Names: Kole, Ernest Levi Tsoloane and Cole, Ernest

Born: 21 March 1940, Eersterust, Gauteng (then Transvaal), South Africa

Died: 11 February 1990, New York, New York, United States of America

In summary: exile, photographer, and author.

Ernest Cole was born Ernest Levi Tsoloane Kole on 21 March 1940 in the Black freehold of Eersterust, about 16 kilometres east of Pretoria, Transvaal (now Gauteng). He was the fourth of six children born to Theophilus Ledikwe Kole, a tailor, and Martha Kole, a laundress. He spent part of his childhood living with his aunt in Onverwacht, a small town approximately 40 kilometres home, in order to complete his primary school education. In 1955 he returned home to live with his parents and enrolled at the local high school, the Kilnerton Training Institute. The next year he dropped out of school, following the implementation of the Bantu Education Act. This Act, authored by Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, introduced segregation in the South African education system. It was designed to ensure that Black and Coloured students were trained for menial labour jobs rather than the higher-level jobs reserved for Whites. Cole himself once said it was, ‘A system geared to poison millions of African children by giving them an inferior education.’ (Knape, 3)

Figure 1: Its Intergration-Results Of Group Areas Act - Kids share bowl of black grapes, they are black and white. Drive along the bumpy township road from Vlakvontein towards Pretoria and you will see the Group Areas Act in action. (Photograph by Ernest Cole Baileys Archives)

It was during his high school years that Cole first became interested in photography. A family friend gave him his first camera and childhood friends recall that he would bring it to school to take photos and charge a few cents for pictures. Rather than complete his schooling at the local high school, he decided to enrol for a National Junior Certificate and Photography Certificate by correspondence through Wolsey College, Oxford, England. However, since it was virtually illegal to be an unemployed African in an urban area, such as Pretoria, Cole needed to find a job so that he wouldn’t be arrested for vagrancy.

Cole spent the greater part of 1957 looking for a clerical job in Johannesburg. However, he was only able to find factory jobs in Pretoria with wages that barely covered the cost of the train ticket. In 1958 he was hired by the African magazine Zonk to work in their circulation department and make tea. While working at Zonk he began putting aside his wages and was eventually able to put down the deposit for two Nikon rangefinder cameras and some lenses.

In the same year, 1958, Cole was introduced to Can Themba, a short story writjavascript:void(0);er who worked for Drum magazine at the time. Themba advised him how to apply to work in the photography department of Drum under picture editor JÁ¼rgen Schadeberg.  Although he met with initial rejection, Cole was persistent and returned to Schadeberg’s office every few days with samples of his work. After several weeks of meetings, he began at Drum on 2 May 1958. With his first pay packet, Cole enrolled in a correspondence course with the New York Institute of Photography, which he studied for on his commute to and from Johannesburg on the train every day. On 2 September 1959 he was promoted to the layout department ofDrum. Cole’s father, who had been undergoing major surgery, died in hospital on the same day.

Cole’s colleagues at Drum remember how enthusiastic he was to learn when he first arrived. While he got along well with many of his fellow photographers, his sense of humour tended to make him enemies. JÁ¼rgen Schadeberg remembers Cole as a shy, slight young man who was perhaps too timid to compete with the other photographers. Ernest Cole and fellow photographer, Peter Magubane, often butted heads over their work. On one occasion their colleague Alf Kumalo had done a piece on crowded trains and Cole decided to do a follow up piece and sell it to the Rand Daily Mail.  The newspaper had already hired Magubane to do the same story but when they got Cole’s work they decided to use his. Kumalo recalls that when Magubane found out he was so furious that he smacked Cole right in the middle of the office.  On another occasion Cole singled out a fellow photographer at Drum, who had just received an award. Cole accused him of plagiarism saying, ‘No your mind is not capable of such artistic work; it has already been done by somebody else.’ (Knape, 25-26) He was not afraid to speak him mind, which tended to get him in trouble.

At the end of November 1960 Cole left Drum and began working as chief photographer at the weekly newspaper, Bantu World, which later became The World and is now called The Sowetan. It was there that he met journalist and author, Doc Bikitsha, who described him as a slight, devout, young Roman Catholic. Cole was constantly admonishing his colleagues for drinking and trying to lead them to salvation. At Bantu World his fellow photographers called him Ernest ‘Tweety” Cole, after the cartoon ‘Sylvester and Tweety’, where the bird adamantly tried to reform the cat with threats and messages of doom. As a photographer and as a man he was incredibly self-disciplined and refused to adhere to any hierarchy. He wanted to be known as a good photographer rather than a good native photographer. His childhood friend, Geoff Mphakati remembers Cole as someone with a great deal of dignity. If he felt that someone was wrong or wasn’t telling the truth he would come down on them hard. He was afraid of no one besides God and was very strict and disciplined. 

