Bongani Mnguni, a lifetime behind the lens

HE was beaten up, harassed and almost buried alive. But this never deterred Bongani Mnguni from risking his life to capture history as it unfolded through the lens of his camera. This is his story…

Bongani Mnguni takes a break at his office after a long day going through his archive which spans 40 years of work
Bongani Mnguni takes a break at his office after a long day going through his archive which spans 40 years of work

ON the morning of 16 June 1976, Bongani Mnguni left his home in Orlando West, Soweto to walk his daughter to school in the same neighbourhood.

He soon realised that high school pupils had embarked on a strike. He took his daughter back home and armed himself with his cameras, sensing that there was something unbecoming brewing.

He had heard previously that the pupils were planning to march on Orlando Stadium to protest against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in black schools.

Mnguni was then a staff photographer on The World, a newspaper targeting the country’s black population. The paper, edited by the firebrand maverick, Percy Qoboza, was an uncompromising, strong opponent of the apartheid regime and its policies.

The World, together with other publications and organisations was eventually banned by the government on 19 October 1977, as part of a crackdown on dissenting voices against apartheid.

And so, that morning in June 1976 when Mnguni got wind of news of the protest, he did what any news photographer in search of a good story would do.

He joined the groups of pupils, in school uniform, chanting and singing in the streets, waiting to see what would unfold. He remembers that there were many policemen around, watching the proceedings from a distance. Some had dogs on leashes, batons and guns.

Police keep watch from an armoured vehicle during the 1976 uprising in Soweto. PHOTO: Bongani Mnguni
Police keep watch from an armoured vehicle during the 1976 uprising in Soweto. PHOTO: Bongani Mnguni

“One of the police dogs broke away from a policeman and chased the kids. The kids ran away. But some of them followed the dog and stabbed it with knives,” Mnguni says from his home office in Roodepoort, where he’s hard at work scanning images he’s shot in the past four decades in preparation to make them available for exhibition around the world.

Mnguni’s archive of black and white negatives, photographs, colour pictures bears testimony to his role as a witness to South Africa’s transition from an oppressive police state to a constitutional democracy.

Besides photographing the 1976 uprising, Mnguni’s camera also captured the daily struggles of ordinary people throughout the difficult years of apartheid.

In the 1980s as people in the townships launched a concerted effort to topple the apartheid state with their bricks, burning tyres and marches that often ended in blood with the police unleashing their might on the people, Mnguni was there with his camera, photographing burning human beings engulfed in flames, soldiers armed with automatic rifles chasing youths in the townships.

In the early 1990s, when the apartheid regime unleashed its third force in a bid to stop the winds of change with its murderous bands of bandits murdering, maiming, Mnguni carried his weapon, the one that never lies, to capture the events of a country in turmoil.

And when eventually, Nelson Mandela was sworn in as president after the country’s first democratic election, who else was there to capture the transition but the bald one himself, Mnguni?

Back to events of 16 June 1976. Mnguni explains what unfolded after the pupils stabbed the police dog that had attacked them.

“The white guy (police officer) panicked and started shooting. Some of the police started coming closer thinking he (the policeman) was in trouble and everything started right there,” Mnguni recalls.

This particular incident sparked mass shooting and killing of pupils and citizens in Soweto and across the country’s black townships. It is considered one of the turning points in the resistance against apartheid, in that it sparked an exodus of thousands of youths who fled the country to join the banned liberation movements in exile.

“I was not in the middle of the action,” Mnguni argues. “I was in the forefront of the action.”Bongani Mnguni

The thousands of images and negatives in his collection bare testimony to this than Mnguni, a modest man who prefers his work to do the talking, can ever do in words.

His office in the backyard of his suburban home, is like a museum to the country’s turbulent history. The drawers and cabinets are full of photographs of the bullet riddled bodies of Umkhonto we Sizwe guerillas shot by apartheid police during the 1980 siege of Silverton; of militant youths carrying coffins draped in the colours of the then banned ANC and SACP during mass funerals in the townships; of people with no names, their bodies reduced to ashes and rubble by a burning laced with petrol and put over their heads.

There are many others too, of fiery political activists like Dr Nthato Motlana, the leader of the powerful Soweto Committee of 10, addressing packed rallies, of Archbishop Desmond Tutu defying the authorities, delivering powerful speeches to angry, tense crowds; of youths defying the might of police guns and teargas, fighting back with stones, protecting themselves only with dustbin lids which covered only their heads.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu addresses a meeting in Soweto during the turbulent 80s. PHOTO: Bongani Mnguni
Archbishop Desmond Tutu addresses a meeting in Soweto during the turbulent 80s. PHOTO: Bongani Mnguni

Now 65 years old, Mnguni’s burning wish though, is for the photographs to leave the drawers and cabinets and grace the walls of galleries and museums of the world, to tell the world through his photographs, the story of the country he loves with every drop of the blood that flows in his veins.

Although it was inevitable that his camera would be drawn more to the events of the struggle for justice, peace and equality, Mnguni never allowed himself to be drawn away from his passion, boxing.

