I first encountered Namibian news photographer John Arthur Liebenberg on a phone call in 1987. His pictures had been recommended to me by a fellow photographer, Paul Weinberg.
At the time I was a journalist and political activist organising an anti-war exhibition in Johannesburg, South Africa. The exhibition was to be held by the anti-conscription group the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) at a Hillbrow gallery, The Black Sun.
On the phone, Liebenberg’s tone sounded curiously familiar. We continued to converse about the forthcoming exhibition. As his harrowing war photographs were being hung for the exhibition, I began to wonder about this man who had witnessed so much war and suffering. He was in the frontline – capturing vulnerable young white soldiers, Casspirs and machines of war, mass protests of the Namibian people and members of those subversive units in the South African apartheid state — with his lens.
The ECC exhibition was conceived as a cultural challenge to the announcement of South Africa’s second state of emergency. It was a tumultuous time. Thousands of activists had been detained and we were banned from political meetings and protests. Liebenberg was humbly hesitant to attend the exhibition, but I persuaded him to fly 1,388km from Windhoek to see the display.
At the time Liebenberg’s work regularly appeared in The Namibian newspaper, where he was a founder member and employed as a photographer. His iconic photos of the Namibian people’s resistance against apartheid and his stills of the agony of the war were being published by international news agencies. However, I believe this was the first public exhibition of so many of his war photographs.
When we met I was surprised at this tall, graceful, tousled, gentle man whose blue eyes flickered with trauma, but mostly twinkled with humour. We viewed the exhibition and casually swapped stories. Liebenberg proudly showed off his wedding ring and told me he had married in 1984. He said he loved his wife, Ute, an accomplished violinist, and talked of his young first-born son, Joseph. On the evening before he flew back to Windhoek he began to divulge more; where he grew up and how he had become a political activist. He then confided that as a child he had spent time in an orphanage in Johannesburg and had later been fostered.
As he spoke, I became paralysed with paranoia and withdrew. I suspected he was playing a twisted psychological trick on me. I imagined he may be an agent of the apartheid security police. My fear grew because Liebenberg was telling my own life story in such vivid detail. These were dark times, the 1980s when activists were being pursued by the apartheid security police. I’d had strange phone calls, been followed and spied on by agents and even had my flat teargassed one night.
But Liebenberg’s childhood story was no trap and we soon discovered alarming synchronicity in our lives. As children, we had been in the same orphanage at the same time. My mother, a divorced, single mother, had got a job as a matron at St Mary’s Orphanage when I was four so that she could remain with her own two children while working. Liebenberg had been there since the age of two. His father had placed him and his two sisters in the home because their mother had abandoned their family. My mother took care of all the boys in the orphanage, so had effectively raised him until he was fostered by a German couple, Petra and Ernst Kahle. So although we had no conscious memory of each other as children – we found this cord, which we maintained as friends until his death this week.
Liebenberg was born on 3rd March 1958 in Johannesburg. At 18 years old he was conscripted as a soldier and sent to Namibia in 1976. He fell in love with the dry, bleached earth of the desert and after his national service made Windhoek his home. At first, he earned a modest living taking family photos in the townships. As the community grew to trust him he got under the surface: he heard stories of arrests, the missing, the torture. As South Africa’s apartheid war intensified John helped found The Namibian newspaper and rubbed up against the security forces.
Shortly after our first meeting, Liebenberg invited me to Windhoek and Swakopmund where he took me to the smart German cafes to drink coffee and eat black forest cake. He pointed out the conspicuous security police, who nodded at him, seated at nearby tables. Then we headed out to the dusty township of Katutura and drank and ate with the people leading the resistance. He was keen to show me the arid beauty of the country. On the same trip, he took me to an exclusive bar in Swakopmund, where all the men were wearing tiny swastika badges on their lapels. One of them sidled up to us and said: “Liebenberg it’s time you left.” Everyone knew him.
He knew Namibia so well that he was the first stop for any visiting foreign journalists, but the hack pack were not always grateful for his expertise in the region. He generously introduced them to his contacts in the community and the backstreets with no names, regaling them with his stories, sometimes funny.
He once told me of a Chinese acupuncturist who travelled about treating the local Herero and Himba tribes.
“Up North these people are so isolated you would not believe anyone could get to their villages. Then I arrive and find the Chinese doctor has got there before me and was treating them. They showed me the needles in their ears,” laughed Liebenberg.
Fearless in his pursuit of photographs, locals believed ancestral spirits were using him and larger voices were calling as he shrugged off death. In September 1989 human rights advocate Anton Lubowski was killed in a hail of AK-47 bullets outside his house in Windhoek. It turned out Liebenberg was the third name on the same Civil Co-operation Bureau (CCB) hit list. Shortly after, someone tried to execute Liebenberg in his red VW golf in a drive-by shooting. It was a close escape. Years later he was still driving the same car with its bullet holes a mark of honour.
