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BSTEP (Black, Science, Technology and Engineering Professionals) is a non-profit advocacy organisation with the aim of advancing black excellence in Science, Engineering, Technology and Innovation

Black Agency: Ernest Cole a hero from Mamelodi


By Tshetlhe Litheko

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Heroism is hard to deny, and not all black history can be dismissed as socialist or ANC connected. My home town of Mamelodi boasts of many heroes across decades and levels of notoriety. The current African soccer champions league champs, Sundowns have become perhaps the modern day performers tagged with the township name. Mamelodi is also the birthplace of Malombo music and the continued cultural centre informing the broader national social consciousness.

Imagine then a residential zone, within the township, positioned right at the entry of the township. My residential zone, which you would call my immediate neighbourhood is called A1. Its residential area I share with David Mashabela of Radio 2000 fame, "Why Worry" Tshabalala of the 1970s Orlando Pirates league winning site, Dr. Sebotsane one of two doctors that owned Sundowns before Zola Mahobe bought into the team, and Aubrey Masango of Talk radio 702 fame. One of A1's profound resident was Ernest Cole (nee Kole) born in 1940 and went into exile in 1966.

Cole received his first camera as a teenager which became an extension of his being. What began as snapping pictures of friends, relatives and people in his community later became a fascination that would give context to apartheid to the world.

In the early 1960s, he started to freelance for clients such as Drum magazine, the Rand Daily Mail, and the Sunday Express. This technically made him South Africa's first black freelance photographer. He came across the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the celebrated French photographer. Cartier-Bresson's work inspired Cole set out on a mission to capture the injustice of the apartheid system and show case it to the people outside South Africa.


Cole achieved this goal by wisely and covertly hiding his camera in lunch bags or working without a flashlight when documenting struggles in mines or prisons. Pretending that he was an orphan, he even managed to convince authorities to reclassify him as coloured gaining access to areas where black people were required to carry a passbook.


In 1967 Cole published his first and only photo book, entitled "House of Bondage." The book, which was banned in South Africa, quickly sold out and received great critical acclaim. The book documented his expose. His agency is to be applauded.


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