Bongani Mnguni: Veteran of photography's front line

28 April 2019 - 00:00 By Lucas Ledwaba

In my last conversation with him three weeks ago, Bongani Mnguni, who has died from a suspected heart attack, wanted assistance with a caption for one of his historic images.
Mnguni was planning to post the image of struggle icon Lilian Ngoyi on his Facebook page, as part of his many strategies to obtain sponsorship and funding so that his work, spanning more than 40 years, could be seen at home and abroad.
Although some of his work on the June 16 1976 uprisings is on permanent display at the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto, it represents just a fraction of what the lensman captured since he took up the camera in the late 1960s.
Mnguni, who worked as a staff photographer for the now-defunct newspaper The World until it was banned in 1977, documented SA's turbulent history, including the violent uprisings in the townships in the '70s, '80s and early '90s. Among the events he covered was the 1980 Silverton Siege involving Umkhonto weSizwe guerrillas and the South African Police.
Away from the teargas and flying bullets he also shot memorable pictures of football matches, music events, birthday parties, weddings and his great love, boxing.
His father, Abednigo "Pancho Villa" Mnguni, was a boxer and business person in Soweto, where Mnguni was born on November 18 1953. Bongani took up the sport but gave up when he became a full-time photojournalist.
The haunting image of Ngoyi, looking forlorn and distressed while seated on the pavement near her Mzimhlophe home, represents some of Mnguni's commitment and passion to his craft.
At the time Ngoyi, a former member of the ANC Women's League, had been declared a banned person and was confined to her Soweto home. Among some of the stringent banning regulations, Ngoyi was not supposed to be photographed or interviewed.
Violating these rules could land one in a prison cell and in the files of the security police. Mnguni, who lived at the time in Orlando West, not far from Ngoyi's place, defied the security police, who were always lingering around her home, and took the image while driving slowly past.
Such was the bravery and determination that earned him a reputation as a fearless photojournalist. He told stories of how he would go so far as to pull away the hats and blankets that criminal suspects used to try to shield themselves from his camera.
On one occasion he was attacked and thrown into a grave during a mass funeral in the aftermath of the June 16 uprisings.
Angry youths did not want journalists around, fearing their photographs would be seen by the security police. Mnguni said this incident never deterred him from continuing his work as a photojournalist.
On another occasion, in the '80s, he saved the life of a woman who was on the verge of being necklaced by youths in Sebokeng. He won this round and went off on his mission to document the violence that was plaguing the township.
But later his heart sank when he discovered the body of that same woman burning in the middle of the road.
The black-and-white image of Ngoyi, in which she appears desolate and dishevelled, with an empty, puzzled look in her eyes, captures the cruelty inflicted by the apartheid authorities.
It is one of thousands of prints and negatives that Mnguni spent the better part of the past decade scanning and editing so they could be exhibited or published in book form.
He knocked patiently on doors that remained cold and shut. Like many of his colleagues who suffered hardships such as detention, assault and death threats in their efforts to document history, he suddenly found himself invisible to those now walking the corridors of power.
In the early '90s, while running his successful photographic agency Black Image, his work earned him a trip to France, where he exhibited to much acclaim.
He was in France when the date of the 1994 election was announced; an event that Mnguni wouldn't miss for anything.
He returned home in time to vote and photograph the country's transition from apartheid to democracy. He had come full circle. He later joined City Press as photographic editor, mentoring young photographers and offering advice to freelancers.His last full-time job was with Sunday World. His work has appeared in many publications locally and overseas. He exhibited at the Market Photo Workshop, and at the time of his death was in the process of organising another exhibition.Mnguni loved tea, cakes and cigarettes, but never touched alcohol. He was also a great lover of dogs.He is survived by his wife Lucia, children and grandchildren. Mnguni, who died two weeks ago, was buried in Johannesburg. - Mukurukuru Media

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