After a short stint at Bantu World, Cole decided to freelance fulltime and in doing so he became South Africa’s first black freelance photojournalist. He developed contacts both overseas and in South Africa, whom he sold many of him photos to. One of these contacts was Joseph Lelyveld, a journalist from The New York Times who moved to South Africa as a correspondent for the newspaper. During the spring of 1966 Cole did a piece on apartheid signs saying ‘Non Whites’ or ‘Nie Blankes’. The pictures from this segment were included in Cole’s book House of Bondage.

Schadeberg recalls that Cole’s work was in part motivated by his own anger at the system of apartheid, which very much controlled the world in which he lived. In 1960 Cole and his family were relocated from their hometown Eersterust and moved to Mamelodi, under the Group Areas Act. In Eersterust the family had owned their six-bedroom house, as well as the land but in Mamelodi they were forced to rent and settle among neighbours of the same tribal background. Since they were Pedi they were confined to a Pedi area and their Indian, Zulu, and Ndebele neighbours were resettled elsewhere. Cole included photos of families forced to move under the Group Areas Act in his work.

In July 1963 Cole, riding his scooter, collided head on with an oncoming car near Ellis Park in eastern Johannesburg. He spent the next three months in a cast from the waist down and never regained full mobility in his knees. Through this experience Cole was introduced to Black hospitals and the horrible care received by their patients. He was forced to lie on the sidewalk for two and a half hours waiting for an ambulance to come and then was taken to several different hospitals. He spent the first night sleeping on the stretcher they brought him in on and spent the next 26 days in hospital living off sandwiches his family brought him.  

As a Black man in South Africa Cole was required to carry a ‘dompas’, signed by a white employer that proved he was legally allowed to be in the city. ‘Dompas’ was the colloquial name for the passes that Black South Africans were required to carry at all times in cities and towns. They were used as a means of controlling the movements of the Black population. Cole was a well-dressed young man and as a photographer carrying expensive camera equipment he was subject to frequent police searches and questioning. In order to avoid arrest on suspicion Cole took to carrying the receipts of all of his equipment wherever he went.

At some point during the course of his photojournalism career he outwitted the Race Classification Board and obtained a Coloured (mixed-race) identity card. He changed his surname from Kole to Cole in the process. While he was still subject to searches for carrying his equipment he was no longer required to carry the ‘dompas’ because the Coloured identification card did not specify employment status. Since Cole was brought up in Pretoria he was fluent in Afrikaans, which was language of the majority of the Coloured community. He had a Coloured friend teach him how to pronounce things with the Cape-Coloured accent, which he used in his interview with the senior official from the Race Classification Board.  His sister, Catherine Dilokweng Hlatshwayo, recalls how Cole started stretching his hair in order to prepare himself for his interview. Cole knew from a friend who had gone through the same process that the one trick question the interviewer would ask was the height of something. When asked, an African would put their palm out face up; while Coloureds and Whites would place it face down. Cole was expecting this question and when the senior official asked him how tall he was when he was eight years old at the very end of the interview he paused for a while thinking about it and then put his palm out face up.

In early 1964 Ernest Cole began to share a studio near the Supreme Court in Johannesburg with fellow photographer Straun Robertson. Under the Group Areas Act Africans and Whites were no longer permitted to live or rent under the same roof. Since Robertson was white, the only way that their arrangement could work was if Cole pretended to be his servant. There were separate toilets and lifts and Cole ran into endless problems with the caretaker of the building who was offended by Cole’s insistence on being treated as a full member of the human race. Despite these difficulties the two worked well together and shared their passion for photography and “cool” jazz.

By the time he started renting a studio with Straun Robertson, Cole had already begun working on the photos that would later be included in his book, House of Bondage. He drew inspiration from the layout and style of Henri Carter-Bresson’s books People of Moscow, China in Transition, and The Europeans, which he was first exposed to in 1959. He felt that Carter-Bresson’s model would be the best way to convey his work on the everyday life of the South African people. He was well aware that publishing his book would require him to leave South Africa, but that was a choice he was willing to make for his project. In response to a suggestion from Robertson that he do that documentation of White South African and Cole do the work on African side of life, Cole said, ‘Oh? You mean, like apartheid?’ (Knape, 30) Cole was extremely dedicated to completing his portrait of the various aspects of South African life. He believed that regardless of race or colour he could understand and photograph any other human being without making them into a stereotype. He was vigilant and ruthless about his work and would work tirelessly until he felt the image was as sharp, well exposed, and expressive as it could be. Cole went to great lengths and put himself in grave danger in order to take many of the photographs he used in his work. Robertson and Cole would hide their equipment under their jackets and shoot photos from the hip but for Cole, this wasn’t good enough. He spent hours practicing getting the camera to his eye quickly, framing the photo, and hiding it back in his jacket. Robertson says that one of Cole’s most important qualities as a photographer was the ability to observe without being seen. He blended in and carefully watched for the right moment to take a photo.

