Peter Sexford Magubane (1932-2024)

[i]Boy Initiates[/i] by Peter Magubane
Courtesy Nebiyu.s (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Peter Magubane was a South African photojournalist best known for his photos that exposed that nation’s Apartheid injustice and humanitarian crisis to the west.  He was born outside Johannesburg, in Vrededorp, on January, 18, 1932, and grew up in Sophiatown.

Magubane started his photographic career at Drum magazine doing menial tasks, but eventually was accepted on the photographic staff in 1954.  Drum had an audience of mainly black people and liberal whites.

At Drum, Magubane covered social issues: the treatment of prisoners, the Immorality Act, the oppressive pass laws, and the African National Congress’s Defiance Campaign.  In the 1950s, the media was allowed to expose Apartheid. His photos of the Sharpeville Massacre were picked up by Time magazine in 1960.  Partly because of that exposure, the South African government cracked down on all types of expression in the 1960s and 1970s.

Magubane left South Africa briefly and exhibited his work in Europe.  He also studied in Boston, Massachusetts between 1965 and 1966 but returned to his homeland to work for the Rand Daily Mail, a major Johannesburg newspaper.

Magubane put himself at great risk photographing in the Apartheid era.  He was harassed, brutalized, shot, had film destroyed, and was banned from working as a photojournalist.  He recalled hiding his Leica camera in a hollowed-out bible on one occasion, and a loaf of bread on another.

In 1969 he was arrested and imprisoned for 586 days.  After his release, he was accused by the government of being a communist and a terrorist.  He was banned from talking to more than one person at once or attending gatherings for five years.  This ban prevented him from working in photojournalism. The bans were seriously enforced and upon breaking one of them, he was arrested and served another six months in jail.

When the ban expired, Magubane resumed work for the Rand Daily Mail.  The timing allowed him to cover the Soweto Uprisings in 1976.  During one assault that year, a policeman fractured his nose, hospitalizing him.  He was subsequently arrested and detained for 123 days.  Despite the danger, Magubane worked for Time from 1978 to 1988, continuing to photograph life under Apartheid.

Magubane’s work also explored the child labor that was prevalent in South Africa.  His work in this area led to his 1982 book Black Child. After Apartheid ended in 1990, he focused on cultural traditions, and vanishing cultures.  Magubane’s work has been collected in books, and featured in Life, the New York TimesNational Geographic, and Time.  He has been awarded honorary doctorates and has been recognized for meritorious service by former president Nelson Mandela.  His peers awarded him the Leica Medal of Excellence for Lifetime Achievement in 1997 and he received the Cornell Capa Award in 2010.

He died in South Africa on the first of January, 2024; he was 91.