Fighting back without hate

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005

In 1975 everything was going well for a singer called Thandie Klaasen. She was climbing up the ladder quickly. She was making it.

Then suddenly her whole world fell apart. Some people threw petrol over her face – and lit a match.

Thandie Klaasen’s beautiful face was gone. She now had only terrible pain and a broken life. But she fought back. She started at the bottom of the ladder again.
Learn and Teach spoke to the brave Thandie Klaasen. She told us a bit about her life:

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005OUT OF TUNE
“When I first began to sing, I sang out of tune,” says Thandie. “I first sang in the school choir at St Cyprians in Sophiatown. I grew up in the old Sophiatown.

“A girl with a beautiful voice sang with us in the choir. She always stood next to me. When she sang, all eyes were on her.

“I wanted all the eyes to look at me. So I always sang louder – and more out of tune.”

The young Thandie thought about her problem. And then one day she began to ask herself some questions. Why must I try to sing like the girl with the beautiful voice? Why must I try to copy her voice? And Thandie soon had the answer. “I have my own voice,” she told herself. “Let me use my own voice!”

So Thandie Klaasen began to use her own voice. And the eyes began to look at her. She joined her first group when she was 18 years old. The group was called the ‘Gay Gay ties’.

“One day the group got a job in Durban,” says Thandie. “The leader of the group told me to go home and ask my parents if I could go to Durban. But I was scared to ask my parents. And I really wanted to go to Durban.

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005“So I went to Durban – without asking my parents. We came back three weeks later. And my father wanted to kill me. I was in real trouble.

“Then I got an idea. I gave my father all the money I made in Durban,­ every penny. My father said something to himself. And he put the sjambok away.”

And on that day, Thandie Klaasen made up her mind. She was going to sing. And her father did not stop her.

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005KING KONG
“Then King Kong happened,” says Thandie. “I got a small part in the show. We left for London on the 2nd February 1962. In London I shared a room with Abigail Kubheka. She was a good friend.

“The show was going well in London. Then the lead singer Peggy Pango got sick. I don’t think she was really sick. I think she was actinq. She thought the show was finished without her. But she was wrong. At the last minute they gave me Peggy’s part. That was my big chance and I was ready. King Kong was my big break.”

And so the show went on. Thandie was good and there were no problems. The show went to many places in Europe. “Before we came back we went to Rome,” says Thandie. “And we had a lovely holiday.”

In Rome I found a wishing fountain­ you throw coins into the fountain and make a wish. I wished for happiness for my family. And I wished for my singing to go far. I felt good at that wishing fountain in Rome.

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005

“When I came back to South Africa, I heard about a Mr Paljas in Cape Town. He wanted actors for his new play. So I went to Cape Town and Mr Paljas gave me the job. I was the only woman in the play. It was fun.”

Then Thandie got another big break. She got a job to sing in Japan. “I really wanted to go to Japan,” says Thandie. “I was already married with two little children. My husband said I must go. I then told my best friend about the job. And she told me to come for supper that night. She promised to make my best meal ­ roast beef and dumplings.

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005

Thandie in hospital

“When I went to her place, I saw two boys at the gate. I greeted them and passed. I saw her sitting with her baby in the kitchen. Then I heard somebody behind me. And suddenly my face was on fire.

“She hired those two boys to throw petrol over me and set me alight. They were only 18 years old. She gave them R10 and a bottle of whisky for the job.

“I hurt when I think about that time. I don’t know why she did what she did. We had no arguments. Maybe she just didn’t want me to go to Japan.

“I stayed in hospital for over a year. Oh God, that was a terrible time. I don’t like to remember what happened to me. My husband left me. And most of my good friends forgot about me.

“But some people did not forget about me. My family helped me. The nurses and doctors were very nice. And a few old friends like Queeneth Ndaba stood by me. They gave a concert to pay for one of my skin operations.

“And of course, my fans were always there. They didn’t forget about me. They came to visit me. And they sent me letters. I got letters from far away places like Mozambique. And I always had flowers in my room.”

Thandie Klaasen had plenty of time to think in hospital. In the long nights,
she thought about her life. She thought about the girl with the beautiful voice in the school choir. She thought about her angry father with his sjambok. And she thought about the wishing fountain in Rome.

