Lefty Shivambu: The peace-lover who yearned to be a war photographer

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If you’re a football disciple, occasionally reading news about the beautiful game in South Africa, you’ve probably stumbled upon the name Lefty Shivambu a couple of times.

And then if you’re one of those who once in a while posts images of your favourite local star on social media, you may have used his picture.

The very year apartheid came to a screeching halt, a young Lefty was done with school. Raised by a domestic worker mom, there was not much money at home to take him to university.

The minimal exposure he had at the time was from the farm where his mother worked. “My mom was a domestic worker, so I used to play with the kids to my mom’s employers. We used to play with toy guns, mimicking what we’d see in action movies. Their dad was in the army and they would often show me his photographs,” he tells FARPost.

Seeing those army photographs and playing guns with baas’s kids gave him an idea – war photography. However, with no hope of formal tertiary education, it remained a mere pipe dream.

Young Shivambu found himself working at the Letaba District Country Club’s restaurant in Tzaneen. When it was time for golf tournaments, he would see lens-man from local newspapers in action.

A passion for the camera began to well up on the inside of him as he watched them. One day, he gathered his nerve and asked the newspaper’s white bosses to allow him to take a few pictures.

But they would not let him. “I was just trying my luck. I grew up at the farms, my mother was a domestic worker and there weren’t too many opportunities for me,” he says.

As providence would have it, his late sister received a camera from her fiancé. Knowing her younger brother had an inkling towards taking pictures, she gladly passed it on to him.

That small Kodak camera gift marked the beginning of a journey that would take her younger brother to countless nations of the world, reward him with multiple honours while putting bread on the table for his family.

“With that camera, I started going to football matches around Tzaneen. I’d take pictures and give them to the local newspapers. My first picture was published in 1994 in the Gazabowa Times/Northern Herald,” recalls the Meadowlands-born shutterbug.

A dream was birthed after that first front page picture was published. That day, the 19-year-old boy also played newspaper vendor. He wanted that newspaper with his front page image to reach far and wide.

So, he requested for as many copies so he would go around Tzaneen vending them. And each time he successfully sold, the buyer would be told the picture on the front page was his.

That’s because the mould-breaking image was not accompanied by his credit. “I asked for a lot of newspapers, it was 20c, I was showing them my pictures.”

And as the canonical saying goes, ‘where there is vision there is provision’, God made a way. While cashing up his cheque at the bank, a teller John Modiba got curious.

“I asked him what the money was for, I remember the cheque was for R145. I initially assumed it was petty cash for the office but he told me it was payment for a couple of images he had given to the newspaper,” Modiba tells FARPost.

Modiba, who turns 68 in July, happened to be passionate about photography and invested in good equipment. So, he joyfully offered his newfound son one of his cameras.

“The cameras I’m carrying in one of my pictures when I was younger belonged to Mr Modiba. They made a big difference, big time,” he appreciatively admits.

Four years after his ‘debut’ image, he joined the great trek to Gauteng – the citadel of all things media. The village football match images had sapped the little love he had for combat photography. Deep down, he was falling in love with snapping sports images.

“As I grew up I realised that war photography was a far-fetched dream. I then gravitated towards sports photography,” says Shivambu, who idolised American rapper Tupac Amaru Shakur as a teenager.

ATTERIDGEVILLE, SOUTH AFRICA – 24 February 2008, Wits goalkeeper Moeneeb Josephs saves a ball during the Absa Premiership match between Mamelodi Sundowns and Bidvest Wits held at Super Stadium (now Lucas Moripe) in Atteridgeville, South Africa.
Photo by Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images.

Interestingly, he had never been a fan of football or any other sport. Upon arrival in Gauteng in 1998, he tried his luck at Sowetan newspaper.

Crashing with a friend, Eric, in Mamelodi East, Pretoria meant he had to leave home at 6am. He would take a taxi, then connect with the train and another taxi to get to Commando Road, Industria West, Johannesburg.

He would get to the office around 11am and assignments would have been dished out. For weeks, there was no work for him.

Coincidentally, a senior colleague one day allowed him to tag along for an assignment in Pretoria. Conveniently, they parked right in front of the Pretoria News office in the capital city’s CBD.

