Photographic exhibition surveys our ignoble history

Rise and Fall of Apartheid, showing at Museum Africa in Johannesburg, is a rich exhibition of photographs documenting South Africa's past. Photo: eNCA

Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life, an enormous photographic survey of South Africa’s dishonourable history, is showing at Museum Africa in Johannesburg after acclaimed shows in the US and Europe.  Simon Shear shares his observations.

A visit to the Voortrekker Monument is an education in both the meaning of apartheid and the uses of the image. Immortalised in marble is the story of valiant pioneers who leave a corrupted colony, carrying grit and true religion across the uncivilised wild, only to be betrayed by treacherous natives.

You will see the golden child Dirkie Uys who sacrificed his own life for his father and his fatherland, taking down the enemy to secure his generation’s glory.

It quickly becomes clear that the system founded on this legacy was an ethno-nationalist project, or at least, an economic project underpinned by an ethno-nationalist mythology.

And it is precisely this narrative that makes Hendrik Verwoerd’s comments, broadcast on a video screen a few steps into the Rise and Fall of Apartheid exhibition, so chilling.

Verwoerd stands on a stage, addressing his people. In a previous clip, he has explained that apartheid is a misunderstood term, that we should more properly understand it to mean good neighbourliness. Now he looks down – concerned, smirking, radiant with moral certainty – and warns that it may be easy for the current generation to ignore existential threats, but to do so is to imperil future generations. It’s extraordinary how thin the line can be made to seem between self-preservation and aggression.

This sly confidence, founded on anxiety, is in many ways scarier than Gideon Mendel’s pictures of young children performing in a ‘Great Trek re-enactment’ in Pretoria.  It only becomes clear, when faced with those large, high-contrast colour images of children doing synchronised callisthenics, that fascism is more fascinating and more confident when it is implicit. The physical feats of these fit young Aryans are never going to hold the Volk together in the face of sanctions and labour unrest.

Verwoerd’s inward turn is echoed, to an almost eerie extent, by colonial separatists today. It is a retreat, not quite voluntary, from the state of affairs in the photographs you see as you enter the exhibition: Dr and Mrs DF Malan, in formal dress, taking tea, attending to official duties, laughing at a sherry party with Clement Attlee. (And how far we had come from the days when Jan Smuts was gallivanting around the globe planning a League of Nations!)

Removed from the world stage, the ruling class can address only themselves and reinforce their defences against the barbarians at the gated community of white privilege.  The iron fist of an internally-focused security apparatus, aimed to keep order and thus the race’s pre-eminence, now seems inevitable.

The imagery of resistance in the 50s and 60s depicts an unfamiliar kind of radicalism. It’s quieter and more solemn, a world apart from the high-octane action shots of the Bang Bang Club. I don’t know how much of this reflects the social reality and how much is the result of a shift in the way we read the iconography of resistance. From the late 1970s, the images take on the flavour of revolution as we still understand it: angry young men in berets waving their fists. The contrast with a mass funeral for protesters at Sharpeville, which come across as sombre and dignified, is striking. 

Seeing the mass of bodies, I could not but think of Marikana. It was not the only time; fairly or not, I thought of the massacre and the strange entanglement of business and politics when I saw a 1985 picture of a slightly bemused trade union leader outstaring the country’s undisputed mine boss. The older man is Harry Oppenheimer and he shares a stage with Cyril Ramaphosa. In one picture, we see how unfathomably South Africa has changed; and how much it hasn’t.

To me, Peter Magubane is a standout reporter of the early defiance era. I can’t pinpoint an obvious difference in subject or form from his peers, but more often than not, when I found myself unusually drawn to an image, he was the photographer. He is also the subject of one of the most compelling images in the exhibition: standing with closed eyes and parted mouth, at the same time like a martyr and a man in a state of religious ecstasy, as two police officers in their officious, imperious uniforms close in to arrest him outside court during the treason trial.
Magubane’s picture of a nanny leaning across a bench to fix the hair of a young white girl who sits on the ‘Europeans only’ side is as clear a summation of apartheid’s absurdity as you will find.

The very fact of its contrived and unsubtle effect – if Spielberg made a movie about apartheid, this would be the poster - only underscores the kitsch injustice of the Calvinist police state’s tireless expounding of morality and civilisation.

