It was as a 13-year-old boy growing up in the American Midwest of 1968, around the time of Dr Martin Luther King’s assassination, that photographer David Turnley first heard the word “apartheid” – and the name Nelson Mandela.
His father, who had protested the invitation extended to two pro-racism speakers by the local Rotary Club, had explained the term and told him about the imprisoned Mr Mandela. Little could that impressionable lad have imagined that, two decades later, he would become a close personal friend of the Mandela family, and document South Africa’s transition to democracy from a very special vantage point.
This incredible journey, and more specifically the period between 1985 and 1995, is the subject of For Madiba with Love, Turnley’s new exhibition.
In 1980 Turnley began photographing race issues in Detroit, “no more opportune” a place to document the ongoing civil rights situation in America – including race riots, and the de facto racial segregation of black inner cities and white suburbia. Five years later apartheid had become an international issue, and Turnley’s attention was drawn to South Africa.
“The country was exploding,” he recalls, arriving at a time when South Africa was in deep crisis. The national state of emergency was in force, and the country was torn by violent conflict and brutal State suppression of opposition to apartheid.
As he documented what he saw, and observed the intricacies of racial politics in South Africa, Turnley says that “what I think interested me was the daily humiliations, the nuances of … this racial relationship”.
A year later, in late 1989, things had changed again, and the apartheid government – aware of momentous things looming – invited him to return to South Africa and document what was to happen. Turnley would be one of those fortunate photographers who captured a jubilant Mr Mandela walking out of Victor Verster Prison with his wife, and his first public appearance on the steps of the Cape Town City Hall a few hours later. He was also in the Mandela home in Soweto when Mr Mandela took his first meal there in decades, along with the Sisulus and Ahmed Kathrada.
“I spent so much time with Madiba,” he says of the ensuing years, covering Mr Mandela on the campaign trail, the first democratic elections in 1994, and Mr Mandela’s presidency, retirement and family life. “I’ve really been photographing the family for 30 years.”