Figure 2: It's Integration - Result Of Group Areas Act. It's dance-time in Riverside. Just a little way away from Eerste Rus there's a big surprise. This is Pretoria's Riverside. The White people here speak Afrikaans some of them vote Nat - and they get on very well with their Black neighbours. Here, the Group Areas Act, which his killing Eerste Rus, splitting communities all over the country, and which is aimed at keeping people of the different skin colours well apart, had its oddest result yet. (Photograph by Ernest Cole BAHA)

One of the sections in House of Bondage documents the life of South African mine workers. In order to take these images Cole placed his camera in the bottom of a brown paper bag and taped the cable release along the inside. He put some sandwiches, an apple and a paper napkin on top of the camera and brought the whole thing in as his lunch. When he found a photo he wanted to capture he pushed aside his lunch so that he could see the screen and pushed the cable release. Some of his most powerful photos were taken inside the mining towns. Cole has several photos taken from within prison, which was completely forbidden. In order to capture these images he had himself incarcerated overnight and hid his camera somewhere on his person. Within his collection there are photos from inside the jail and in the truck on the way to and from the prison. On one occasion Geoff Mphakati accompanied Cole on a trip to H. F. Verwoerd Hospital, which is now called Steve Biko Hospital. Before they left Cole told him that if anything were to happen he should take the film and run and leave Cole behind. After his accident he was unable to run properly so he was taking a huge risk with his life in order to document life within the hospital. In response to this incident Mphakati said,

So here’s this little man, slightly built, with the biggest heart I could ever imagine in a human being, with so much determination, courage, you name it. It was all in this little frame of a man, very courageous but highly unassuming. There he was, going out of his way, putting his freedom, maybe even his life, on the line for future generations to be able to say: this is where we came from. If there ever was a selfless person it was he. (Knape, 33)


            Ultimately it was Cole’s dedication to his work that forced him to leave the country. In April 1966 he was working on a story about the tsotsis, township gangsters, who mugged Whites in Pretoria. He travelled with the gang on several robberies and received their permission to document a story on the condition that their identities would not be revealed. Unfortunately, the undercover police had been watching the gang for some time and arrested several of them, including Cole. He was able to produce a letter from a newspaper agreeing to buy a story about the tsotsis but the police insisted that he reveal the names of the gang members as evidence in court or else he would be charged with aiding and abetting a robbery. Cole was unwilling to give away the names of the gang; instead he went into hiding in Soweto. With help from his friend Geoff Mphakati and Joseph Lelyveld, he was able to organise a passport and plane ticket on the pretence of going on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. As a devout Roman Catholic Cole had been talking for some time about making a religious pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, which is famous for its miraculous healing powers.

            On 9 May 1966 Ernest Cole left South Africa from Johannesburg’s Jan Smuts airport with a tourist visa for 14 days in Nairobi. Two days later he landed in London where he met with Schadeberg, who had moved to London in 1964. Cole’s plan was to take his work to Magnum because he knew that they represented Henri Cartier-Bresson. While he had little success at the Paris offices, John Hillelson from the London office put Cole in touch with the art director of the Sunday Times Magazine who printed a cover and a 5-page spread of Cole’s pictures. For the next few months Cole travelled around Europe visiting Copenhagen, London, and Paris before arriving in New York on 10 September 1966. The Magnum offices in New York negotiated publication of Cole’s story in a 10-page spread in Life Magazine and in book form by Ridge Press and Random House.

The book was published in 1967 as House of Bondage. Following publication of House of Bondage, Cornell Capa, the Vice President of Magnum New York, assisted Cole with his grant to the Ford Foundation to document the migration of rural black people to the industrial cities of the American South. The application was authorised for books entitled “A Study of the Negro Family in the Rural South” and “A Study of Negro Life in the City”. It appears that funding continued until 1971 but none of the photos were ever printed.