The prevalence of portraits is in keeping with the period’s restrained style. A dignified Walter Sisulu holding up his pass before burning it, Eli Weinberg’s extraordinary portrait of Yusuf Cachalia as a young dandy, Nelson Mandela sparring on a rooftop after a long day in court – this was an era of personalities and perhaps of a quiet kind of hope in organisation and leadership and the civilised resistance of the defiance campaign.

Entering the next room, you leap into the succeeding decade and are confronted immediately by Sam Nzima’s photograph of Mbuyisa Makhubo carrying a dying Hector Pieterson. That image, countlessly reproduced, is too sad and potent ever to be reduced to a cliché, but we have maybe become numbed by the horror. But when I entered the room which held it and was confronted with that photograph as the futile, desperate summation of decades of dignified resistance - the shock was as if seeing it for the first time.

History as art

The photographs are almost always formally interesting and, especially in case of the early black and white images, usually beautiful. But they rarely come across as less than serious. If George Hallett’s accomplished images of District Six feel a little stagey, it may be only in contrast to the raw documentary effect that was the reigning aesthetic.

On the other hand, David Goldblatt’s 1984 images of busloads of KwaNdebele commuters are ravishing, almost overwhelmingly beautiful, and yet the grain and shadow and slices of light follow from the content (though of course they don’t; the vision is the photographer’s), seemingly finding beauty in banality, without seeking to romanticise drudgery. It is a cruel aesthetic twist that Goldblatt’s complex and historically nuanced images should, with Kentridge prints, have become wallpaper for affluent suburban South Africans.

A suburban tableau of a very different sort is presented in the cosy domestic scene of women of the Black Sash gathered around a table, sewing their regalia. Is it possible even to imagine anything more safe and middle class? And here were activists on the front line of one of the very few collective actions white South Africans can be unambiguously proud of.

It is too easy to underestimate women as icons of revolution, and the sin is all the more tempting with an older woman. For an instant, Gille de Vlieg’s 1985 shot of Black Sash founder Jean Sinclair holding an anti-apartheid banner comes across an odd portrait of somebody’s grandmother – as harmless, even slightly funny. But that instant passes and you see a tough, principled activist, unimpressed by power or chauvinism. It's a beautiful counterpoint to Verwoerd’s smarmy communalism and one of the few images that made me hopeful instead of despondent.

Perhaps it was my pessimistic mood – which I, perhaps grandiosely, take to reflect the pessimistic mood of the nation – but I found little consolation the section displaying early pictures of nightlife and social activities. Rather than rare moments of freedom and defiant hedonism, I saw a fleeting distraction from sadness. Sure, Jurgen Schadeberg’s sultry portrait of Miriam Makeba alone with jazz and the microphone will live forever, and the spirit of Sophiatown remains a vital trope, but what of the people performing variety acts at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre? Who were they? How were their lives shaped by apartheid’s strictures during the daylight hours? It feels that their loss, rather than their distinct character, has been preserved.

Historical optimism is, of course, contingent on the point from which you view the world. Anyone viewing the triumphant 1990 images of Mandela emerging from prison, say, on the cusp of free elections, could, without exorbitant idealism, have taken the exhibition to present a tortured but reasonably straightforward narrative of progress from tyranny to freedom. History lies because it doesn’t stop to let us reflect on the present, and I take ambiguous consolation in the fact that my pessimism will in time mean something else.

I have touched on only a few images and themes of this enormous exhibition. All young people should be encouraged to visit this vital lifeline to our past, and, no less, the rest of us should not miss the chance to revisit our received opinions about where we have come from.
But no less, the exhibition should be a starting point for historical reflection. Photography’s strength is its immediacy, the ability to offer us slices of the present; but in inhabiting the consciousness of a moment (however refracted by our contemporary ways of seeing) we risk the mystification that cannot be detached from emotive art.

The Voortrekker Monument frieze is an original work of narrative propaganda. Its message follows the broad contours of history, but its moral is built into its form; and we are still too close to the myth’s origins for its normative force to have become diffused. We don’t have to be naïve about the unsullied objectivity of documentary photography to note a difference. The photographs always try to tell, of course, but more than anything they show. What is the moral, or even the message, of this vast, variegated show? It’s time to start taking history seriously again, and have this conversation.

Rise and Fall of Apartheid is showing at Museum Africa, 121 Bree Street, Newtown until 29 June 2014.


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