The fight for Alf Kumalo’s legacy upsets his family years after his death

Photographs gather dust in the derelict museum dedicated to his life and work spanning 40 years

26 October 2020 - 08:26
By Alex Patrick
The Alf Kumalo Museum is pictured in Diepkloof, Soweto, October 9 2020. The museum has been closed to the public since the passing of the late Alf Kumalo.
Image: Alaister Russell/The Sunday Times The Alf Kumalo Museum is pictured in Diepkloof, Soweto, October 9 2020. The museum has been closed to the public since the passing of the late Alf Kumalo.

In life, legendary photographer Alf Kumalo saved up to buy back his childhood home in Diepkloof, Soweto, starting the dream of turning it into a photographic museum and school in 2002.

But eight years after his death, the historically significant building lies derelict and the photographs there left to gather dust as settling his estate drags on.

His family this week said their hands were tied until the estate is wound up.

Hugh Masekela and his trumpet (1965).
Image: Alf Kumalo Family Trust/BAHA LEAP FOR JOY Hugh Masekela and his trumpet (1965).

Kumalo’s legacy spans 40 years from the time he taught himself photography in the 1950s when he began working for The Golden City post and freelancing for Drum Magazine, The Star and The New York Times and later on at the Sunday Times.

He died of renal failure, a complication from cancer, at age 82.

His images captured the move from apartheid to democracy and everything in between, from police brutality in the 1960 to the Soweto Uprising in 1976. As a good friend, he was able to capture intimate photos of Nelson and Winnie Mandela.

He covered the Treason Trial and the Rivonia Trial, Mandela’s release and his inauguration as the first democratic president of SA.

For his effort he was often assaulted and jailed on several occasions.

Alf Kumalo is arrest by the police in 1976.
Image: Alf Kumalo Family Trust/BAHA Alf Kumalo is arrest by the police in 1976.
Winnie and Nelson Mandela.
Image: Alf Kumalo Family Trust/BAHA Winnie and Nelson Mandela.

Kumalo was also known for the images he took of the “Rumble in The Jungle” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1974. This is said to be where editors discovered he could write as well as photograph.

But the publications he worked for owned what he produced. In his later life he sought to regain ownership of the images.

In September longtime friend and fellow Drum photographer Fanie Jason saw the museum for the first time since his friend died and was upset that it was no longer functioning.

“That place meant a lot to Alf. My tears that day were not only for his legacy but for the other great photographers: Ernest Cole, Santu Mofokeng, Peter Magubane [still living] ... What will happen to their work? I’m now worried about what will happen to my work.”

Muhammad Ali in the boxing ring in 1980.
Image: Alf Kumalo Family Trust/BAHA Muhammad Ali in the boxing ring in 1980.

But all is not lost as they are busy with Kumalo’s other passion project, which was retrieving and owning his images.

Sizwe Kumalo, the youngest of six from Kumalo’s first marriage, said the children were upset that the museum was no longer functioning.

“If you go there now you will see boxes on the floor. All of us are upset and want to be able to move on with our lives – it’s been eight years. We would do anything to [speed up] the process if we could.”

Mzilikazi Kumalo, son from Kumalo’s second marriage, was equally frustrated.

“I grew up in that house – it has sentimental value to me. Nobody would let a property like that get run down, so it’s not by choice. It is a sensitive matter and is still a sore point for some family members.”

But Mzi said in the interim the family was working with the Photography Legacy Project to ensure his photographs were saved and stored on a digital archive so it could be accessed by the public.

Abdullah Ibrahim in Gaborone 1982.
Image: Alf Kumalo Family Trust/BAHA Abdullah Ibrahim in Gaborone 1982.

His sister Nonhlanhla Kumalo is working with curator and photographer Paul Weinberg to ensure Kumalo’s work is brought back under the family name.

She said all the important works from the museum, including hard drives and spools of film, had been removed to safety and the images left were copies that could be replaced.

“Unfortunately a hard drive was stolen during a burglary and we’ve seen his photos pop up for sale on the internet.”

Prospero Bailey, son of the late Drum founder Jim Bailey and archivist at the Bailey’s African History Digital Archive, said the work to archive history correctly was pressing as many works had already been lost.

“Sadly I’ve seen this happen; [legendary photographer] Bob Gosani’s photographs were stored in a suitcase and were ruined in flooding.”

They are working with PLP to document all historically important work. The project is partly funded by the David Goldblatt Legacy Trust.