John Liebenberg obituary

Other lives: South African photojournalist in the frontline of the fight for Namibian independence in the 1970s and 80s

My friend John Liebenberg, who has died aged 61 of complications following surgery, was a photojournalist on the frontline of the fight for Namibian liberation in the 1970s and 80s. He also went into Angola from 1989, documenting its 27-year civil war.

John was born in Johannesburg, in South Africa. He and his two sisters were placed in St Mary’s orphanage by his father, after his mother left the family home when he was two. He was eventually fostered by a German couple, Petra and Ernst Kahle, and went to high school in the city. Aged 18, he was conscripted as a soldier and sent to Namibia in 1976. After his national service he settled in the Namibian capital, Windhoek, and earned a living by taking family photographs.

As the struggle for Namibian independence grew, John began photographing the soldiers of the apartheid state and protests of the Namibian people. In 1985 he and a group of other journalists, including the editor, Gwen Lister, who were opposed to apartheid repression and injustice, founded the Namibian newspaper.

Fearless in his pursuit of photographs, he knew Namibia so well that he was the first stop for visiting foreign journalists. I first met John in 1987, after including him in an anti-war exhibition that I had organised in Johannesburg for the End Conscription Campaign. The show was intended as a challenge to South Africa’s second state of emergency, and many activists were reluctant to attend for fear of being detained, but John flew from Windhoek to see it.

In September 1989 the human rights advocate Anton Lubowski was shot dead outside his house in Windhoek. John was the third name on the same hit list. Soon after, someone tried to execute him in his red VW Golf in a drive-by shooting. Years later he still drove the same car, its bullet holes a mark of honour.

When Namibia gained independence from South Africa in March 1990, John, who was on first-name terms with the new president, Sam Nujoma, documented the South West African People’s Organisation (Swapo) victory.

A photogragh taken by John Liebenberg of Namibian Defence Force soldiers photographed in the Eastern Caprivi, Namibia.
A photogragh taken by John Liebenberg of Namibian Defence Force soldiers photographed in the Eastern Caprivi, Namibia. Photograph: John Liebenberg/AP

In November 1994, while in Huambo, Angola, John was in an air crash, in which his hip was broken. The following year he moved back to Johannesburg.

As well as working for the Namibian, John freelanced for Reuters and other international agencies and publications, including the Guardian and Der Spiegel, until his death.

He exhibited widely at home and abroad. He had a solo show at the Goethe Institute in Nairobi (2008), and his images were included in Rise and Fall of Apartheid (2013-15), which travelled from the International Center of Photography in New York to Munich, Milan and Johannesburg. John’s work was shown in London, at the Contemporary African Art Fair, Somerset House (2014, 2015), by Afronova gallery, and last year at Soas University of London. A book of his photographs, Bush of Ghosts: Life and War in Namibia 1986-90, was published in 2010.

John married Ute Siehoff, a violinist, in 1984, and they had three children, Joseph, Max and Jessica. The marriage ended in divorce. He married Inge Kühne in 2005 and they had a son, Emile, but that marriage, too, ended in divorce.

He is survived by his children, a grandson, Leo, and a sister, Isabel.


Pat Devereaux

The GuardianTramp

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