“I thought about those two boys for a long time,” says Thandie. “And after a while, I felt no hate. My face was burnt – but I still had my voice.

“And I also thought about my children. I knew they needed a mother – and I was their mother. I knew I had to fight back.”

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005THE FIGHT BACK
And so after a long, painful time, Thandie Klaasen got out of her hospital bed. She went back into the world with a different face. And she went straight back to the stage.

She got a job in a play called the Black Mikado. “My daughter Lorraine was also in the play,” says Thandie. “I remember that play with sadness. Some of the other actors gave me a hard time. When they turned their backs to the people, they laughed at me. They mocked my face. They mocked me in front of my daughter.”

Thandie suffered very much. But she did not leave the stage. In 1981 she went to sing in Lesotho. She met Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela when they gave a concert in Lesotho.

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005Thandie now sings mostly at night­ clubs. And her voice is beautiful ­ when she sings, all eyes look at her.

Thandie Klaasen is slowly climbing up the ladder again. But it’s not easy. “I sometimes have no work for a while,” says Thandie quietly.

Thandie Klaasen gets stronger every day. “You know, I often see those two boys who burnt my face,” says Thandie. “I don’t hate them. Hate makes you weak. Now when people hurt me, they only make me stronger!”.


The story of the Ladysmith Black Mambazo


t is ten o’clock in the morning. Clermont, just outside Durban, is quiet. Most people have gone to work. But some people are singing softly. They sing so beautifully they can make you cry. It is practice time for Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Everyday at ten, Black Mambazo get together, in the garage of their leader, Joseph Tshabalala. They sing and dance to keep their rhythm. The children know when it is practice time. They are there too, singing and dancing — and dreaming that one day they will sing and be famous like their heroes.


Joseph Tshabalala, leader of Black Mambazo, learnt to sing from his father. “I used to sit on my father’s lap, and listen to him sing.” says Joseph. “And when we went to bed, my father used to sing us to sleep. Singing was always part of my life.”

Joseph left his home, Ladysmith, 15 years ago. He went to work in Durban as a “spannerboy” at a building firm. “I joined a singing group called the Highlanders.” says Joseph/The Highlanders were not a bad group. But they had one problem — drink.

“They used to drink too much. When they were drunk, they came late for concerts. But when they weren’t drunk, they didn’t sing well. This made me lose a lot of sleep.


“Then one night I had a dream. In my dream, an old lady, my father’s mother, spoke to me. She said, ‘I can see that you are having problems with this group of yours. Don’t worry, go and see your cousins, Albert and Milton Mazibuko. They will help you.”

The very next day Joseph went to the Mazibuko’s home. He told Albert and Milton’s father about his dream. He said, “Uncle, give me your two boys. I will teach them to sing with me. And the old man said, “Very good, my son. Your brothers are bored. They are drinking beer and doing naughty things. Talk to them.”


Black Mambazo on the road


“We started there and then,” said Joseph. “We sang the first song I ever wrote. That song also came from a dream. In my dream I saw little children singing beautifully.

“I caught the tune but I could not catch the words. They were singing in a strange language. I used the tune and I made up words. I called it Nomathemba. It was the name of a girl I loved at the time. This song took us a long time to learn. But once we knew it, it was our favourite.


On that first day Joseph sang with the Mazibuko’s. They were just three. The next day Headman, Joseph’s brother joined them.

Joseph left the Highlanders. And the two families — the Mazibuko’s and the Tshabalala’s, became the Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Today the group has 10 singers.

Joseph says, “We sing to make people happy. We sing about everything, about love, amabutho, imbongi, God and many other things.


“When we sing at concerts, we all wear the same clothes,” says Albert Mazibuko. “We all dance together when we sing. Our dance is called ‘Cothoza mfana’. It means ‘Walk proud, boy’.

“Joseph writes all our songs and I show everyone how to dance. Our music is called ‘Mbube’ or ‘scatamiya’ music. ‘Mbube’ music started long ago. ‘Mbube’ groups only use their voices. We never use guitars or pianos. So our voices must sound very beautiful.


