It was on the first day, the opening of the 2010 Fifa World Cup when I heard a voice behind me say “sorry, I need your help”.
I turned around and saw a short, old man with cameras and lenses strapped to his body. They looked heavy on him. He was wearing a balaclava, rolled township-style into a hat.
This man pleaded, with a full smile, that I help get him into the stadium. I was a media volunteer and on that day was issuing what they call “SAD” passes to the media, and this man needed that pass. His name was not on the list.
I realised it was Bra Alf Kumalo. Like many of the other photographers he had at least three cameras and lenses with him but held in his hand, as he always did, an old film camera. I’ve wondered why he was still using it in this digital age but never asked him.
With vuvuzelas blurring outside and the media making its way into the stadium Bra Alf looked restless, he was itching for action. He needed this. He needed one last great moment to document. He couldn’t afford to miss the first football extravaganza in Africa.
This is one of our greatest lens men, I thought, he’s always been there to capture the moment. I had read about how he had forced his way through hostile Africa, even arrested briefly, to ensure he got to the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. I couldn’t refuse him what might be his last, our last, big sporting spectacle in Africa – a stone’s throw away from his house in Soweto.
I gave him a pass and promised to give him day passes to other games. He was grateful, a humble man. He smiled and said “thank you”.
I got another thank you from him the next time he came around – he took a photo of me. He gave me his business card and told me to collect my photo from his office. I promised to but never got a chance.
Bra Alf told me about the launch of his new book 8115: Prisoner’s Home. He had launched Through My Lens a year earlier. Things were looking good for him.
I asked him to greet Jabu, his son, also a photographer, at the Sunday Sun and Daily Sun. He was surprised that I knew Jabu. I told him I had worked with his son and how good he was with the camera. This was Bra Alf’s chance to brag. He didn’t.
I had picked up the same from Jabu during the years we’d worked together – he never really talked about his father or bragged. Actually many of us didn’t know he was Bra Alf’s son. Even when Alf received accolades internationally and locally, including the Order of Ikhamanga in 2004 or was invited to lunch with Nelson Mandela, Jabu never made much of it.
Those who worked and lived with Bra Alf say he was a historian, teacher and someone who liked sharing. It’s not surprising that he shared his house in Soweto with young up-and-coming photographers.
His humility took him far and close to people, he used photography to make friends the world over.
I had personally never worked with him, I wasn’t even an idea in my mum’s head when he took his first photo but I’m glad, like many, that I was touched and inspired by this extraordinary individual.