Namibia gained independence from South Africa in March 1990. Liebenberg was there to document the South West African People’s Organisation (Swapo) victory and was on first-name terms with the new president, Sam Nujoma, and many of the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) fighters. I drove up from South Africa to celebrate with hundreds of other international journalists and friends.
But Liebenberg’s struggle was not over. In May 1989 he was invited to Angola on a fact-finding mission. It was revealed that large numbers of young people who had left Namibia to join the resistance had been arrested as spies and detained by Swapo in Angolan camps at Lubango and Kwanza Sul. Many were abused and held without trial. Liebenberg’s photographs of women and prisoners who had been tortured in the camps caused outrage. It was clear Liebenberg was nobody’s stooge as he continued freelancing for Reuters and exposing atrocities as well as documenting the ongoing 27-year civil war in Angola.
He shared anecdotes of life in Luanda. Once he told me he was living in an apartment with people suffering from cholera and was concerned he might get it.
He later told me how he had broken a hip, but survived an air crash with his friend and fellow journalist, Luis Carlos Fernandes Lousada, in Angola.
Never one to boast of his heroics, Liebenberg sent me a most moving account, that of Antonio Fernandez in Angola. This young man found Liebenberg on Facebook because his dying father wanted to thank him for saving his life. His father had seen Liebenberg on Angolan television and asked his son to track him down.
In the message, Fernandez said his father wanted to remind Liebenberg that they had met many years before in the province of Uige, Angola, during the occupation by Unita (União Nacional para a Independência). His father and 22 others were being held in a container.
“The problem was that we were accused by Unita of many things and were to be killed the next day.”
The old man remembered that Liebenberg had spoken to the Unita soldiers and paid money for them to be freed. Distrusting the negotiations, Liebenberg had later that night sneakily opened the container door and so freed the prisoners.
“You did the brave right thing as you save 23 people, during the fighting in Bie,” said Fernandez in his Facebook message. “Please confirm that you are john who is using the camera. My father ask that you know that you are a man messanger (sic) from god,” said Fernandez.
In 1995 Liebenberg’s close relationship with the Swapo government was waning and so he reluctantly moved back to Johannesburg with his young family, ostensibly to be closer to his elderly mother-in-law.
In Johannesburg Liebenberg’s restless energy took its toll on his marriage. After three children, he and Ute divorced. He then married Inge Kühne in 2005, but they too divorced.
In the new South Africa, he raged against new injustices and corruption. Disillusioned with politics, Liebenberg focused more on his children and especially his last-born son Emile.
In recent years, though struggling financially and working as a freelancer at the age of 61 was not easy, Liebenberg began to enjoy a more settled life. He saw more of his children and was hugely proud of them.
As a respected veteran, he took pleasure in collating his photographs for museums and exhibitions. In 2010 he co-authored a book with Patricia Hayes: Bush Of Ghosts: Life And War In Namibia 1986-90. In 2013 he was given an EU lifetime achievement award which included a trip to Paris and Perpignan. His photographic collection documenting Swapo’s war of liberation and the South African occupation is widely used by historians, researchers and filmmakers. Late in 2019, I attended an exhibition of some of his photographs at SOAS in London. He was pleased and surprised to hear I had seen his photos.
Liebenberg’s other exhibitions include “Rise and Fall of Apartheid” which was on at ICP, New York, Haus der Kunst, Munich, Pac, Milan, Museum Africa, Johannesburg, Namibia at the first African Photography Encounters in Bamako, Framing Fashion at the Brighton Museum, Brighton, UK.
Meanwhile, his ageing body bore the brunt of his adventurous life. He’d had a second hip replacement in 2013 which was paid for by friends’ donations.
This week his daughter, Jessica Liebenberg, had to set up another fundraiser page for him. She said: “On a quiet Monday (10th February 2020) morning my dad took a tumble, at home, on his way out to greet some friends.
“Between his two prosthetic knees and two prosthetic hips, there was one unhappy femur, which cracked under the pressure.
“He was taken to Olivedale Hospital for an emergency operation, which was a success though he remained in ICU following difficulties recovering from the morphine…”
On 16 February, his eldest son, Joseph, announced that Liebenberg had died unexpectedly in hospital after complications following the operation.
Emotional tributes and heartbreaking memories flooded in from all over the world. Hundreds of messages were posted on Twitter and Facebook. The courageous and perceptive Liebenberg was much admired and did not go gently. He had made a difference and his photographs have left a legacy for future generations.
He is survived by a sister, Isabel Swart, two ex-wives: Ute Liebenberg and Inge Kühne. Four children: Joseph, 33, Jessica, 30, Max, 24, and Emile, 14, as well as his first grandson Leo (a few months old). DM
"Men are good in one way, but bad in many" ~ Aristotle