Today everyone knows Ladysmith Black Mambazo. But Joseph says the first time they sang together, people laughed — until they heard them sing. “It was Christmas time.” Joseph remembers. “We went to Ladysmith. When we got there, people said, ‘Shame, Mr Tshabalala, you are singing with new people. Now you are singing with such small boys.’ But when my ‘small boys’ started to sing, people could not believe how well they sang.”


Black Mambazo give their fans all they have


“We used to sing in lots of competitions at that time. We won them all. People loved us. Everyone used to ask us to make records. But we thought we would make records when we were old. We thought that if we made a record, we would lose our voices.

“In the end my cousin arranged for us to go to Radio Bantu. We went but we were very afraid. We spoke to Mr Thusini and another woman, Doctor Haskisson. They made us sing many songs for them. But they were not happy. We were singing other peoples’ songs, not our own.

“Then we sang ‘Nomathemba’. They both liked it very much. So we sang more of our own songs. Soon afterwards we made our first album “Amabutho”. And the next year we went on our first tour around South Africa.”


Since that time Ladysmith Black Mambazo have made 23 albums — all of them great hits. And they have been all over the world. They have just come back from America now.

Black Mambazo sing most of their songs in Zulu. But because people love them all over the world, they now sing in other languages. They have made some songs in German, Sotho and English. And who can forget their famous English song “Hello my baby, Hello my shokolate”?


All this fame has not changed them at all. They are still simple people, like you and me. Joseph spends a lot of time with his children. “My son has his own group.” says Joseph. “They call themselves ‘White Mambazo’. They say we must look out for them. One day they will be more famous than Black Mambazo.”


Ladysmith Black Mambazo have started a fan club. So, if you want to write and tell them that you love their music, you can write to…

“Kippie Moeketsi is not dead yet”


In the old days everybody knew Kippie Moeketsi. He was the best saxophone player around. He played with big bands like the Jazz Maniacs and the Harlem Swingsters. He played with Hugh Masekela and Dollar Brand. He played in big shows like King Kong.

Now Kippie’s life is different. He cannot find work. He lost his house in Soweto last year. He had no money for rent.

Kippie now lives in Mabopane. This is a township near Pretoria. He lives with Dolly Rathebe and her family. Dolly was a famous singer in the Sophiatown days.

Learn and Teach went to visit Kippie Moeketsi in Mabopane. He told us about his life.

Kippie Moeketsi was born in the slums of Johannesburg in 1925. When he was a baby, his family moved to George Goch location. Kippie’s father was a clerk in the municipality.

Kippie’s father loved music. He played the organ for the church choir. He wanted his six children to play music. All the children became good musicians. Jacob, the oldest son, played the piano for the Jazz Maniacs.

Kippie was the youngest boy in the family. All his brothers went to school and studied hard. Jacob passed matric. Kippie’s brother Andrew became a teacher. But Kippie was not the same. He did not like school.

Kippie had three good friends. They played together all the time. They were very naughty. Sometimes they missed school and went to the golf course. They got jobs as caddies.

“We only got paid one shilling and sixpence a day,” says Kippie. “So we stole golf balls. Then we sold the balls back to the guys we stole them from. We sold the balls for two shillings and six pence.”

They had another trick. They put sticky tar on the end of long sticks. They went to the shop in George Goch location. When the shopkeeper was not looking, they reached over the counter with the sticks. The tickeys behind the counter stuck to the tar. They went back to the shop the next day. They bought sweets with the same tickeys.

Kippie left school after standard five. He was 18 years old. He got a job sweeping floors in a men’s hostel. But the wages were low and the work was boring. He left the job. He got a job at a chemist. He delivered medicine on a bicycle.

Then Kippie got a present. His brother Lapis gave him a clarinet. At this time, Kippie decided he wanted to be a good musician. He worked in the day. At night he played the clarinet.


Kippie Moeketsi and Dolly Rathebe are back at work again!

“I played that thing until 2 0’clock in the morning,” says Kippie. “On weekends I played for 12 hours a day. The neighbours complained about the noise. But I did not stop playing. I loved music too much.”

Kippie learnt how to read music. After two years he played the clarinet very well. Then he learnt how to play the saxophone. Soon he was also a good saxophone player.

