Humphrey Phakade ‘Pax’ Magwaza was born on 4 April 1962, in Lamontville, one of the oldest Durban townships, Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal – KZN). He was one of Evelyn and Philip Magwaza’s six children.
After completing his matriculation in 1982 he became interested in drama. As a political activist he was very involved with the creation of the now famous play “Asinamali” by Mbongeni Ngema.
His artistic work in theatre and photography focused on ordinary people - the conditions of their lives, their hardships and their struggle for liberation from apartheid and poverty. His political purpose was forged and sharpened by the national context and the local environment in which he grew up, Lamontville. Lamontville was Durban’s oldest township, established by the local authorities in 1932 to the south of the city, and in line with a national urban influx control policy. The policy aimed at ensuring a supply of cheap labour for urban industries while yet keeping the aspirant and growing African middle class out of `white’ urban areas by housing them in dormitory townships on the city’s periphery. Lamontville thus became home to both black professionals and thousands of black workers employed in nearby industrial areas such as Mobeni, where Pax’s father, the Rev. Philip Magwaza, rented a space to run his butchery. Black people, whether living in townships or in rural ‘homeland’ areas, could not own their domestic or business properties or their homes even if self-built. The Nationalist Party (NP), which came to power in 1948, adopted increasingly oppressive laws to strengthen their apartheid policies.
From the early 1950s, Lamontville was a nursery and a microcosm of the anti-apartheid struggle. Msizi Dube and Florence Mkhize established a branch of the African National Congress (ANC) here in 1953. In the late 1970s and the 1980s, the township produced many political leaders and was the site of often violent clashes between activists, especially youth, and police; and between the African National Congress (ANC) and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) followers. Many young people were drawn into the resistance movement, including Pax Magwaza.
In his late teens he joined and became a youth organiser for Masibonisane Lamontville Youth Organisation (Malayo). Malayo became a member of the Joint Rent Action Committee, JORAC, which subsequently affiliated to the United Democratic Front (UDF), the broad anti-apartheid resistance movement formed in 1983. Specifically, the UDF opposed the 1983 constitution for a Tricameral Parliament of Whites, Indians and Coloureds, and the related ‘Koornhoff Bills.’ These were aimed at entrenching apartheid institutions and permanently consigning both urban and rural black Africans to ‘homeland’ citizenship, thereby excluding them from citizen rights and any say in the government of their own country, South Africa.
JORAC had been formed to resist the twin evils of Lamontville’s incorporation into the KwaZulu homeland and massive rent increases proposed by the Port Natal Administration Board (PNAB) for Lamontville and Chesterville residents, on the back of bus fare increases exacerbating their existing economic hardships. Resistance took the form of a rent boycott under the rallying cry of ‘Asinamali!’ (We have no money). To mobilise awareness and support for the campaign, Pax Magwaza and a group of Malayo youth initiated a play called ‘Asinamali!’ that highlighted the plight of the people and the harsh actions of authorities. It took the form of ‘poor theatre’ and was performed for township audiences in church and community halls.
Over and above increasing people’s hardship, the increases were seen by many as a political stratagem aimed at driving Lamontville residents into other townships that fell under the KwaZulu ‘homeland,’ established in the late 1970s and governed by Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the IFP. The Natal government intended to incorporate Lamontville into KwaZulu; residents resisted this, being opposed to the government’s apartheid policies and the IFP, and recognising that they could lose both their Section 10 rights to 99-year leaseholds on their homes, and their status as South Africans should the KwaZulu government opt to form an ‘independent’ homeland as the Transkei had done. Msizi Dube, a former Robben Island prisoner, Lamontville community councillor and JORAC leader popular for his struggle against corrupt councillors and for the rights of the community, was a leading figure of the resistance, as was the Rev. Mcebisi Xundu. Dube was informally hailed as ‘the Mayor’ of Lamontville.
There were many additional elements stoking anger in Lamontville in the early 1980s. These included the local beerhalls, administered by the PNAB to finance the provision of (woefully inadequate) township services and perceived as dulling people’s resistance with cheap alcohol; the racial tensions with Indian bus operators; the activities of ‘informers’ (Security Branch spies) and vigilante gangs co-opted by the government to attack its opponents; and most of all, those Lamontville community councillors that were seen to be corrupt stooges and allies of the oppressive political system, betraying the people whom they were supposed to represent. Beerhalls, administrative offices, buses, homes, people and councillors were attacked, stoned, burnt and murdered. The presence and brutal actions of the police with their riot vehicles did nothing to restore order but only inflamed the situation. There were also clashes between ANC followers and workers who were followers of the IFP and Chief Buthelezi and lived in the local SJ Smith hostel.
