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Dear South Africa (a tribute to Alf Kumalo)

Zukiswa Wanner is a literacy advocate and author of the childrens books, Jama Loves Bananas (Jacana 2011) and Refilwe (Jacana 2013). Shes also written six books for adults, one of them award-winning. She can be contacted via Facebook: @Zukiswa.Wanner

Alf Kumalo is just one of the country’s greats who died with a great dream that had gone unrealised when he was alive. Wake up, South Africa. Start investing in the people who matter while they are still here.

On Sunday 21 October, I got the tragic news that iconic South African photographer, Alf Kumalo, had died of renal failure. It was traumatic to hear, but at 82, his had been a life well-lived…in spite of you, South Africa.

I met Alf Kumalo back in 2004, after I had just returned to South Africa. Unable to find a job in the field I had studied for, despite numerous applications and what I thought was a pretty impressive portfolio (to be fair, none of the newspapers I applied to ever got to see my portfolio because they never responded to any of my application letters), I had been volunteering at some community organisation. It was here that I met Alf through another late great, Aggrey Klaaste. Alf had his trademark Nikon around his neck (I cannot recall ever seeing him without it, not even at black-tie functions), and I half-joked that he should teach me photography. He informed me that in fact, he had a photography school in Diepkloof and I should come through the next day.

With my self-esteem on the lower end of the scale, I went to meet Alf Kumalo holding my portfolio. I was anxious to show that I was accomplished and was not just some loser child who was trying to find something to do with her time. When I arrived at the museum, I left my portfolio at reception while I went into a class taught by Nick Makgamathe. When I got out of class after an hour of being told what a shuttle, lens, etc. was, I found Alf waiting for me with an Italian coordinator of some NGO that was funding the school and the museum. And thus the narrative went. Unable to find funding in South Africa for this wonderful and innovative project where post-matric students were being taught photography for free, it was an Italian organisation that realised Alf’s brilliance and funded his dream – at least for two years.

The coordinator had seen my portfolio, and asked me whether I would be interested in being employed by the museum doing some write-ups, archiving, and captioning some of the material in the museum. Finally, a paying job? Are you kidding me? I said yes. I never did get to learn photography. Did not do much archiving either – the brilliant Jacqui Masiza, then at Bailey’s and now at the Apartheid Museum, did some of that. But I got to learn Alf’s photographs. I captioned. I wrote the text for the website. In the gaping moments while we hoped for guests to visit the museum, I wrote the first draft of The Madams. I discussed literature via email with Lewis Nkosi. I gossiped about which photographer was caught under the bed of which leading politician with Doc Bikitsha. I also wrote numerous proposals.

The Italians were about to leave. Time was running out. We needed funding to keep the museum and school running. Nick, Ruth Motau, Jacqui – anyone and everyone who was working at the museum at that time was earning peanuts, but they believed in Alf’s dream. Here was Alf, fighting and knocking on the doors of all these cadres he had photographed. There he was going to meet the minister or the DG of a ministry-which-shall-go-unnamed. Here he was being invited to the Foundation where the mining mogul who called him Bra Alf would be present. And there he was honoured with the Order of Ikhamanga Silver for his contribution to the arts and to history with all the big guns present. We took to keeping at least four printed proposals in Alf’s car on a daily basis. He would hand them out to all people of influence he met. Surely, just surely one of these people would start sharing Alf’s dream?

None of them did.

Or maybe they just did not care.

What would have been the return to them on teaching township children visual art anyway? And who goes to museums? It’s not as though we are tourists. We experienced ’76; we do not need to see the pictures.

At some point in time, I gave up on the dream. I left the museum. Alf, or Mr. K as I called him, did not. He used the funding that he received from a photograph he sold to Total to pay the skeleton staff left. He would use money that he received from exhibitions he did abroad to fund his dream. He never gave up on it. He always called me a pessimist. “Hhawu, you are too young to be such a cynic,” he would say. Before telling me he was off to meet another bigwig and he was sure he could convince them to make this their social corporate responsibility gig.

Alf and I would remain friends even after I abandoned his dream and started chasing my own. In 2010, we collaborated on 8115: A Prisoner’s Home, a story on the Mandela home that is now a museum. IDC funded this project. In all the time that I knew Mr. K, IDC was one of the few organisations who put their money where their mouths were.

A few years ago, Lewis Nkosi died. Prior to his death, people were collecting funds because his medical bills had escalated. When he finally died, the ministry-which-shall-go-unnamed was kind enough to help with the funeral. Jazz legend Zim Ngqawana died.  And we heard talk of some music scholarship in his name (it has not happened). Miriam, Brenda, Busi…you celebrated all of them after they died, but cared little when they lived.

On Sunday, Alf Kumalo took his last breath. His dream was never realised while he was alive. Mr. K’s death with a dream unrealised should be yet another indictment on you, South Africa. He gave so much of himself and you gave nothing back. And many people who believe in South Africa realise too late that, alas, the love and belief is one-sided.

Today, I have some questions for you, my fatherland.

Are you giving Dada Masilo and Greg Maqoma their just credits? Do you know the name of Neo Ntsoma or Paballo Thekiso while they are alive? How many international awards will Xoli Sithole receive before you can fund her internationally celebrated documentaries? Are Rian Malan or Napo Masheane coping? Will Shafinaaz Hassim and Kgebetli Moele matter only when they are dead?

And today, too, I have a request, South Africa.

When I die, leave my loved ones to grieve in peace. Do not celebrate me, or hypocritically mourn me. If I were worth acknowledging, you would do so while I were alive. Because you and I know, South Africa, even criminals are spoken highly of when they die.

Against my better judgement, South Africa, I love you. You, a country that cannot afford three million a year for a visual arts school to educate some of your poor, but fails to blink while spending hundreds of millions to build one man his own town. 

Right now, though, regardless of my misplaced love, right here….all I would like to say to you is: FUCK YOU VERY MUCH. Alf Kumalo deserved better. DM


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