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Opinion Editors Choice

MATHATHA TSEDU | Peter Magubane was a South African freedom fighter who found his space in the wheel of struggle

Photojournalist Peter Magubane looks on during the funeral of Albertina Sisulu in Johannesburg on June 11 2011. He died on Monday aged 91. File image.
Photojournalist Peter Magubane looks on during the funeral of Albertina Sisulu in Johannesburg on June 11 2011. He died on Monday aged 91. File image.
Image: SIPHIWE SIBEKO/Reuters

Bra Peter Magubane is gone. With that passing, a chapter of revolutionary media players who were guerrillas with cameras, notebooks and pens is steadily fading.

A few remain, though, such as Joe Thloloe, Thami Mazwai, Maud Motanyane, Pearl Luthuli, Ike Segola and Bokwe Mafuna.

Bra Peter, as I called him, was a true revolutionary who fought for freedom. Put differently, Bra Peter was a freedom fighter.

He was NOT an anti-apartheid activist. To describe him as such, as many media outlets have been doing, is insulting and cheapens both his commitment and contribution to the struggle to free black people of this country from the yoke of oppression by a colonial system of white supremacy. It reduces his involvement to fighting to use the same toilets, or using the same beach.

He was on a higher calling. You survive the harassment, torture, detention and bannings because something big inside you is driving you forward, irrespective and despite the dangers.

Fighting for freedom means realising that as black people we are disposed of our land by foreigners who consider themselves mightier, more intelligent and entitled to rule over us by whatever way and means they so decide. It is this realisation that drove people to form organisations to fight for freedom from the colonial yoke. It is this realisation that drove many to risk crossing borders to go into the world and get whatever training they could get to enhance their ability to fight colonialism. It is this realisation that saw many survive the Quatros and Mazimbus, the Eritrean and Libyan desert training camps and infiltrate back into the country to wage armed struggle.

Bra Peter realised this and found his space in the wheel of struggle so he could put his shoulder and add his strength to turning the tide of struggle.

It is the drive to fight something brutally evil that made Bra Peter hide his camera in a loaf of bread, or hide in a coal box while being chased by cops intent on taking both his camera and the film he had.

There were many such instances, such as during 1976 when he shot a picture using the rear view mirror showing cops beating up people.

He was detained several times and tortured. In one instance spending more than 500 days in solitary confinement. He was banned and confined to Johannesburg but continued with his involvement in the struggle for freedom.

This was not a man fighting to integrate the separate canteens at the liberal Rand Daily Mail where blacks used steel benches and steel plates while whites sat on chairs and used china utensils. He was on a higher calling. 

You survive the harassment, torture, detention and bannings because something big inside you is driving you forward, irrespective of and despite the dangers.

That was what Peter represented to many of us.

Commitment to telling the truth no matter what. Commitment to ending the settler-driven system that made black people foreigners in their own land.

That is not an anti-apartheid activist. That is a freedom fighter.

So why do black media houses generally, and black journalists in particular, continuously use the term to describe freedom fighters, particularly those who have just passed on like Bra Peter.

Steve Biko, in his essay Black Souls in White Skins, speaks of the liberal tradition within white politics that tends to reduce the struggle of black people for freedom as the struggle against apartheid. He says about the white liberals after describing them as “a curious bunch of nonconformists ... that bunch of do-gooders.” He says, “True to their image, the white liberals always knew what was good for the blacks and told them so. The wonder of it all is that the black people have believed in them for so long.”

In another essay, We Blacks, he writes that colonialists, to impose themselves “with unnerving totality”, “were not satisfied with merely holding people in their grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content, they turned to the past of the oppressed people and distorted, disfigured and destroyed it”.

This in my view, is what is happening to Bra Peter. His life, his work, his contribution to the struggle for freedom, is being distorted, disfigured and destroyed by calling him an anti-apartheid activist. White liberals, as described by Biko above, were fighting against apartheid. They wanted separate facilities to be abolished, but the dispossession of people of their land was seen and is still seen as either unworkable or unreasonable. Thus in their view the struggle for freedom was a struggle against apartheid. It is their right to believeand say so. But should any thinking black journalist and editor allow such to go through for broadcast and printing?

Why and how did the language of white liberals become the standard language about a struggle they could never understand or comprehend? Are we too lazy to do our own research on our own people that we take the top item from a google search and use it without surfing it? Is that why traditionalists in KwaZulu-Natal who talk about the “Zulu nation” are able to make that so standard that the media, even the president of this one country with one nation refers to Misuzulu as the King of the Zulu nation?

Bra Peter Magubane was a freedom fighter, full stop. Any reference to some anti-apartheid activist is insulting, belittling of his sacrifices and a distortion of his role in the struggle for a free South Africa.

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