Alf Kumalo

A Tribute by Hugh Masekela


Drum magazine was founded through the genius of Jim Bailey, an extremely non-conformist and unconventional young white entrepreneur who had identified a colossal void in South Africa’s publishing industry. Bailey realized that there was a growing urban African township generation which had begun to celebrate music, glamour, cinema, fashion and sports; an indigenous population that was deep into political resistance, ethnic pride, upward mobility and the scandal and gossip that comes with it.

The cover of Drum always featured a stunning African woman in a revealing swimsuit. South Africa’s first non-white film star, singer Dolly Rathebe sporting a flimsy bikini was what got the magazine flying off the newsstands. It created a new window for beauty queens like Mary “Kel” Masoabi, the nation’s first Miss South Africa followed by the breathtaking Hazel Futa, the sizzling Irene Batchelor, singers Dorothy Masuka, Miriam Makeba and scores of other stunning African belles.

With the entrenchment of legalized racism called Apartheid, Drum regularly featured investigative articles on the inhumanity of the new racist administration. It highlighted the regimes growing atrocities and the dramatic challenges facing it from the resilient African National Congress under the leadership of Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, Duma Nokwe, Lilian Ngoyi, Nelson Mandela, Ida Mtwana, Yusuf Cachalia and many other fearless militants who spent most of the 1950s and early 1960s in treason trials, imprisonment, banishment, torture and executions. Drum Magazine was always on the scene at trials, rallies, marches, protests, strikes, boycotts and Apartheid government massacres.

Bailey built a powerful team of gifted, young and highly intellectual writers out of Henry Nxumalo, Can Themba, Casey Motsisi, Bloke Modisane, Arthur Maimane, Vusi Make, Todd Matshikiza, Nat Nakana and Lewis Nkosi including photo journalists Bob Gosani, Peter Magubane, Jurgen Schaderberg, David Goldblatt and Alf Kumalo who went on to become one of the world’s most celebrated photographers.

Over a period of more than sixty years, until his sudden illness and demise in 2012, Alf Kumalo photographed countless Apartheid atrocities and massacres of African protesters. His pictures appeared in international print and television media, turning him into an arch-enemy of the bigoted white autocracy. Bra Alf also published books on township life, Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela, African beauties, famous entertainers and athletes. He became a close friend of the leading sports heroes and was always Muhammad Ali’s special guest at all of the heroic champion’s fights.

I first met Bra Alf in 1956 when the Huddleston Jazz Band at St. Peter’s – my Johannesburg suburban boarding school – received a trumpet from the great Louis Armstrong. Like the high fashion dresser Bra Alf was, I had also developed a love for fine clothes. He took me to Sophiatown, Joburg’s glamorous township, where he made me take off my expensive shoes, roll up my pant’s cuffs and jump into the air holding the trumpet high above my head. I hated the picture because it was so square and unhip; an image that would lose me buddies like myself who were into beautiful threads, not to mention my girlfriends. Bra Alf assured me.

“Hugh, this is going to be a very famous picture, you’ll see”.

To my great consternation, it did become just that. By the 1980’s, it was used for many African CD music compilations and other entertainment features in Europe and America, endlessly haunting me. I gave in when Random House chose it for the cover of my autobiography, “Still Grazing”.

Alf Kumalo said very proudly, “What did I tell you??”

In 1979, Bra Alf, who showed up at many concerts I did with Miriam Makeba, got township show promoter Blowie Moloi to plan concerts for us in Lesotho, Swaziland and Botswana. South African audiences would see us for the first time since our twenty years in exile. Alf Khumalo took an historic photograph of me and Miriam regarding South Africa from Lesotho’s Maseru border, unable to cross over. The picture was on the entire front page of the next day’s Johannesburg Star newspaper with the title, “So near yet so far”.

The great lensman remained a wondrous contact and bridge between me and my family, subsequently becoming a close friend of my father’s. When I finally returned home after thirty years in exile, Bra Alf was at the airport. For the next twenty years, he hounded me to repeat the jumping up in the air with the trumpet pose. I consistently refused. Following my return home, we became even closer friends and eventual neighbours. I treasure a giant portrait of Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela for which he twisted my arm to buy. During his final years we spent many memorable times together and I feel his absence with very little joy. His spirit, however, continues to rise and rise.