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Northern Cape

TThis is the story of a Kimberley mine guard who bought a cheap box camera and became a South African photography legend. 

You see photographs of Alfred Martin Duggan-Cronin and his travelling sidekick, Richard Madela, sitting around a fire at their tented bush camp deep in the wilderness, and you just know that these men lived the kind of life for which the legendary adventurer-author Ernest Hemingway would have paid dearly. 

They travelled the length and breadth of southern Africa to photograph its indigenous peoples, just in time to capture the age-old customs and traditions before the colonial migrant labour system changed them forever. 

The Thandabantu exhibition at the Duggan-Cronin Gallery in Kimberley shows but a delicious fraction of his body of work gathered over 50 years of field trips. It is, truly, the most significant collection of southern African ethnographic photography in the world. 

Duggan-Cronin, an Irishman from County Cork, came to work for the De Beers diamond mining company in Kimberley in 1897, starting as a compound guard and transferring later to the prison hospital. 

After he bought his camera in 1904, his first human subjects were the mine workers. Obviously intrigued by where they all came from, he began to travel extensively all over the region, covering nearly 130 000km in the 20 years between the two World Wars. 

From 1930, Richard Madela began travelling on assignment with Duggan-Cronin, and is recognised as being key to winning over suspicious photographic subjects in far-flung rural places. In 1932, Duggan-Cronin resigned from De Beers, and thus began their full-time forays. 

Supported by Kimberley’s McGregor Museum, the South African government and the Carnegie Foundation, Duggan-Cronin’s photographs are priceless records of traditional settings, from the San of the Langeberg to the Zulu of KwaZulu-Natal, the people of Limpopo to the Pondo and Xhosa of Eastern Cape. The 2 men travelled beyond the borders of South Africa to what are today Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia in search of interesting faces and places. 

Along the way, Duggan-Cronin picked up the nickname of Thandabantu it means ‘one who loves people’ in several Nguni languages, including Matabele and isiZulu. The name is reflective of the care and respect he and Richard Madela showed their subjects at all times. 

Unfortunately, Father Time did not show a similar respect for Duggan-Cronin’s massive legacy of photographs. The nitrate-based negatives were found to be potentially combustible, and they were also starting to deteriorate. 

Robert Hart of the McGregor Museum – who is now the custodian of this great collection – was sent to Paris to train under Anne Cartier-Bresson, one of the world’s leading photographic conservators. The collection has been saved and is now a timeless record of a distant era in southern Africa. 

Did You Know?

TTravel tips & Planning  info 

Who to contact 

McGregor Museum, Kimberley 
Tel: +27 (0)53 839 2700 

How to get here

The Duggan-Cronin Gallery stands next to the MacGregor Museum on Egerton Road in Kimberley, and is administered by the museum. 

Best time to visit

The gallery is open Monday to Friday between 9am and 5pm, and opens on weekends and public holidays by appointment only. 

Around the area

The Big Hole is the tourism centre of Kimberley – set aside at least half a day for your visit to the hole and the historic museum next to it. 

Tours to do

There are tours available to the Magersfontein battle site, Wildebeest Kuil Rock Art Centre, ghost tours and walking tours of the city and the Kimberley Club. See the Sol Plaatje Municipality Tourism website for details. 

Get around

Visit Kimberley as part of a Northern Cape road trip. You can hire a vehicle in Cape Town, Johannesburg or Upington and enjoy the Kalahari highways. 

Length of stay

Set aside 2 hours for your walk around this very informative gallery. 

Where to stay

See the Sol Plaatje Municipality Tourism website for accommodation details – there are lots of very good overnight choices. 

What to eat

Try a good pub meal at The Half near the gallery – it’s where Cecil John Rhodes allegedly used to drink while sitting on horseback. 


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