Other young musicians also lived in George Goch location. They played jazz together. They started a band. They called themselves the “Band in Blue”. Kippie played the saxophone for the band.

The Band in Blue played in an old house near George Goch. The band played marabi music – the music of the people. The people from the slums came to listen. They bought food and booze. They danced until 4 0’clock in the morning. Kippie’s problems started now. He started boozing a lot. He never stopped.

Kippie enjoyed playing for the Band in Blue. But he wanted to play in the townships. The small bands did not play in the townships. The gangs did not let them.

Gangs like the “Russians” and the “Spoilers” ruled the townships. The gangs only let big bands like the Jazz Maniacs and the Harlem Swingsters play in the townships.

Then Kippie got lucky. In 1948 the Harlem Swingsters offered him a job. The Harlem Swingsters started three years before in a backyard in Western Native Township. But now they were famous. The great Todd Matshikiza played for the group.

The Harlem Swingsters mixed American music with marabi. And they mixed it well. Music fans followed them all over the country.

The Harlem Swingsters had six good years. Then people stopped liking them. Kippie left the group. He started a small jazz band called the Shantytown Sextet.

The Shantytown Sextet played with a group of singers. The singers were called the Manhattan Brothers. The Manhattan Brothers were the best singing group in Africa. They were famous allover the world. They sold thousands of records.

The Shantytown Sextet and the Manhattan Brothers played all over the country. “Those were the days’; says Kippie. “Our shows were always full. I always had money in my pocket. We ate well in those days.”

In 1954 the Manhattan Brothers and the Shantytown Sextet went to Cape Town. They needed a piano player. Kippie saw a young man playing the piano in a bioscope. Kippie asked him to play for the Shantytown Sextet. The man’s name was Dollar Brand.


Kippie playing with Dollar Brand in the old days

“Dollar knew nothing about music at that time’; says Kippie. “He was just a skollie. He followed me around everywhere. I taught him a lot. Now he is a big man in music.”

Dollar went back to Johannesburg with Kippie. He lived with Kippie at George Goch. They played together at a place called Dorkay House.

At Dorkay House they met other young musicians. They met Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Johnny Getz and Nathaya Njoko. Dollar and Kippie started a new band with these men. They called themselves the Jazz Epistles.

“The Jazz Epistles was the best group I have played with” says Kippie. “We played at four or five nightclubs in a week. Sometimes we played at two nightclubs on the same night. Then the white musicians complained. They stopped us playing at white nightclubs.”

The Jazz Epistles broke up after four years. Kippie got a job with a show called King Kong. He went to London with the show. But Kippie was boozing a lot. He got very sick in London. He went to hospital for two months.

img19Kippie came back to South Africa. But most of his friends had left. Hugh Masekela and Dollar Brand were in America. Kippie had no work.

Then Dollar Brand came back to South Africa. Kippie played with him again. But again the booze was a problem. Dollar fought with Kippie about the booze.

“That was the end,” says Kippie. “I have not played with a band since then. In 1977 I made a record with Pat Matshikiza. But that is all.”

Kippie never got married. He lived with a woman for 13 years. Her name is Becky. He met her in Sophiatown in 1951. They have two children. Becky left Kippie in 1964. She lives with her two children in Soweto. Kippie often visits them.

“I’m not bitter,” says Kippie. “But I’m angry about one thing. The record companies didn’t give me a fair deal. They made a lot of money from me. The record companies are now very rich. And I have nothing.”


“I am poor now, but I am not crying,” says Kippie. “I’m fighting the booze. I’m going to win. Dolly and me are making a come-back. We are working hard together. Kippie Moeketsi is not dead yet!”

The man who made DRUM famous

img38Many great journalists have worked for Drum magazine. But Henry Nxumalo was the greatest. He made Drum famous.

People all over Africa and the world read his stories. His stories were about black people’s lives in South Africa. In these stories, Henry spoke up for the workers. Thousands of people said he was a friend who shared their troubles. They called him Mr. Drum.

Henry Nxumalo was born in Port Shepstone in 1917. Henry’s parents had 7 children. Henry was the eldest.

