As a war photographer, one would expect Cloete Breytenbach’s visual library to depict decades worth of human atrocities, the world’s most devastating moments. Rather, the black and white frames reveal the daily lives of soldiers in war zones. One image shows a group of soldiers smiling after loading military supplies onto a pack donkey. Another shows a young boy, chin held high, holding a wooden AK-47.
Breytenbach, 85, has covered conflicts across Africa including Angola, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. A collection of his photographs of Albert Luthuli forms part of the Guggenheim Museum collection in New York. He photographed the Yom Kippur war in Israel in 1973, the last battle for Saigon in Vietnam in 1975 and Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign in 1980. He is an old-school “oupa”, though avowedly “apolitical” in his work.
“I always got on with the coloureds,” he said, from his home in the northern suburbs of Cape Town, gesturing to this reporter. “But people are drifting apart now, look where the country is going… now you can’t even walk the streets. People say ‘don’t look at me like that, you’re a racist,’ ” he said.
Sporting a black cap and a bright blue jersey, he had a whopper of a cough which he soothed with weak instant coffee. He has a fig tree in his garden, which he complains has never produced “one bloody fig” and apologised for not having any cake before rubbishing social media.
“These days you can fart and everyone knows about it in half a second,” he said. He looks after his health by taking a mere quarter of a spoon of sugar in his coffee and he prefers the “old style” of photography, developing each print in a darkroom — “none of this changing or (Photo)shopping it”.
He has some great stories, like the time surgeon Chris Barnard tried to sue him, or the time his late contemporary David Goldblatt was mugged by a bunch of kids in District Six. But Breytenbach also has some stories that portray the worst of humanity, and his philosophy on war photography is simple: keep your negatives or people will steal your work and don’t enter a situation you can’t get out of. He’s seen a lot of war reporters who died before being able to develop their photos.
“I mean, you have these people, the Bang Bang Club, they were all heroes, they could sit in the pub and say, ‘you know what we did today? Those apartheid bastards blah blah’ and then what happened to them?… they’re full of drugs and then they run in front of the police and then a couple of them were killed. What’s the point? So you go to a situation to get the material, but you must bring it back,” he said.
More than 300 photographers were killed during the Vietnam War due to carelessness, according to Breytenbach. “They didn’t follow the rules… You can’t walk around like ‘I’m the press, I’m the press’ — it doesn’t work like that,” he said.
Despite his bluntness, he said that throughout his career he has been detached — a documenter of events. “I’m not an activist. I never let politics interfere with my camera work. When people ask me what did you do for the struggle, I tell them ‘nothing’. I did nothing. I struggled to document it. I have no political views,” he said.
Breytenbach’s upcoming exhibition in Portugal runs until the end of October. The theme looks at the three decades of war in Angola during the Cold War and his experiences in Angola as a war photographer. He was one of the only press photographers who managed to gain access to Jonas Savimbi, the controversial Angolan political and military leader who founded and led the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita) in 1966, a party backed by South Africa’s apartheid government.
The resistance war in Angola began in 1961. It was the beginning of the end of colonial Portuguese rule in Africa. There were several rebel movements involved, including Savimbi’s Unita, the MPLA (Movimento Popular de Libertacao de Angola), the UPA (Uniao das Populacoes de Angola) and FNLA (Frente Nacional de Libertacao de Angola). The apartheid government’s involvement in Angola was typical of the Cold War period, when proxy war was the order of the day.
Breytenbach called Savimbi, who agreed that he could tag along, “[Savimbi] said yes you can come any time, I’ll tell the people you’re okay…,” he said.
Savimbi trusted him to the extent that he allowed the photographer to snap shots of him with his family, a rare opportunity which Breytenbach said is due to luck and taking the time to build up strong relationships. After having worked for Die Burger, an apartheid government-supporting paper with strong ties to the South African military, it may be that a little more than good fortune got him access to certain figures.
“If you move with the troops, there’s nobody to protect you; they wanted me to carry a gun. I said I don’t touch a gun, I’ve got enough cameras,” he said. “But you don’t take chances. And I always check with the soldiers, you know, what if there’s big trouble? Then inevitably I would be told, you run, as fast as you can.”