“The driver told me they were looking for a photographer at Pretoria News,” he remembers. But there was a slight challenge. “I didn’t have a CV, it was a self-taught thing but I had a book with cuttings of my pictures.”

Armed with that modest collection, he walked into the newsroom and requested to see the editor.

“I went in and showed the editor my portfolio. The editor assigned me that very weekend and afterwards offered me a job, but I had to go through probation.”

The Tzaneen lad, whose dad was friends with the late notorious gangster Lefty Mthembu, was not going to let this chance slip through his fingers. With the help of his senior colleagues, day after day, he mastered the art of photography.

It was a no-brainer, they just had to hire him. Still wet behind the ears in the newsroom, accolades started trickling in.

One award that remains close to his heart was the Fuji Press accolade in 2000. It was dubbed ‘highly commended award’ and, according to a former colleague Kendridge Mathabathe, Shivambu played prophetic for months, singing ‘This year Fuji is mine’. He just saw it coming.

“Lefty was sure he would come back with the award,” wrote Mathabathe in a laudatory column.

The image that earned the man nicknamed ‘West Side’ after the famous Tupac hit was that of a defenceless child crying hysterically for her parents while surrounded by police. The girl’s parents had been arrested during a Pyramid 2000 march.

In 2004, his exceptional photography skills caught the eye of Backpage Pix, who were created as a Photographic Agency in 2001. “I spent a year with them,” he says.

In 2005, the man did the extraordinary. He scooped seven successive Castle Premiership monthly photographic awards, capping it off with the Castle Premiership photographer of the year and SAB Sports photographer of the year.

The list of awards that followed the 46-year-old snapper are literally countless. Thereafter, he took his lenses to Touchline Photos, who were later bought by Gallo Images, his current home as far as work is concerned.

Some of his biggest memories in his space include covering explosive Soweto derbies between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. And a few interesting names pop up when you ask him who he enjoyed capturing over the years.

The likes of John Shoes Moshoeu, Siyabonga Nomvethe, Doctor Khumalo and Daniel Mudau, he says, made for interesting snaps especially when celebrating goals.

“They were always scoring and their celebrations were really interesting to capture,” says Shivambu who named his sons – Tupac Lefty and Amaru Shakur – after the late rapper.

His incredible sojourn that saw him become Lucas Radebe’s official photographer, among many other dignitaries, has inspired many.

His younger brother, Samuel Shivambu, who works for his previous company Backpage Pix, says there was no escaping the trade after seeing his brother soar.

His wife, Frennie, also took up the trade.

“I played football but eventually the bug caught up with me and I have no regrets at all,” the younger Shivambu says.

Mohammed Ahmed of the Sierra Leone Amputee Football Team Maxwell Forneh leading his team during a training session in Freetown. The team comprises of victims of a 10 year long civil war who had their limbs and arms chopped off by rebels. The war left thousands killed and many amputated. Football helps them to temporarily escape the life-long trauma they are experiencing from the attrocities. Pic: By Lefty Shivambu.

For Modiba, there are so many of Shivambu’s pictures [like the one above] that have touched his heart. But seeing his prodigy’s picture of the late Jazz maestro Jonas Gwangwa in the New York Times was quite nostalgic.

It jogged his memory all the way back to the day he assisted him cash that cheque. “He has had quite the journey. I told him if New York Times could use his image, it means he’s world class,” he says.

Sydney Seshibedi, who has known him for 20 years after meeting in the ‘fourth estate trenches’, describes him as a ‘fantastic professional who has stood the test of time’.

He rightly says photography is Lefty’s life, adding “it would be a futile exercise to separate him from photography”.

“I used to invite him to come and teach and inspire students when I was lecturing at the Market Photo Workshop,” Seshibedi tells FARPost.

Interestingly, in the two decades he has known the man, he has never seen him angry. “He just smiles all the time.”

Perhaps the love he discovered the very year apartheid came to a screeching halt, keeps the constant smile on his face. The warm smile, he says, will stay on for as long as Tupac’s music plays on with the camera in his hand.

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By Mthokozisi Dube

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