When his passport expired on 6 May 1968 he applied for a new one at the South African Embassy. However, this request was denied as House of Bondage had been banned in his home country. Cole could have requested an emergency travel certificate to visit; however he was fearful of arrest or worse so he never returned to South Africa. By this time Cole’s great love affair with America had died. He quickly realised that apartheid was part of the American reality and that there was little he could do to change racial discrimination in South African or America.

During his time at Drum Cole had learned about the existence of the United Nations and the Afro-Asian Bloc. In a documentary filmed in 1967 by Rune Hassner, Cole he talks about how House of Bondage was motivated by his desire to help the Afro-Asian Bloc and the outside world by photographing the conditions and everyday life in South Africa. Initially he believed that the United Nations would step in to create change but upon leaving his home country he realised how naÁ¯ve that belief was and that it was up to the people of South Africa to bring about the change that needed to happen. Coming to this realisation Cole became disillusioned about the effect that his work would really have on South Africa. He hoped that one day it would be used as evidence for generations. Looking straight into the camera Cole said, “It the future it will stand because I am sure one day South Africa will be free.” (The Schadeberg Movie Company)

On 25 November 1968 Cole wrote a letter to the Alien Commissioners in both Sweden and Norway asking for a third preference residence visa. Writing about the need to leave America, Cole said, “However, what I have seen in this country over the past two years has proved me wrong. Recording the truth at whatever cost is one thing but finding one having to live a lifetime of being a chronicler of misery and injustice and callousness is another.” (Knape, 234)

Over the course of the next few years Cole spent quite a lot of time in Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm meeting with fellow photographers and exhibiting his work at several galleries. His exhibit was part of the Swedish Photographers’ Association’s 75th anniversary in 1970 in Stockholm’s Liljevalchs Konsthall. He returned to New York in the early-1970s and spent time with Alf Kumalo, who was one of Cole’s former colleagues at Drum. According to Kumalo, Cole seemed in good spirits and still fresh from the publication of his book. However, during the mid-1970s Cole began to lose touch with his friends and family. Around 1976 Cole could no longer pay for his room at the Pickwick Arms Hotel and left all of his things behind including his negatives and prints, which he was never able to recover.

During that year he began to sleep on the subways. He spent some time living in London with Julian Bahula in 1979 before returning to New York with the financial help of Barry Feinberg at International Defence and Aid (IDAF). IDAF was an anti-apartheid organization, which distributed funds to victims of apartheid and disseminated information about the conditions South Africans were living under. Cole spent the majority of the late 1970s and 1980s living with friends. There is little known about him until the late 1980s when Cyril Khanyile, a medical doctor practicing in Harlem, took him in. According to Khanyile, Cole was traumatised and hurt when he met him and he speculated that it had to do with the publication of House of Bondage. Cole felt that his creative vision wasn’t realised and that someone else had told his story.

In 1989 Cole contacted Joseph Lelyveld who had assisted him over the years and told him that he needed to see a doctor. Lelyveld was able to arrange to have him cared for at the New York Hospital where he stayed for a month before he died. He also tried to obtain a travel visa so that Cole could return home to South Africa but by the time the documents were processed he was already too sick to travel. Cole’s mother and sister arrived in New York two days before he passed away in hospital.

His sister, Catherine Hlatshwayo recalls seeing him on Saturday, the day before he died when he was able to walk and talk about life and the people he knew from home. Friends who were present at the time remember how moved and happy Cole was to see his mother again. On Sunday 11 February 1990 they received a call from the hospital that he was very sick so they came and sat with him as he took his last breaths.

An Anglican church in New York organised a memorial service during which, Cole’s sister, Joseph Lelyveld, and Cyril Khanyile made speeches about his life. His body was cremated and his ashes were brought back to South Africa on Catherine’s lap in the airplane. The funeral was paid for by the African National Congress (ANC)

The night before the police began to throw teargas through the windows of the family home. Ernest Cole is buried in Mamelodi Cemetery with an inscribed stone slab upon which is written: Cole, Photographer


·         Some accounts say that a family friend gave Cole his first camera, while others say that it was the local minister

·         It is not clear if Cole passed his National Junior Certificate. In his own biography he says that he failed horribly but in a documentary done by JÁ¼rgen Schadeberg his mother says that he matriculated and obtained the certificate.

·         There is debate about when Ernest Cole was able to reclassify himself as coloured. Often the date is not mentioned

·         The exact day he died is unclear but his sister talks about him watching Nelson Mandela be released from jail while he was in hospital. What we do know is that he died on a Sunday sometime in February in a New York hospital.

This article was written by Anna Hutchinson and forms part of the SAHO Public History Internship