Breytenbach was most interested in the daily lives of the soldiers. He considers himself a documentary photographer rather than a news hound. He managed to get photographs from all sides of the complex and bloody war, including images of Portuguese soldiers, those from the MPLA as well as the Cubans and South African Defence Force (SADF), which had been deployed there in 1975. The 27-year-long struggle ended with half a million soldiers and civilians killed.
“If the scene gets too much, somebody killing somebody, I look through my camera, so that sort of distances myself as a human being. You don’t get into the emotional stuff, and it works for me,” he said.
Breytenbach was born in 1933 and grew up in Bonnievale in the Cape Winelands. His father was a farmer. “Not a very good one,” he muses. Later the family moved to Wellington in Cape Town. As a young man he was supposed to become a teacher but admitted that he would have “killed those kids”. So as an 18-year-old he went to the offices of Die Burger where he was handed a camera and told that he could start as a photographer in 1951. The newspaper was known as a mouthpiece of the apartheid regime in those days and one of Breytenbach’s first assignments was photographing future Defence Minister General Magnus Malan.
“I never looked back. I did it the hard way, I earned my stripes and to work for Die Burger was hard work but good training. I don’t see the youngsters of today doing that sort of thing,” he said, waving his hands in frustration.
His eldest brother, Colonel Jan Breytenbach, was the architect behind the units that provided the muscle for apartheid special forces capabilities, including the infamous 32 Battalion. Sometimes nicknamed “Buffalo Battalion”, it was a SADF light infantry unit founded in 1975 and disbanded in 1993. Breytenbach described his brother as a “specialist” and “professional” who didn’t join the army because of “his racial stuff”.
The photographer’s younger brother Breyten Breytenbach was on the other end of the political spectrum as an anti-apartheid activist, a highly respected Afrikaans poet and painter who was sentenced to nine years in jail under the Terrorism Act. After his release in 1982 he moved to France and has remained a celebrated artist. Breytenbach said his younger brother put his life on the line for the struggle, which the ANC did not appreciate. He sounded bitter that Breyten didn’t get a ministerial position post-1994 because “he wasn’t in the Robben Island club, only those guys got big jobs in government”.
Between a senior military officer, an artist and a war photographer, the brothers can hardly be considered your average siblings. But Breytenbach said they were “tolerant” and respected one another’s different political views.
“We disagreed, but you don’t make it an issue… the family knew that the cops were following [Breyten] but what could we do, that’s his problem. Anyway, he paid the price [in jail]. We never interfered with him, your opinion is your opinion.”
When people ask about his relationship with his brothers he sums it up in jest:
“Breyten was involved in furthering a terrorism organisation, putting bombs in places, that sort of thing. My brother Jan, killed them. I took their pictures. I didn’t spend any time in jail and I didn’t kill anybody, so I’m the clean one here.”
He was one of the few photographers given permission to photograph Nelson Mandela on Robben Island by apartheid prime minister John Vorster in the 1960s for the Daily Express in London. He said shortly after Mandela was sentenced, a rumour was doing the rounds that he had died on the island and Breytenbach was sent to provide visual proof that the icon was alive. Breytenbach described Mandela as a “good guy” who was “treated well” while on Robben Island, even given a bed to sleep on. “They would take him on trips to the mainland,” he said matter of factly.
Breytenbach was also granted access to Groote Schuur Hospital during the world’s first heart transplant by Dr Christiaan Barnard and self-taught surgeon Hamilton Naki in 1967 — “that was long before your time”, he said.
“Chris Barnard wanted to sue me. I took a picture of [the recipient’s] old heart which the doctors were scanning in the other room. I said, well, no one stopped me. Don’t sue me, sue Time Life Magazine. So he sent a lawyer’s letter to them.” The magazine apologised to Barnard and presented him with a large photograph of himself taken by Breytenbach which the surgeon graciously accepted before dropping charges.
In the 1960s he decided he’d had enough of the ruthless news cycle and moved to London before travelling the world as a photographer.
“If I want to cover war I do it on my terms. In the Yom Kippur war it was so small, parents of the troops would get into their car and drive to the front to give them cakes and stuff. That’s the kind of war I like,” he said laughing. “I concentrated on the human factor and I’m glad I did.”
After seeing conflicts first hand, he has a pretty cynical view of the world, but maintains historical images play an important role in national memory.
“Once you have those pictures, you have it. You can destroy them but you can’t change what happened,” he said. DM
A few amendments were made to this article for factual accuracy after initial publication.
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