Ramakatane: The unsung hero behind camera lenses







BOTHA—BOTHE – A photographer and a photo journalist who has lived his life to the full, could aptly summarise the life of 81-year-old Mohlouoa Ramakatane whose illustrious career behind camera lenses started in 1952 and ended this year “when I retired voluntarily”.

The camera has taken him places and enabled him to intimately rub shoulders with royalty and the who is who in Lesotho and abroad, including the Basotho Royal Family, Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II, among many other luminaries.

On being ushered into his spacious study cum library on a sunny Tuesday afternoon our five-member crew from Public Eye are quickly struck by the meticulous arrangement of piles upon piles of ageing black and white photos most of them in an excellent state one would think they were all printed only a month or two ago.

As soon as Ntate Ramakatane opens his mouth the first utterance shows an uncanny photographic memory and immediately one understands the matching orderly arrangement in the study room of Lesotho’s unsung hero behind camera lenses.

His masterpiece, he says, is the “Wheelbarrow Ambulance”, an enduring picture of a woman taking a child to hospital in a wheelbarrow.

“I sent it to a competition in Germany and it won me R350 000 in 1989. The Wheelbarrow Ambulance picture made me richer. But I am poor, I dished out everything”, the modest octogenarian says with a chuckle.

He shows off his first camera bought for M1.50 in 1952 and still intact and usable, though of course it has been overtaken by technological changes in the trade.

“It was hard to take photos with this though,” he explains but quickly adds, “But developing pictures was fast; it took only about a week because I would develop them in nearby Bloemfontein”.

Among his other memorable photos is a 1975 wedding picture.

“This is Ntate JP Mohapeloa (famous chorister)’s daughter at her wedding. To this day I still receive payment for this picture,” he says, but would not be drawn to explain how exactly his royalties are worked out.

He starts by detailing his intimate involvement in the historic visit of “The popstar Pope”, the late Catholic head Pope John Paul II in 1986 and shows off several pictures of his with him and senior Catholic clerics, most of whom are now late.

Fit and springily, the veteran photographer begins by reminiscing about his experiences in Soweto in the 1950s when he had to abandon his first love, football, owing to an injury.

As with almost everything he says he produces photographic evidence, properly dated at the back, to support his claim.

“This is my son, now late (died in 1993) with Kaiser Motaung showing him how to play soccer in 1984,” he says, pointing to a black and white photo in his library.

Ntate Ramakatane goes down memory lane and recounts how he played for Orlando Pirates, with Scara Sono, father of Jomo Sono.

“I attended Orlando High School. I suffered a fracture on my hipbone in 1956, which ended my football career and forced me to concentrate on taking photos. I left all sport but encouraged youngsters to pursue sport. I have since been the chief patron of Matlama for 40 years now,” he smiles broadly.

But his experiences are not all about soccer for his career always unwittingly pushed him in the cross-hairs of contemporary politics both in South Africa and here at home.

He recalls how he covered the historic Sharpeville massacre in Soweto, in addition to his having been among the Rivonia trialists.

The unassuming Ramakatane boasts some of the world-famous pictures of Mandela when he was a boxer and a young attorney.

“In 1960 I covered the Sharpeville massacre. I was arrested and spend four months on Robben Island before they discovered I was a Mosotho. I was part of the Rivonia trialists for seven months and was later released after some interrogation, though I was not tortured. The authorities in South Africans simply said I should go back to my country,” he reminisces, citing how George Bizos represented him and others.

“Mandela’s friend George Bizos helped secure my release back home, arguing I was not a South African and advised me to stay out of trouble,” he states, recalling his heyday.

Ntate Ramakatane recalls how he was to meet Mandela again in Lesotho when as President of South Africa he came for the launch of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project in the 1990s.

“Ntate Mandela had a good memory. When the Lesotho highlands water project was being launched, he identified me and immediately invited me to sit next to him.”

Mandela further invited Ntate Ramakatane to go back and settle in Soweto, but he turned the offer down due to family circumstances.

Recalling the fond memories, an animated Ntate Ramakatane says: “Ntate Mandela said, ‘You have a house in Soweto and two cars waiting for you, one for you and another for your wife’. He invited me to go back to Soweto and offered an allowance of M5, 000 a month, but I told him my parents are old and I have to take care of them.”

A true Sowetan, he has old photos taken in the company of Richard Maponya of the Maponya Mall fame in Soweto, Gauteng.