When Henry was at school, his father died. The family was short of money. But Henry wanted an education. He worked in the school kitchen to pay his school fees.

When Henry left school, he did domestic work in Durban. But Henry hated domestic work. He ran away to Johannesburg and found work in a boilermaker’s shop. In his spare time he wrote for the newspaper Bantu World.

The newspaper offered him a job as a messenger. But Henry also did not like messenger work. He told the newspaper that he wanted to write. After a while they let him write. Henry wrote about sport.

The Second World War started in 1939. Henry joined the army. He went to Egypt and England.

Henry saw a new world in England – a world without apartheid. Henry forgot about “Europeans only”. He made friends with British people and other Black people in England.

Then the army sent Henry back to South Africa. In Johannesburg Henry worked for newspapers again. He married a pretty young nurse. Her name was Florence.

Henry joined Drum in 1959. At this time Drum had stories about tribes, chiefs, religion and farming. Very few people bought the magazine.

Henry and his friends told the editor to change Drum. They said Drum must be a magazine for city people.

One man said: “Hey man, why does Drum write that stuff, man! Tribal music! Tribal history! Chiefs! Give us jazz and film stars, man! We want Duke Ellington, Satchmo and pretty women! And tell us what is happening here man, on the Reef!”

Soon Drum had stories on jazz, soccer, boxing and women. More people started to buy Drum. But a magazine called Zonk sold more than Drum. The boss of Drum wanted Drum to be the best. How could they get more people to buy Drum?

Henry had the answer. He knew that people wanted articles on politics. Henry said people wanted to read things that happened in their lives. So Henry started to write about the lives of black people in South Africa. These stories made him famous.

Henry’s first big story was about the lives of farm workers in Bethal. In 1952 he went to his editor and said: “By the way, have you heard about a place called Bethal? Bethal is a farming district in the Eastern Transvaal. They grow potatoes there. Of course, there is a lot of flogging there.”

img39“Flogging?” asked the editor.

“Yes, Bethal is famous because the farmers beat up their workers”. “How do you know about Bethal?” asked the editor.

“I went there about 3 years ago with a priest. We looked around the farms. I’m sure things haven’t changed. Bethal means the House of God,” laughed Henry.

Henry dressed up like a farm worker and went to Bethal. In Bethal he spoke to 50 workers. They were all unhappy. They told him the farmers were cruel. They told him about farmers like “Mabulala” (The killer) and “Fakefutheni” (Slave-driver). And 32 workers said the farmers had tricked them to sign a contract.

Henry visited the workers’ compounds. He said: “The compounds look like jails. They have high walls. They are dirty. They are often next to a cattle kraal. The workers breathe the same air as the cattle.”

After a few days Henry phoned Drum and asked for a photographer. The photographer took pictures of the farms, the compounds, and the farmers with their whips.

But Henry and the photographer had a hard time. Often farmers chased Henry and the photographer. Sometimes the photographer told the farmers he was interested in farming. And Henry said he was his servant. Henry went back to Johannesburg and wrote the story. The story was called “Bethal Today”. The article was by “Mr Drum”.

All the copies of Drum sold out. The government did not like the story. The Prime Minister said: “Drum wrote the story to make trouble”. The farmers in Bethal bought hundreds of magazines. They burnt them. They did not want people to read how they treated their workers.

After the story about Bethal the farmers treated their workers a little better. People also learnt about the danger of contracts.

Mr Drum became famous. Many people wrote letters to him. People asked: “Who is this wonderful Mr Drum?”

Mr Drum wrote more stories about farm workers. He visited the wine farms in the Cape and the sugar farms in Natal. He wrote stories about the workers on these farms. Mr Drum told the world about the suffering of people in South Africa.

Henry also wrote stories about life in the towns. One of his stories was about gangs and tsotsis. There were many famous gangs like “The Russians” and “The Americans”. Henry and other Drum journalists wrote about the gangs. The work was dangerous. The gangsters often wanted to kill the Drum journalists.

But the work on gangs was sometimes funny. Drum wrote a story called “Clean up the Reef”. The story said the police must clean up the gangsters and tsotsis. The police decided to listen to the story. They arrested hundreds of tsotsis and gangsters.

