Iconic Photos

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Posts Tagged ‘South Africa

Ernest Cole

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When it was first published in the United States in 1967 and in Britain a year later, House of Bondage was the most comprehensive document of apartheid. Sure, there had been photojournalists from Life or Magnum who visited South Africa and came back with absurd and hallowing photos of segregation, but here was a book, by a black South Africa who lived through its incipient days.

Born in 1940, Ernest Cole was ten when a series of laws — on population registration, on miscegenation, on mixed race settlements — codified Apartheid. In 1953, when bantu education act racially separated educational facilities from missionary schools to universities, Cole left school — his education forever pigeonholing him as an “unskilled labourer” who could only work as in low-paid jobs.

In a time when a black man holding a camera was viewed with great suspicion, he became a photographer for Drum, documenting the pantomime life in segregated South Africa — poverty, binge drinking, overcrowded and dirty black townships, syncretic religion, and bantustans. This was a time of inhumanities. Benches read “Europeans Only”, and there were no benches for “Blacks” as they were supposed to sit on the ground. Trains and train platforms were divided in two — only a small section for “Non-Europeans”. Black hospitals were understaffed.

Absurdities permeated throughout. At drive-in theaters, wooden walls cut through the middle of the field, separating the blacks from the whites. Since non-whites are not allowed to see some films restricted to whites only, the ushers — who were predominantly black — were asked to avert their eyes and watch the floor while ushering in patrons. Shakespeare’s Othello — subtitled The Moor of Venice — was not allowed to be played by a black actor. Black Beauty, a novel about a horse in Victorian England, which didn’t even include any black people, was banned because the censors read the title and assumed that it was a black rights novel.

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But the worst conditions were in the mines — in whose strict patriarchal divide between white overseers and black laborers began the seeds of Apartheid. Cole sneaked his camera into these mines in his lunchbox, and took pictures. In his book, Cole wrote, “twenty-four hours a day, six days a week, half a million Africans are at work in the earth.” The pay was low, and the condition dire (the mines were not unionized until 1982) but the lure of riches was to draw other Africans into the miasma of apartheid. They came from all over South Africa and from Zambia, Mozambique, Angola and several other neighboring states.

Soon his work and connections became too controversial even for trailblazing Drum. After he was asked, and re- fused, to become a police informer, he left for exile in the West. When his book was published, he became an instant persona non grata and his book joined Black Beauty on the banned list (but was secretly circulated). He never returned to South Africa, and died penurious in Manhatten in 1990, even as the Apartheid regime was crumbling.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

June 26, 2017 at 8:12 am

Posted in Culture, Politics, Society

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Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013)

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Nelson Mandela, freedom fighter and conscience of Africa, died on December 5th, aged 95. 

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“It was a moment of liberation experienced around the world”, wrote Martin Meredith in his monumental survey of Africa since independence, “The Fate of Africa.” On 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela walked through the gates of Victor Verster prison. The world had remembered him as a heavily-built middle-aged man, but Mandala who walked out was a lean, grey-haired elderly figure.

In 1984, after eighteen years the maximum security prison on Robben Island, Mandela was transferred to another at Pollsmoor. Pollsmoor was an even grimmer facility but his long walk to freedom was accelerating. On Christmas Eve in 1986, he was given his first taste of freedom outside prison in 24 years as a prison official took him on a drive around Cape Town. Other trips to coastal resorts and fishing villages followed; he was allowed to eat in cafes and visit his warders. Astonishingly, no news were leaked and no photos were taken of these trips; in fact no contemporary photograph of him was published from 1964 to 1990.

In 1988, he was transferred to a low-security prison at the Victor Verster, where he stayed in a small farm-house on the grounds. It was from here that he was driven to secret meetings with South Africa’s Afrikaner presidents, who agreed that Mandela was a man they could do business with. On 2nd February 1990, the government declared a universal franchise for South Africa. Apartheid was over. A week later, Mandela was released.

His release was to bring him little personal joy. A scandal broke out over the criminal activities of his wife, who was revealed as the head of a notorious gang called the Mandela United Football Club that terrorized parts of Soweto in the 1980s. Moreover, she had grown accustomed to having her husband locked up in prison; she showed little interest in family life nor halted her amorous liaisons with a lover half her age. Devastated, Mandela published poignant letters he had written to her from Robben Island in his 1994 autobiography and divorced her.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

December 6, 2013 at 2:44 am

Posted in Politics

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Tauza | Drum Magazine

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Photography loves misery, and compelling are the photos of oppression. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement in the United States was evocatively photographed, another struggle across the ocean was similarly being recorded. In South Africa’s long struggle with the Apartheid, photography played a large (if largely-unacknowledged-outside-Africa) role, thanks to a magazine called Drum.

Drum was managed by two Englishmen, both products of public schools. Jim Bailey and Anthony Sampson seemed unassuming and unimposing figures but they achieved what was never impossible: even after many other magazines had been banned for printing anti-apartheid photos, their little magazine survived. Their trick was to publicize Drum as a gossipy rag, while slipping in anti-apartheid news, stories, and photos between general interest pieces on weddings, nightlife, and movie stars. While the magazine was ambitious (and wanted to expand to other English-speaking African states), it was not a profitable enterprise. Its de facto boycott by the South African establishment at the time only made it harder, and Bailey nearly squandered all the money left by his father, the Johannesburg gold magnate Abe Bailey (who was as close as one might get to Flintheart Glomgold without being a cartoon duck).

But Drum‘s assets were in its intrepid journalists and photographers, nearly all of them from all black Jo’burg neighbourhood of Sophiatown. Many of Drum’s star photographers tried to get themselves arrested and took photos inside prisons using . One such photographer, Peter Magubane, was arrested for two years and banned from taking photographs for five years upon his release. Five years later, Magubane defiantly resumed his photojournalistic career.

Perhaps the most famous picture ever published in Drum — some have even called it the most famous picture ever published in Africa — was a photograph of prisoners doing a naked tauza dance. Tauza was a humiliating ritual that the black prisoners had to undergo when they were returning from a court appearance or a work program to ensure that they had nothing hidden in their rectums. Bailey and his reporters had known about the practice and decided that a photo of tauza would be perfect for Henry Nxumalo’s scathing first-hand story on appalling conditions inside South African prisons.

So he sent a white secretary from the office to the notorious Johannesburg prison The Fort. She posed as a photographer while an actual photographer Bob Gosani — Nxumalo’s nephew — and writer Arthur Maimane simply accompanied her as her black servants. The prison authorities paid little attention to the woman photographer from a little rag (many viewed the magazine as a Rand-equivalent of Us Weekly) and much less attention to her companions. As the result, Gosani managed to take the photo above which shocked many when published and led to some, albeit grudging and slow, reform in South African prison system.

That was in 1954 — Apartheid would remain in South Africa for the next four decades. As for Drum the destruction of Sophiatown in later that year (which would also lead a young Nelson Mandela onto the road towards armed resistance) marked an end to its creative reign. Its wonderful staff also disintegrated into fingerpointing and infighting.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

June 28, 2013 at 9:27 pm

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