Photographs taken by the world-renowned Peter Magubane over 40 years, of disenfranchised and exploited child labourers, are on exhibition at Museum Africa.
THE power of a camera brings a nation together and makes a government shiver – these were the words of world-renowned Johannesburg photographer Peter Magubane at the launch of his child labour photographic exhibition at Museum Africa in Newtown.
Peter MagubanePeter Magubane at the launch of his photographic exhibitionAnd they certainly seem to ring true of the images on display. The soulful eyes of children working on farms, in coal mines, at the Indian market in Fordsburg and as newspaper vendors stare out of pictures taken as far back as 50 years ago.
The exhibition opened on 12 June and runs until 30 July.
Glimpses into the lives of these unwitting victims show the conditions they were forced to endure. “It is a documentary of the painful lives of blacks during the oppressive apartheid regime,” said Dr Selma Browde at the opening.
It is easy to see why children were used as the labour force. “Only black children were used as slave labour because they didn’t have rights; they were easy to intimidate; they couldn’t join trade unions and bosses could get away without paying them.”
Browde has known Magubane for about 40 years and accompanied him to a farm in Bethal, in what is today known as Mpumalanga, in 1977 when he took photographs of these children. His images depicting the young labourers were gathered over a period of about 40 years, though, from the 1950s to the 1990s.
“He phoned me up as a city councillor to accompany him since no-one believed it when he said what was happening there.” Her experiences on the farm left her in no doubt as to the validity of his claims, though.
Magubane travelled throughout the country, but the exhibition focuses on photos taken in Bethal, Soweto and Johannesburg. “He gained the confidence of the children, in both cities and rural areas. You can see the pain and despair by looking at their eyes,” Browde said.
Child Labour, The Indian Market, Johannesburg, Fordsburg, 1980'sChild Labour, The Indian Market, Johannesburg, Fordsburg, 1980s“Some kids got through the day by sniffing glue and smoking weed; the experience psychologically damaged them.”
Magubane was heavily involved in making public, through his photographs, the plight of disenfranchised members of the population during the apartheid era. He himself had several run-ins with the authorities.
He was born in Vrededorp, but grew up in Sophiatown until forced removals meant he had to leave. He began his career at Drum magazine, where he worked as a messenger, driver and “tea boy” before being given his first photography assignment in 1955. “From then on, he never looked back,” Browde said.
His first tussle with the apartheid police came in 1956, when he was covering treason trials. He resorted to whatever means were necessary to take his pictures. This included hiding cameras in hollowed out loaves of bread and empty milk cartons.
These tactics worked, and he carried on photographing what have become known as some of the most important moments in South Africa’s history. He covered the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, as well as the 1964 Rivonia Trial.
It was this that led to him becoming the first black man to exhibit in South Africa in 1963, Browde said. Thereafter, he exhibited with great success in places such as New York and Germany.
He moved to the Rand Daily Mail newspaper in 1967. But in 1969, police surrounded him while he was covering a demonstration outside the jail in which Winnie Mandela was imprisoned. They thought he was trying to help her escape, so they arrested and interrogated him and finally placed him in solitary confinement.
Children marvel at Magubane's picturesChildren marvel at Peter Magubane's child labour photosAccording to SA History Online, Magubane spent 586 days in solitary confinement. The charges were dropped in 1970, but he was banned from photography for five years. But he was back in jail in 1972, where he spent six months for breaking the banning orders.
He has since won numerous awards and been presented with two honourary doctorates. “His talents go further than just photos,” Browde explained, “he is a writer and speaker too.”
He shakes off the praise like water off a duck’s back, though, and focuses on what has been his livelihood for over 50 years. “My camera sleeps with me, and I always have it with me,” he said.
“Don’t play with your cameras,” he pleaded with the young people at the exhibition opening. He advised that they should always have them on hand, as it was possible to effect change through the images they captured.
The exhibit runs until the end of July at Museum Africa, which can be found at 121 Bree Street in Newtown. The museum is open from Tuesdays to Sundays, from 9am to 5pm.
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