Alf Kumalo


An ode to Dukuza Alf Kumalo

U-Dukuza Alfred Kumalo, well known around the world as Alf, or even Bra Alf, was born in Utrecht, northern Zululand, on 5 September 1930 to Baba Paulson Mbube Kumalo and his wife Dora. Soon thereafter, Alf’s parents relocated to Alexandra Township, north of Johannesburg, and later settled in Evaton Township in the Vaal area.

From his early years, Alf refused to allow the dire, dirty and dusty conditions of Evaton to hold him back. Alf was from a young age drawn to images, particularly photographic images, fuelled by his love for music, all kinds of music. He collected music records when other boys went after toys.

He received primary education in Evaton and matriculated from Wilberforce Institute, the historic African Methodist Church School that was built by Charlotte Maxeke and her husband Marshall Maxeke to be the sister school to Wilberforce University in Ohio, where the Maxekes had graduated.

In 1951, when the racist apartheid system was in force for three years and its impact was beginning to be felt by the African majority, Alf Kumalo began his career as a part-time journalist for the Bantu World newspaper. His job was documenting the life under apartheid by taking pictures of everything that was newsworthy.

In 1956, Alf earned himself a permanent journalism position in the Golden City Post after presenting a photo of a woman riding a donkey to Evaton train station in support of the boycott of Putco buses.  

The Evaton Bus Boycott was one of the many major acts of resistance that Alf was to document with his camera beginning with the Defiance Campaign Against Unjust Laws, known as the Defiance Campaign; the Treason Trial; the Sharpeville Massacre; the banning of the liberation movements and the rise of the Black Consciousness Movement; the 1980s State of Emergency; the Soweto Uprising of 1976; the release of Nelson Mandela and political prisoners from Robben Island and other apartheid jails; the CODESA talks; and onward to the 1994 historic election when South Africans ushered in an era of democracy that saw the Presidency of Nelson Mandela.  

The relationship between President Mandela, his family and Alf was formed back in the 1950s. As a result, Alf was able to document many key private and public events in the Mandela family, some that are captured in the books that Alf published during his life time.

Alf’s international connection began in 1963 when Mr Dave Hazelhurst, the legendary editor of DRUM magazine, dispatched Alf and Mr Harry Mashabela to travel to Europe and document stories about African students studying in countries that were known as Iron Curtain Countries, because they were aligned with the then Soviet Union.  

Prior to Alf and Harry departing for Europe, DRUM magazine had entered one of Alf’s photos in an international competition whose first prize was a brand new car, an Austin Cambridge. 

Alf was in London when news came that he had won the new car.  This happened to be the same time that a young and brash boxing African American fighter known as Cassius Clay was also in London to fight the British boxer, Henry Cooper. 

Alf not only covered the Clay-Cooper fight, but he also developed a friendship with Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali.  The friendship with the great Ali is documented in many photos and has lasted right up to this day.

Alf later visited the United States and spent time documenting the life of his hero Ali. One of Alf’s most memorable boxing pictures ever taken was at the Muhammad Ali – George Foreman boxing match in Kinshasa. This historic fight is simply known among boxing enthusiasts as “the Rumble in the Jungle.”

Alf was also called “the quintessential Jozi guy” for his love of stylish clothes and jazz. Alf used to explain that, “in the 50s people dressed in suits and wore stylish hats and Florsheim shoes everywhere…“ 

Alf’s friendship with the legendary local musicians such as Bra Hugh Masekela, the late Miriam Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim, Bra Caiphus and Sis Letta Mbulu, Bra Jonas Gwangwa and countless others, is well documented. In the US, Alf was close friends with the late Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughn, Miles Davis, Roberta Flack, Donna Hathaway and many more.   

However, it was in his documentation of life under apartheid for which Alf will always be remembered. In 2004, the United Nations General Assembly invited Alf to mount a week-long exhibition of pictures that were seen by Heads of State and Government from all corners of the world. 

His other photos have appeared in every newspaper in South Africa including international publications such as TIME Magazine, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the London Times and Observer. 

The Apartheid Museum and the Hector Petersen contains some of the most haunting images that Alf captured.

Upon hearing of Alf’s death, former President Thabo Mbeki who bestowed on Alf the South African National Order of Ikhamanga in Silver, on 29 October 2004, said “aware that the power of his narrative was unimpeachable, the apartheid regime subjected him to consistent harassment in the hope that Kumalo, a humble and tenacious man of integrity, would abandon his work, or sell his soul altogether. He did not.”   

Instead, Alf converted his home in Diepkloof, Soweto, to become a museum at which young men and women growing up in the dusty streets of Soweto that were no different from those of the Alexandra and Evaton of his own youth, could literally walk to the museum and learn photo-journalism directly from Alf so they can begin to document the next years of our lives. 

The Alf Kumalo museum remains a testimony of the courage, the passion and perseverance that imbued his spirit, and lived until the last moment on 21 October 2012 when he passed away.

Throughout his career, Alf always enjoyed great support from his family. His late ex-wife, Mrs Jacqueline Kumalo, uMaTshwari, anchored  the home in the early days when Alf was traveling throughout the country documenting the impact of apartheid. His current wife, Mrs Elizabeth Modiegi Kumalo, uMaDlamini, shared Alf’s passion and sacrificed to see Alf’s life and work preserved and celebrated around the world. 

Alf is survived by nine children and 13 grandchildren. His elder brother Kaiser passed away years ago. Only his sister Rose, and brother Leonard, are the siblings that survive.

We of the Kumalo family salute Alf saying:

Ngqinda mahele!

Lala Dukuza ka Mzilikazi Mashobane!

Wena wase Mdletsheni 

Owadla ikhambi labalinye aphuma esemabili

Donda we ziziba

Mntungwa omhle

Eyakho indima uyi hlakule kamnandi

Ngqinda mahele….