Ramakatane is himself one of the first people in the country to construct a commercial storey building housing his famous City Centre Studio, opposite Pitso Ground, with the popular “Lifoto tsa boemo” trademark, whose popularity remains vivid in living memory around Maseru.

Even on the local political scene at home Ntate Ramakatane was not just a spectator of historic national events as his photography always placed him on the coalface of some of the milestones of the time.

Testimony to this is his rich archival collection of photos detailing operations of the military regime and the state of emergency of 1973.

Some of the photos depict extremely gory details of critical injuries and death.

“I was a victim of all this too. Two bullets grazed my head in 1976 and as you can see these stiches on my head bear testimony to this harrowing experience,” he says, pointing at a black and white but nonetheless vivid picture of a young Ramakatane.

Among the many distinctions that set his career apart from the ordinary, is that his library also boasts exclusive pictures of the Royal Family; ranging from photos of His Majesty King Moshoeshoes II on the advent of Lesotho’s independence in 1966 standing atop Thaba Bosiu to several photos detailing milestones in His Majesty King Letsie III from his first day at school, his graduation at NUL and his wedding.

He also carefully stores rare photos of Regent Queen ’Mants’ebo Seeiso in 1960 and the state of the Maseru Bridge border post at the time.

Information literally flows from the octogenarian in anecdotes, not because he has lost co-ordination – far from it – but because he has so much to share in the very little time we have for the interview.

An unfailing streak of humour runs through his spellbinding narration.

For instance, he recalls how upon visiting England in the company of Queen ’Mantsebo and others, the English Royal Family seemed to have forgotten the Queen when she decided to remind them of King George VI’s visit to Lesotho in 1947.

“We went to England for independence talks in the 1960s. Realising King George VI could no longer recognise her (the Queen) she reminded him how he had come to Lesotho in 1947 saying; ‘and many people came to see you, some came on foot, others on horseback and we the better-nyana ones came by car’”.

There were three cars in Lesotho in 1947, he recollects with his characteristic chuckle.

The humorous Ramakatane further recalls how when some women from Dr Leabua Jonathan’s community in Kolonyama, Leribe heard he had been conferred with an honorary doctorate one of them exclaimed:

“Now that we have our own doctor, a hospital will be built at our village.”

But Ramakatane is not just an elderly man basking in old glory, he is acutely conscious of current realities obtaining in Lesotho.

Turning to contemporary political economy, the widower has a lot to say and insists with his characteristic sense of humour that he is not afraid “because I only have two years to live”.

“You see, our country is sick. One day you are up there in power and the next moment you are a nobody. I have seen this a lot in politics when people suddenly lose their power,” he adds.

Asked what he thinks about the National Reforms efforts underway to reunite Basotho and unlock the stasis paralysing development efforts, Ntate Ramakatane is unequivocally skeptical.

“Our politicians are very selfish; if this tendency continues these noble efforts could only succeed perhaps after 15 years from now because our current crop of politicians is very selfish. It’s now only survival of the fittest for them.

“People are in it (National Reforms efforts) for the sake of pleasing the outside world but they are not really keen to see Basotho reunite.

“Perhaps in the older generation, politicians had the drive to achieve such. Here I am thinking of leaders such as King Moshoeshoe II and his contemporaries who were firmer about the direction they wanted the country to take,” he notes with an unmistakable tone of despair.

Ntate Ramakatane notes that the same selfish culture brewing among Basotho and stalling the broad-based national reforms has ripple effects in the economic development of the country, citing a project to develop a shopping mall in Botha-Bothe, which is gathering dust because foreign investors are unsettled by the political environment.

“I am not afraid to tell you that we are really muddled up as a nation. Gone is our pride encapsulated in our national anthem: Khotso, Pula, Nala. Worsened by climate change, none of these three are available and we don’t know what is happening,” Ntate Ramakatane notes passionately.

He bemoans what he says are insufficient efforts being made to empower youths to generate employment in an environment of pervasive joblessness.

“We have a beautiful country and if you go to Mokhotlong you find many millionaires, but our future is bleak; there are children graduating from varsities and they have no jobs, but no-one seems to be doing enough to encourage them to be self-sufficient”.

Ntate Ramakatane is truly an invaluable repository of the Kingdom’s politics and culture whose exploits as a photographer for decades will for a long time remain etched in national memory.

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