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Lensman's career has been in the heart of conflict

Antonio Muchave has an eye for beauty.

Months before I met this illustrious photographer, a colleague told me how he would stop in the middle of a congested street just to take a picture of a captivating woman who may have caught his eye.

Perhaps his great appreciation for beauty stems from being a war reporter and escaping death three times all the while witnessing an amplitude of death as a young man. Or maybe it blossomed from his childhood when he would cut out striking pictures from magazines to make his bedroom in Maputo look trendy.

The soft-spoken lensman started off his career as a photographer for the Mozambique News Agency, a government-controlled source of news better known by its Portuguese acronym AIM.

In the 1970s and 1980s Muchave travelled across the African continent and to as far as London, Washington and Moscow with Samora Machel to capture the president's busy work life.

When he was away from the president he was living in the bush with the armed forces capturing the civil war which was raging in his country at the time.

He has since won a Unicef award for documenting how children were caught in the crossfire of the war.

"War and drought is something I will never forget in my life. Sometimes I sit and recall the stuff I went through and I get scared," he says.

He sits across from me in the bustling Sowetan canteen dressed in his signature trilby hat and glasses; he is visibly pleased to tell his story because he is after all a storyteller at heart.

The 56-year-old father of three could have easily been one of the journalists who perished on the plane that killed Machel in Mbuzini, Mpumalanga, in 1986.

More than 3 decades later, he still remembers that day vividly.

"Before he died, the last trip he had in Mozambique, I was there. I was always with Samora, so people said I escaped death [because I was not on the plane]," he murmurs.

Muchave was only 23 years old when Machel died.

At this young age, he had to mourn the death of his hero as well as colleagues he worked with at his publication.

He was part of the team of journalists that had to await the president's return from his trip, but the plane never made it back to Maputo.

"There was one guy who was supposed to be on that plane but he got drunk and overslept. When he woke up the plane had crashed. He is a news editor now," he says fondly.

This was one of three deaths of his father figures that he experienced in his life.

The death of his father and of Zwelakhe Sisulu, who brought him to South Africa, have also caused him great agony.

He tells how Machel was a president who inspired great national pride in his citizens.

"It did not take much for him to convince people to go to war, he was also a president who was not afraid to go to war zones, which inspired trust in him.

"What I respected was that he was a president who could separate his military life and the presidency.

"He was a president that encouraged us to cover the consequences of war and believed in education.

"When Samora became president the majority of adults in Mozambique could not read and write, but he brought in adult education centres where our mothers and grandmothers learned how to read."

Working for a state publication meant that Muchave often had access to the number one citizen in the country.

He said Machel was friendly and open, allowing them into his home and often giving them a seat at his table.

His two best memories include running into the president in his garden and joking with him about how he takes such beautiful pictures because he was so handsome.

It was Machel who also helped Muchave and his colleague to be released from jail after they were arrested for taking pictures of a group of military men who were drinking while in uniform.

"My friend had too much to drink and I went looking for someone who could help me carry him home.

"I came across a group of military men and they were drinking, so I quickly took my camera out and took a picture. The flash caught me out."

The young Muchave was not caught on that day but he was eventually arrested and beaten for taking a picture that night.

But like a cat with nine lives, Muchave has always landed on his feet.

He recalls that at one military base the commander went rogue and decided that all the journalists should learn how to use weapons and fight.

That very same day, he and his colleague ran away only to find out that mere hours after their escape the camp was blown apart.

Another near-death experience was when he lost all of his equipment after being attacked by Renamo forces in the northern part of Mozambique but luckily he had all of his film on him and managed to salvage his pictures.

He eventually came to South Africa in 1990 in an exchange programme between his publication and South Africa's New Nation newspaper.

The paper tried to poach him but he refused because he felt it would be betraying his country.

The photographers editor convinced him to take the opportunity and he moved to South Africa where he continued to be "bathed in blood" through his work.

"I was having the blood of war on me again," he says.

Muchave was referring to the political conflict between the IFP and the ANC during the early 90s.

"It was really disappointing because as I was covering these stories it was obvious that these parties were being used by imperialist forces to fulfil their agendas."

He was a president that encouraged us to cover the consequences of war and believed in education

Over the past 29 years he has been in South Africa he has seen history take place before his very eyes.

From the fall of apartheid to xenophobic attacks. He tells me that although he has covered xenophobia stories he has never been a victim. Maybe he was protected by his identity as a media worker.

"Or perhaps it is because you have been able to assimilate so well into South Africa?" I ask him.

He agrees, noting that he can speak many South African languages, adding of late Sepedi after a stint at Sowetan's Polokwane office.

Muchave says he has lived a full life and his greatest achievement has been ensuring his children received quality education.

His youngest son has even followed in his father's footsteps by becoming a videographer.

But in the past few years, his wife divorced him after 24 years of marriage. I ask him if this broke his heart.

"We got married very young. People grow up and realise that what we want when we are 20 is not what we want when we are in our 40s.

"So yes, she broke my heart but it was for the best."

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