One night the police arrested Henry in a pass raid. He spent the night in jail. The jail was full of tsotsis. Henry asked the warder what was happening.

“Ag, haven’t you read Drum, man? We’re cleaning up the Reef”, the warder said.

img40Henry’s next famous story was about jails. Many readers asked “Mr Drum, why don’t you write about jails?” People wanted Henry to write about the hard life in prison. They wanted him to tell the world about the bad food, the dirty cells, the beatings and the “tansa dance”. The prisoners danced naked to show the police they didn’t have any tobacco. Drum decided to do an article on the Fort. The Fort is a jail in Johannesburg.

First Drum needed a photograph of prisoners in the Fort. Drum journalists thought about this problem. Then they saw a big building opposite the Fort. The Drum photographers went to the top of the building. They told the owners that they wanted pictures of Johannesburg. But instead they took pictures of the prisoners in the Fort. They got a photograph of a prisoner doing the tansa dance.

Drum had the photograph. But now they needed the story. One journalist said: “I’ll go to jail.”

“No” said Henry, “I’ll go. I’m Mr Drum.”

“So you think you can get in to the jail?” the editor asked.

“That will be easy,” said Henry. “My problem is always how to stay out of jail.” So Henry tried to get arrested. But he had problems.

First he went to Boksburg without a permit to visit a friend. His friend phoned the police and told them Henry was coming. The police waited for Henry. They took him to the police station. But at the police station the sergeant said:

“Ag! Don’t be silly, man. Go away and don’t do it again.”

The next day he caught a train without a ticket. The ticket collector came to check the tickets. Henry refused to pay. The ticket collector called a policeman. The policeman said “Go to someone and ask him to lend you the money.”

“No!” said Henry. He was arrested. The next day he went to court. But the magistrate told Henry to go home.

Henry tried again. He put a big bottle of brandy in his pocket. In those days black people were not allowed to drink. Henry walked up and down outside Marshall Square police station. The police did nothing. He started to sing and shout. The police still did nothing. Henry got drunk and started a fight. The police arrested him. The next morning Henry went to court.

The magistrate gave Henry 5 days in jail or 10 shillings fine. The court interpreter was Henry’s friend. He wanted to help Henry. He paid Henry’s fine.

The next night Henry tried to get arrested again. He walked around Johannesburg without a pass. A policeman saw him and asked for his pass.

“I haven’t got one,” Henry said.

He was arrested and the magistrate gave him 5 days in jail. At last Henry was inside the Fort. When he came out he wrote a story about the Fort. The story was called “Mr Drum goes to jail”.

After the story, life in the jails got a bit better. The police did not make prisoners do the “tansa dance” anymore.

The Orlando tsotsis gave Henry a party. They said: “Mr Drum, we liked your story. You did a good job.”

Henry’s next famous story was about farm workers. This time the story was about farm workers in Rustenburg. Farm workers suffered in Rustenburg. One farmer killed a worker. People called the farmer “Umabulala umuntu” (He who killed a man).

A reader wrote to Drum: “Why doesn’t Mr Drum have a look around here? Rustenburg is like Bethal.”

Henry dressed up as a farm worker and went to Rustenburg. He got a job on the farm of “Umabulala umuntu.”

Henry worked at the farm from 5 in the morning till 7 at night. He slept in a dirty compound. The workers told him many stories about the cruelty of “Umabulala umuntu.” Workers said the ghost of a dead worker came back to the compound at night.

One day Henry sat under a tree when it rained. The farmer called him and beat him. Henry decided to escape. He went back to Johannesburg and wrote his story. People wrote letters to thank Mr Drum for his story. They praised him for his bravery. This story about the Rustenburg farm workers was one of his last stories.

img41One night in December 1956 Henry went to visit his cousin Percy Hlubi. Percy lived in Western Township. Late that night Henry told Percy that he had to do a job in Newclare.

Percy said: “Henry don’t go now. It’s late and dangerous. Can’t you go tomorrow?” “Never put off for tomorrow what you can do today,” answered Henry.

The next morning Percy’s wife got up and went to work. On the way she saw a body lying on the grass. The body was covered in blood. She went to have a look. She saw that it was Henry. Somebody had killed Henry in the night. He was only 37 years old.

