohamed Hassaine is still missing in Algeria; and Emmanuel Munyenazi went missing in Rwanda. Often journalists are so busy telling other people’s stories that they forget to tell their own. A new film, released in Africa in July, tries to redress this.
The Bang Bang Club is the story of four photojournalists, including Oosterbroek, Carter Silva, who risked their necks covering the political violence in the townships of Johannesburg between 1990 and 1994—a job that took courage and dedication, where young men had to juggle professionalism with being human. Do you get your shot, or do you intervene to save a life? It’s a cinematic tale that translates to anywhere in Africa where a voice or fist is raised in anger. The film analyses the moral question: where these young adrenaline junkies eager for the fight—or were they brave crusaders for the truth whose pictures arrived on breakfast tables around the world, turning world opinion against the oppressors? Johannesburg in 2011 is a world away from the apartheid days of South Africa. Voices blare unfettered on the airwaves and in the newspapers on any subject you can name. But, like many countries in Africa, the press faces looming restriction at the hands of legislators. It appears another struggle for the truth may be on the cards, begging the question: is the journalist class of 2011 as ready to get their hands dirty as the gritty street fighters of The Bang Bang Club?
Anton Harber, a Caxton Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, began his career in 1980. Like the rest, he too ran the streets in apartheid days towards the action, while others ran away. He describes journalism as being twosided at the time, with repression on the one hand and creativity on the other. How would the class of 2011 measure up? According to Harber, it is like comparing apples and pears: “We are looking for different things in the class of 2011 and it is not fair to expect the same from them as the journalists who came before.” The test will come in how the current generation handles the proposed Protection of Information Bill, which is stirring up the debate regarding media censorship and more responsible journalism.
This is also the digital age, where videos can go viral. The people of Egypt and Libya took their revolt to the world through social sites where YouTube thwarted government attempts to shut them up. Many journalists fear this social wave could take over their age-old craft. Harber disagrees: “Although technology changes what journalists do, it can never replace them.” Also, there are fewer journalists around the world running between the bullets and the bombs. These days, more and more journalists are glued safely to their cubicles, typing away about markets and finance. It appears the world is more concerned with commodities than it is about politics and public interest has plunged towards matters more trivial.
Harber said: “I see the trend moving towards softer lifestyle pieces.” Journalism has come a long way from the violent days of The Bang Bang Club. Watching the film evokes the old adage attributed to many swashbuckling young journalists: “Live fast, die young, and leave a good looking corpse.” It appears many of the class of 2011 would be happy with merely the former.
Armed with a lens
Alf Kumalo—the grandfather of The Bang Bang Club—spent years risking his life to capture the beauty and brutality of South Africa’s tough streets.
He stands fi rm and sprightly in the gentle sunshine warming his lush suburban garden. He belies his age of 81. He has been beaten, tear-gassed, imprisoned and shot at for his craft. Yet there is fi re in his eyes and as always, a camera around his neck. This is Alf Kumalo, veteran photojournalist and arguably the grandfather of The Bang Bang Club. “The ‘Bang Bang’ started in the 1990s, but we’d been banging on for years,” laughs Kumalo.
It was the life Kumalo chose for himself. With camera inhand he traveled the world and chronicled South Africa’s turbulent political history from before Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment, through his release, to the present day. He is one of the few people in the world who can count both Mandela and Muhammad Ali as friends Kumalo is an award-winning photographer, as well as a journalist, author, mentor and well-traveled businessman— a far cry from where he started. He was born in 1930 in Alexandra, Johannesburg in a tough world for a young black man. With a Beautyfl ex Twin Lens in hand, he set out to capture the world. He worked for a string of Johannesburg titles: Bantu World, a newspaper shut down by the authorities; the Golden City Post; Drum magazine and The Star.
The 1950s and 1960s were dangerous days for a black man bent on exposing the brutality of the apartheid government with its dogs and secret police. Times were tough back then and there was a lot of hatred. Journalists were being beaten, detained, killed and some went missing.
One day, Kumalo was caught. “They cracked my skull with a gun butt,” he says. To add insult to injury, the police charged the wounded Kumalo with resisting arrest and fighting the police. The court case dragged on for nearly a year and at the end of it he was freed and told not to take pictures anymore. A defiant Kumalo refused. “I was arrested so many times, I was no longer afraid of jail. The one thing I was worried about was disappearing,”
Kumalo evaded the police to cover the Treason Trial from which Mandela was acquitted, the Rivonia Trial in which Mandela was imprisoned, and the 1976 Soweto uprising. Generations to come will be able to look at his photographs and get a true sense of what happened. Through it all, Kumalo is glad to be alive and remembers many friends and colleagues who weren’t so lucky. Kumalo looks to the journalists of the future with concern: “There is far less dedication now. I wish we could get our people, especially scholars, to be as dedicated as we were.” Kumalo practises what he preaches and runs a photography school in Diepkloof, Soweto. He is a selftaught photographer who is determined to teach others. Aside from this, Kumalo and his camera are always ready to go where the news is breaking. For him it is not a job, it is his life. There is no slowing Kumalo down and he will surely go down in history as gloriously as he has captured it.
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