Jürgen Schadeberg’s memoir gives us insights into his career as one of SA’s premiere photographers, writes Nadine Dreyer
Published in the Sunday Times
Dolly Rathebe posing on a mine dump. ©Jürgen Schadeberg
The Way I See It
Picador Africa, R310
Jürgen Schadeberg grew up in Berlin during World War 2. His mother had a rather elastic interpretation of parental responsibilities, to say the least. While the model-actress flitted from one romantic intrigue to the next, young Jurgen was left to navigate the horrors of war on his own. It’s tempting to conclude that the quick-witted instincts a youth requires to dodge fanatical Nazis, murderous Russians, terrifying bombings and looming starvation were excellent training for the cruel, dystopian world of apartheid South Africa.
Whatever the truth, the Drum photographer fell down the rabbit hole into an adventure that would see him document some of the most important moments in South Africa’s history and the characters that shaped it.
In his dry, understated style Schadeberg reveals the anecdotes behind some of his iconic photographs.
At Drum, Schadeberg worked closely with Henry Nxumalo, the pioneer of investigative journalism in South Africa. Their most famous exposé was the notorious potato farms in Bethal where workers were treated like slaves. The background to this assignment was the murder of a farm labourer in 1929. A farmer had been found guilty of hanging the man by his feet from a tree and flogging him to death. More than two decades later nothing had changed.
Nxumalo went undercover as a labourer and Schadeberg had to track him down (his German accent was a handy weapon against suspicious Afrikaners). Eventually he traced Nxumalo to the potato fields on Sonneblom farm in the Bethal district. There the “boss boy” was cracking his whip while weary workers stooped to gather the crop. Schadeberg surreptitiously snapped photographs with his telephoto lens until Nxumalo dropped his basket and ran to the car.
Schadeberg covered many political moments. At the ANC conference in 1951 he encountered Nelson Mandela, a young charismatic leader tipped for great things. He hired a small plane to cover the funeral of the victims of the Sharpeville massacre.
On a lighter note there’s the day he got arrested with Dolly Rathebe on a mine dump.
After looking for a Johannesburg backdrop that would resemble a beach, the bikini-clad bombshell posed for him on top of a dump. After finishing the shoot they were accosted by four cops accusing them of contravening the notorious Immorality Act.
“Wat doen jy hier, seuntjie?” a sergeant demanded.
He then turned to Rathebe: “Ek wil jou broek sien!”
After lifting her dress to show she was in fact wearing panties, Rathebe was thrown in the back of a pick-up van. (Schadeberg was pushed into a police car.)
At the police station a cop lectured him: “We don’t mix with these people. You should know, as a German, they are different.”
Drum proprietor Jim Bailey was pathologically loath to hand out money, despite being one of the wealthiest men on the continent. He’d leave his poorly paid subordinates to pick up the tab for a night’s binge drinking with township mafia bosses. Editor Anthony Sampson was a Jeykll and Hyde character – and his Mr Hyde side could be horribly creepy (read the book).
The Drum world was full of characters who still loom large today. Driving with the magazine’s music editor Todd Matshikiza was a terrifying experience because he was so short he almost disappeared behind the wheel of his Morris Minor. The two of them hung out with Kippie Moeketsi in an underworld where “gangsters danced with guns and knives and thought gambling, shooting and stabbing were normal”.
Abnormal times that produced both the best and the worst.
- The Way I See It: A Memoir by Jürgen Schadenberg
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