On 25 April 1983, Msizi Dube was assassinated. The Mayor of Lamontville, Moonlight Gasa and others were later convicted of his murder. Dube’s killing unleashed a storm of fury. A suspected informer was killed at his funeral. Less than a month later, two activitists from JORAC and Malayo were murdered. The Mashaulin gang, criminals notorious for being used by corrupt councillors to attack activists and destabilise the community, were believed to be guilty of their murders. An angry group, amongst who was Magwaza, attacked and killed the Mashaulin leader, Sash Khanyile. Some months later Magwaza was arrested during a performance of ‘Asinamali’. By then he was also acting the part of Romeo in a play which was touring township schools. Based on Romeo and Juliet, it aimed to make Shakespeare’s play, which was a matric set work, accessible and relevant to black students. It did this by adopting a local setting and transposing the Montagu/Capulet divide to the black/white divide in South Africa; the part of Juliet was played by Marie Odendaal, later to become Magwaza’s partner. With Magwaza’s arrest, the play came to an abrupt end, but ‘Asinamali’ continued without him, becoming a national and international success under Mbongeni Ngema’s direction. Magwaza’s bail conditions before and during the court case prevented his participation in theatre work so he turned to photography instead. He approached Omar Badsha, a founding member of the progressive photographic collective Afrapix and a fellow activist whose work he had seen and admired, to take him in as an apprentice photographer. Magwaza started working on a documentary project on Lamontville and was invited to become a member of Afrapix. He shared a darkroom with Cedric Nunn, a fellow Afrapix photographer, and documented political rallies, funerals and other anti-apartheid and worker struggles like the BTR Sarmcol workers’ strike. His photographic career was interrupted when, in 1985, he was found guilty as an associate in the murder of Sash Kanyile, and sentenced to 8 years’ imprisonment. By then Marie was expecting their first child, who was born while Magwaza was in prison. In 1986 he was granted the right to appeal his conviction and released on bail. He continued with his photography, attempting to stay under the radar at political events. He conceived, directed and performed in the play ‘Sounds of the Condemned,’ which highlighted the evils of the death penalty under apartheid. It included a song commemorating Solomon Mahlangu, an ANC cadre who had been executed in 1979.
When Magwaza lost his appeal he went back to jail at Ncome, known as Kandaspunt Prison between Dundee and Vryheid. He lodged a second appeal to the Supreme Court Appellate Division and was again released on bail. In 1989 he and Marie moved to Pietermaritzburg and in 1990 they married. Their second child was born. Magwaza continued working as a photographer and member of Afrapix, as well as engaging in a dramatic ‘Get out Gatting!’ protest when the rebel English cricket team under Mike Gatting played in Pietermaritzburg.
In November 1990 he lost his second appeal. This time he decided to flee to the “independent” Transkei Homeland, where he stayed at Flagstaff with the family of Durban’s worker poet Alfred Qabula for two years, continuing to take photographs where possible. After representation by his attorneys an agreement was reached with the authorities that if he would return to South Africa and serve a month in prison, his sentence would be regarded as completed and his prison record expunged.
On his release in 1991 he briefly continued his career as a photographer while based in Pietermaritzburg. In that same year, Afrapix closed after 10 years of existence. Magwaza worked for the Sawubona Youth Trust in their youth leadership programme. In the early 2000s he trained as an Arts Administrator, supporting various community arts groups including Ababumbi Arts and Ceramics. He continued to use theatre as an educational tool for voter education and economic justice issues, mentoring many young actors and other artists. With support from the Msunduzi Department of Health he ran a drama-based HIV/AIDS project to inform and educate farm labourers in the Midlands about HIV. He also did fundraising work for the Jambo Arts Centre.
In 1999 Pax applied for and was granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for his part in the murder of Sash Khanyile. Marie and Pax divorced in 1999. They continued as friends with Marie supporting Pax in various ways through his prolonged periods of unemployment. His repeated incarcerations and other struggles had taken their toll on his health and he suffered mild strokes from hypertension. He also developed diabetes. He died, apparently of a seizure, on 9 October 2007, leaving three sons, Delani, Mayibuye and Ntsikelelo. He was buried in Gijima Cemetery, Lamontville, KwaZulu-Natal on 13 October 2007.
Works featured in publications:
SPEAK Collective No. 24 Jun-Aug, 1989