Henry Nxumalo, tried to make the world a better place. He died doing his job. He was the greatest journalist of them all.

The story of Kok Nam


Kok Nam took this photograph of FRELIMO soldiers setting off for action in the light of the moon

EVERYBODY in Mozambique knows this man. The children follow him every morning on his way to work with his camera hanging over his shoulder, calling “Hey Kok Nam! Take a picture of us!”. And every day his reply is the same. “Tomorrow”. In the rural areas of Mozambique like Cabo Delgrado, Nampula and Gaza, adults come up to touch him and shake his hand.


But who is Kok Nam?

“Kok Nam is a very good photographer, one of the best in Mozambique,” says Carlos Cardosa, a journalist and friend of Kok Nam. “I think the reason why he is so popular is that — unlike other people who are good at their work — he is humble. His greatness does not go to his head.

“The people of Mozambique love him so much that they call him the Colonel General of photography,” continues Carlos. “Now, where in the whole of Africa would you find a Chinese person honoured in such a way?”


Kok Nam with his children Nuno and Michelle and a small friend



Learn and Teach met Kok Nam on a short visit to Maputo last month. He cooked us a finger-licking supper of prawns and rice, and told us his story.

It begins 50 years ago on 19 December 1939. On that day, a fat and smiling baby was born to a Chinese couple living near the city of Maputo. After four daughters, the parents were very happy that the fat baby was a boy.

“So they called me Kok Nam, which means South of China,” says the smiling photographer. “You see, my parents were from the South of China. When I was born, they were so happy that it made them think of home.”

Kok Nam’s parents never went back to China. In the 70’s, when the struggle for independence in Mozambique got fierce, the whole family left for America. Kok Nam was the only one to stay behind.


As a young boy, Kok Nam went to a Chinese school for six years and then went to work as an apprentice for a photograph­ic shop. It was there that he learnt the art of photography. It was also there that the boy learnt to hate dark rooms. “I spent so much time developing photos in the dark room. That is why today I don’t develop my own photos!” he laughs.

Later Kok Nam got a job as a photographer for Mozambique’s second biggest newspaper, called Diario de Mozambique (Diary of Mozambique). Afterwards, he moved to a newspaper called Voz Africana (African Voice).

“This was a very popular weekly paper and was read by intellectuals, workers and peasants. It spoke of how the workers were exploited by the Portuguese colonialists. It wrote stories about the low wages of African workers, about chibalo — the system of forced labour and about the bad living conditions.

“During this time, I worked with many interesting people. One of those was Jose Luis Cabaco who is the number 2 in FRELIMO and the former Minister of Information. I also worked with Luis Bernado Honwana who is today Minister of Culture.”

Round about 1968 or 1969, a group of right-wingers bought the paper and it was eventually closed. The African Voice would remain closed until after independence in 1974.


In 1970, seven pro­gressive journalists, including Kok Nam, started a magazine called Tempo. From the beginning, Tempo supported FRELIMO as the liberation move­ment of Mozam­bique. When FRE­LIMO defeated the Salazaar govern­ment, Tempo was chosen to publish the FRELIMO Party Programme.

During the struggle for independence, Tempo was heavily censored. Kok Nam remembers those days: “We had to send three magazines worth of stories to the Censorship Com­missioner. When it came back, they had put a cross through so much that we only had enough information for one magazine!”

Today, twenty years later, Tempo is still going strong. Kok Nam is still with tho magazine, the only member of the editorial staff to have stayed so long.

The magazine prints more than 40 000 copies a time. But many more people read it, says Kok Nam. “People are poor and so they share magazines. The other day, I saw a youngster read­ing an old copy of Tempo from 1987.”


Kok Nam’s work has taken him all around Mozambique and the world. He has met and photographed Bishop Tutu, Dr. Boesak, Robert Mugabe, Oliver Tambo and the famous general Giap of the Vietnamese army that defeated America. But the person who remains closest to his heart is Samora Machel, the late president of Mozambique.

Kok Nam first met Machel in 1974. At the time, Machel was in the bush in Tanzania where FRELIMO had their base at Naschingwea, near Pembe in Mozambique.

