South Africa, 1985, during the darkest days of apartheid. Nelson Mandela still languished in a cell on Robben Island. The burning issue to Americans was “disinvestment” – were American companies propping up the racist regime by doing business there? And how to tell that story in pictures? We flailed about – and then discovered a 38-year-old black man who seemed to embody many of the contradictions at work in South Africa. By day Sam Mali had an enviable job as foreman of a General Motors plant in Port Elizabeth, supervising a crew that included whites; by night he was a kaffir, required to carry an ID card, banned from areas marked ‘whites only’. He was forced to live with other blacks in a squalid township without power or running water.
Sam Mali was profoundly torn - between his livelihood, and “the struggle.” He felt compelled to attend the funerals of activists killed by the police – but risked his job and his life by doing so. It was an act of courage or madness to allow himself to be photographed for the entire world to see. Grey Villet's essay on Sam Mali was duly published. When I returned to South Africa a few months later, I was abruptly summoned to the state capitol in Pretoria. There I was confronted by the furious deputy foreign minister of the ruling racist government. Redfaced, he brandished a copy of LIFE – waving it in the air. “These are lies,” he shouted, “and you know they are!”--Chris Whipple
Related: American Nazi Party Demonstration, District of Columbia Stadium,