His father Puncho Villa Mnguni was a professional boxer, and he too dabbled in the sport which he later spent many hours photographing. Not only that, he has an impressive collection of the game of the masses, football, memorable cup finals, ordinary league matches and derbies. He also photographed the lighter side of life, dances in the townships, parties, and believe it or not, pin up girls.

When he took up the camera in the early 1960s, Mnguni only wanted to capture memories, of people dressed in their best, celebrating the birth of children, birthday parties, football clubs adorned in new kit and sportsmen posing with trophies celebrating their achievements.

In those days, he walked the streets of Soweto on weekends, photographing people, charging them 35 cents per print. He only just wanted to supplement his income as a hawker following the breakup of his parents’ marriage which forced him to drop out of school.

And then, in 1970, his work reached the photographic desk of The World newspaper. And then began his foray into the world of news photography. Unlike the time when people simply posed for his camera, now he faced the challenge of taking pictures often under difficult conditions, with police restrictions making it extremely difficult to operate.

Equally so, Mnguni later learnt, it wasn’t easy taking pictures of people at the mercy of the apartheid police guns either. Comrades, as the militant youths opposing apartheid were known then, feared being photographed would make them easy police targets who were cracking down on activists. One particular incident in 1977 stands out.

Mnguni forced his way into a mass funeral of police victims in Soweto. The press corps had been warned to stay away or face the consequences by the comrades. The police, fearing that their brutality would reach the outside world, considered journalists the enemy too, and banned them from such events. And so Mnguni was spotted taking photographs.

“I was beaten up by those youths. They threw me into the grave and started throwing soil on top of me, burying me alive. But one of the youths who had seen me taking pictures in the township intervened and saved me. That’s how I survived,” he says.

Needless to say, his camera and film suffered no harm. He protected these with his life. And so it turned out he was the only one who had photographs from that funeral. Then he was driven by a desire to expose the atrocities of apartheid to the entire world, a fire burnt in his belly to get the picture at all costs, including risking his life.

And looking back at that incident now, and countless others where he stared death in the face, Mnguni says given a chance, he would do it all over again.

“I don’t have any regrets. I’m still taking pictures up to today,” he says. “I have been beaten up, I have been harassed, I have been buried alive. But I have never considered stopping taking pictures.”

His calm, easy going and soft spoken demeanor defies his strong will and passion for the craft, and a deep stubbornness built up by many a close shave with death.

One incident that sticks to mind however came just a few years before South Africans went to the polls for the first time in a democratic election on 27 April 1994.

He was photographing unrest in Sebokeng, on the Vaal Triangle where a government third force fuelled violence was wreaking havoc, with IFP aligned hostel dwellers and ANC supporting residents dying in their hundreds every day.

There, he came across a mob of angry youths attempting to set alight an elderly woman who they accused of being a police informer. Mnguni, risking his life, intervened and the woman’s life was spared. But when he returned to that scene hours later, the old woman had been burnt to ashes. He photographed the ghastly scene.

“I was scared at some stage, traumatised. Seeing all those things, photographing all these things, I have never considered stopping taking pictures. They sometimes come back these things, but who cares, life goes on,” he says.

Mnguni spent time in France in the late 80s, exhibiting his images to Europeans who had only just heard snippets of the violence in the country. But he returned home in time to photograph the changes sweeping through the country, Mandela’s release, the road to the election and events in post apartheid government.

“I was excited. For the first time in my lifetime I was going to vote,” he said. Mnguni cast his vote in Sophiatown, once a hot bed of opposition to apartheid in the 1950s.

“Yes,” he says when asked if memories of the ’76 uprisings and of the necklacings that he witnessed and photographed came back on the day he shot the elections.

Police fired teargas to disrupt a meeting at the Regina Mundi church in Soweto in the aftermath of the 1976 riots. PHOTO: Bongani Mnguni
Police fired teargas to disrupt a meeting at the Regina Mundi church in Soweto in the aftermath of the 1976 riots. PHOTO: Bongani Mnguni

“Anything you photograph for the first time is exciting. This was my first time photographing people voting. It also brought back memories of my parents who had died without voting,” he says.

Now, he is busy going through his archive, scanning pictures with the hope that one day, the whole world will be able to view the photographs.

“Scanning pictures and seeing pictures that I took, and it’s like the first time I’m seeing many of them,” he says.

He reasons this is the very reason photography is important in any society, freezing moments in time so that those that come later can reflect on what once was.

He cites an episode back in the mid 90s, when some of the people who had led and participated in the 1976 uprisings, approached him to supply them with photographs for a book they were writing on the historic event.

“Memories,” he says, is what makes photography important.

Bongani Mnguni can be contacted on: +27 74 327 2824

To watch the video, The Story of Bongani Mnguni go to:

Lucas Ledwaba©

2 thoughts on “Bongani Mnguni, a lifetime behind the lens

  1. Thank you Mr Ledwaba. I enjoyed reading this piece. Its brought me a lot closer to the man I got to work with very briefly at Sowetan.

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