“The first time I saw Samora speak I knew this was a master of mass communication,” says Kok Nam. “He just knew how to speak to people. That day he was speaking to over a thousand new guerrillas. He was like a magnet when he began speaking. He was dressed in a guerrilla uniform and looking very smart. He made all of us feel good.”


Samora Machel speaking to more than a thousand FRELIMO guerrillas in 1974

Proudly, Kok Nam shows us a photograph of Machel speaking to the people who have just joined Frelimo’s army.


It was on these trips that Kok Nam came to know Samora’s intelligence and sense of humour. He tells this story. One day at a press conference in Botswana, a journalist from South Africa stood up and asked Machel about a Mozambican pilot who had run away from Mozambique to join the SADF with his Russian fighter aircraft.


Samora Machel, president of Mozambique until his death in 1986

“Tell me,” asked Machel.” ‘How many black pilots do you have in South Africa?’ The South African journalist took a while before he answered: “Not one.” Samora then told him with a smile of satisfaction: “You are wrong! You have one, and he was made in Mozambique! That was Samora at his sharpest!” says Kok Nam.


Kok Nam tells us that many people think that he was Samora Machel’s personal photographer. “That’s not true. I just happened to be asked by the Ministry of Information to go with Machel on one of his visits overseas, and then I found myself going to many places with him and the FRELIMO leadership. I think they asked me to go with Samora because I could be trusted and I was a professional in my job.”

He was with Machel at Nkomati, at the United Nations and in Nigeria and Europe.The day Machel was killed in a plane crash in 1986, Kok Nam rushed to the scene to say goodbye to his old friend and leader. This was one of the saddest moments in Kok Nam’s life.


We asked Kok Nam why he takes photographs. “I believe that every photograph records more than a story. It records history. Photojoumalists record history through images,” he says. “These photographs are the property of the people of Mozambique. This is our history.

“That is why I don’t believe that a photographer in any country can say they are neutral, they don’t want to get involved in politics and so on. There is no such a thing. In photography you must take sides because you are taking photographs in the society where you live. You cannot stand aside from the people’s problems.

“When I take a photograph of RENAMO bandits killing innocent people, I take a photograph with a lot of anger. But when I photograph the children, the workers, the peasants and those working for a just society I take a photograph with a lot of love and respect for what they are struggling for.”

Kok Nam has some strong words about the job of a journalist. To be a photojournalist or journalist, you have to be brave, says Kok Nam. “The war has made many journalists afraid to travel. But how can you write a good story sitting in an air-conditioned office and speaking on the telephone? Our profession is a risky one — if you do not want risk, then you must write about beauty queens.”


Kok Nam surrounded by the children he loves


We ask Kok Nam if he would like to visit South Africa. “I would love to!” he says. “I want to show the people my slides and my photographs and to talk of Mozambique and how our struggles are one and the same thing. South Africa must learn to forget racism. The rainbow does not only belong to Mozambique. It belongs to the whole of Africa. We in this region must learn to live together and solve our economic and political problems as one people.”


Kok Nam with the famous General Giam of the Vietnamese army

“But there is another reason why I want to go to South Africa. I want to photo­graph Mandela with his people next to the ANC flag, and next to the red flag.”


We ask Kok Nam if he has other loves besides photography. “Yes!” he says. “I love my children, Nuno and Michelle. I love cooking, especially prawns and rice. And I love jazz.” We promise to send him two tapes when we get back.

“But most of all I love this hot beautiful country and I love the South of Africa. Maybe I should call myself Nam Africa — South of Africa”. We all laugh, believing that this name really tells the story of Kok Nam’s work and wishes. Perhaps one day Southern Africa will live in peace, and Kok Nam will be there to record it for us.

humble — someone who is humble does not think he or she is better than others intellectuals — great thinkers censor — if a government censors some­thing you write, it tells you what you can and cannot say
magnet — a person who is magnetic draws people to him or her
photojoumalist — a newspaper reporter who only takes photos

Our readers write

… This article was originally reproduced in the banned Magazine N 4, 1986The banned issue is now available online. 

There was, however, an update to this article, which we reproduce here:


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