What We're Reading: South Africa, Divided by Apartheid and Still Divided

By David Schonauer   Tuesday November 28, 2017

Joao Silva came of age documenting social upheaval in South Africa.

Between the early 1990s to the country’s first democratic election in 1994, Silva captured deadly political violence that eventually led to the abolition of its system of racial segregation. “Two decades later, Mr. Silva still finds that stark social tensions continue to divide the country. The divisions are in as much economic terms as they are racial,” noted The New York Times  recently, after Silva completed an assignment that sent him across South Africa.

“It is still very much about the human condition in those kinds situations, even though now the element of danger is not there,” Silva told The Times’s Lens blog.

Silva, who was born in Portugal and immigrated to South Africa at the age of nine, has covered not only the struggle to end apartheid — along with photographers Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovich, and Ken Oosterbroek he was a member of the famed Bang Bang Club documenting the townships of South Africa between 1990 and 1994 — but also conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan. In 2010, while working in Afghanistan, he stepped on a land mine, losing both of his legs.

“After months of intense surgery at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and receiving high-tech prosthetic legs, he slowly began the process of learning how to walk and photograph again, a situation akin to what his country is going through with democratic rule,” noted Whitney Richardson in The Times.

For his most recent assignment, Silva spent a month traveling through South Africa, documenting the country’s class divisions.

“With apartheid gone, with the National party gone, we had this dream that it was all going to be sorted out,” said Silva. “Of course, it’s naïve — it is not an easy thing to come to terms with.”

Meanwhile, LensCulture  recently looked at the career of Ernest Cole, the black South African photojournalist who challenged the power structures of apartheid South Africa.

“Photographers had various strategies for recording apartheid; some sought to delegitimize it by using their work for political purposes, while others used their work to represent and comprehend it, “ wrote Miller Bianucci. Cole’s subversive documentations of apartheid, Bianucci added, “are meaningful ‘indigenous counter-narratives.’ His work revealed the way symbols of oppression could be challenged, redeveloped, and interpreted in forceful ways. Cole’s photographs have come to define apartheid, and the fact that they are still being discussed today speaks to Cole’s impact on this period.”

Born in 1940 in a township in Pretoria as Ernest Levi Tsoloane Kole, the future photographer hoped to become a doctor. “[B]ut,” notes Bianucci, “he quickly learned that he could never realize his dream with the introduction of The Bantu Education Act, a segregation law that severely limited educational choices for black South Africans. Unwilling to accept the indignity of Bantu education, Cole terminated his studies at sixteen and completed a course through correspondence from Wolsey Hall at Oxford.”

His photography first appeared in Drum Magazine in 1962 in an article about a South African neighborhood where racial mixing occurred despite the apartheid laws. “It presented a subtle, yet powerful, jab at apartheid legislation concerning interracial relations,” noted Bianucci. “Cole’s accompanying photographs are considered some of the most intimate documents of interracial relationships from this period.”

In 1967 Cole published his book House of Bondage, which featured 183 photographs and scattered texts. “The photographs are indisputably about apartheid; however, the way Cole engaged with the apartheid system and cut across legal boundaries—commenting on, confronting, and seeking to dismantle oppressive forces—makes these pictures even more subversive,” wrote Bianucci.

“It is impossible to envision apartheid in the present moment without drawing on anti-apartheid photography, which compellingly documented the landscape of the era,” concluded Bianucci. “In his forceful, if oblique, manner, Cole challenged an oppressive regime. Cole’s work remains relevant to this day as an international debate rages about the power of photography and the role of news media in general.”
At top: From Ernest Cole


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