South African pastor, local photographer reflect on first free election

  • Maggie Moonsamy, left, who is visiting from Port Shepstone, South Africa, sits for a portrait with Terri Cappucci at her home in Turners Falls on Tuesday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Maggie Moonsamy, right, who is visiting from Port Shepstone, South Africa, talks about her time and experiences in South Africa with Terri Cappucci at her home in Turners Falls on Tuesday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Photographer Terri Cappucci looks through articles with her work printed from her time in South Africa at her home in Turners Falls on Tuesday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • New work by Turners Falls photographer Terri Cappucci includes a distressed giclée film transfer entitled "Blue Door" of three students waiting for their teacher in Murchison, South Africa. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Maggie Moonsamy, right, who is visiting from Port Shepstone, South Africa, sits for a portrait with Terri Cappucci at her home in Turners Falls on Tuesday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Maggie Moonsamy, right, who is visiting from Port Shepstone, South Africa, talks about her time and experiences in South Africa with Terri Cappucci at her home in Turners Falls on Tuesday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Maggie Moonsamy, right, who is visiting from Port Shepstone, South Africa, stands for a portrait with Terri Cappucci at her home in Turners Falls on Tuesday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 8/13/2019 10:28:23 PM

MONTAGUE — Before segregation laws were struck down in South Africa in 1994, Maggie Moonsamy, a 73-year-old black pastor, said race inhibited most aspects of her life.

She couldn’t go to the beach, sit in a restaurant or buy clothes she liked, she said. She had poor access to education and health care, leading her to contract polio and lose the ability to move her arm. She couldn’t live with white friends or pursue higher education. And she could not have a say in who led her country.

“I felt frustrated, but I suppressed it,” Moonsamy said.

In 1994, Moonsamy, then a 48-year-old mother of four, cast a ballot for the first time. She shook as she checked a box next to Nelson Mandela’s name.

“My hand was shivering. I couldn’t even make the cross,” Moonsamy said, adding that she overcame initial nerves.

“I came out there grinning,” she said.

There to photograph the historic election was Turners Falls resident Terri Cappucci. She had spent three years living South Africa in the 1980s, and, fascinated with the country and troubled by its racial injustices, returned in 1994 to capture people voting for the first time.

“I was thrilled that the country was now going to have a new government,” Cappucci said. “I wanted to be part of that.”

The two friends reflected on their experiences during a visit by Moonsamy to Cappucci’s Turners Falls home.

As a 20-something photographer with little experience, Cappucci arrived in the small South African town of Port Shepstone and asked a local newspaper The South Coast Herald for a job. She secured a freelancing photography position and set out to capture local residents as they grappled with a watershed moment in their country.

Shortly after Cappucci landed her job, she ran into Moonsamy in downtown Port Shepstone and took the pastor’s photograph. The two began talking and realized that together, they could find first-time voters and document the election.

Moonsamy took Cappucci to majority-black rural areas where white people could not enter safely. She added that some white photographers had been killed in rural areas as they “represented apartheid.”

“I said ‘You’re not taking photos in town, and in the white areas,’” Moonsamy said. “‘You’re going to go with me, we’re going to go deep rural.’”

Cappucci was thrilled by this offer as she wanted to explore black areas to capture “people who had never voted in their lives.”

“I didn’t want to be where all the media was,” Cappucci said. “I wanted to do something different.”

The two set out to rural parts of the country, sometimes risking their lives to take photographs. Gun violence was rampant in some of the areas they visited, Moonsamy said.

“People would die,” she said. “A bullet would come and just hit somebody right next to you.”

The election day became three, as polling places flooded with first-time voters. Cappucci said she photographed people who had been waiting in miles-long queues for three days.

“You’d see people standing in line, and they’d started a little fire and they were making eggs,” Cappucci said. “Because it goes so slow.”

The dangerous, rewarding work drew the two close together. Cappucci returned to South Africa the following year, staying with Moonsamy and beginning a documentary following the country’s progress. Cappucci visited most years since, accumulating about 20 trips, while Moonsamy made about nine to Western Massachusetts.

“We just started bonding together through tough times,” Cappucci said. “It’s scary situations, and things that we saw that were really frightening, and times that we were frightened for our own lives. And we became inseparable.”

Reach Grace Bird at gbird@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 280.


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