Photography: Conversation with David Goldblatt about “Rise and Fall of Apartheid”

Almost fifteen years ago, I saw David Goldblatt’s photographs in Rotterdam, at the Netherlands Architecture Institute. They were small and unobtrusive, and I stood before them, very moved. Subsequently, as I learned the story of South Africa through literature, theory, history books, Goldblatt’s work—and later, other photographers’ work—was my real entry. In a way, I could not have done my scholarly work without first conversing with these photographs.

When Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life was at the International Centre for Photography (ICP) in New York, it was a different kind of experience. This incarnation of the show, in Johannesburg, feels different—and not only because Museum Africa is a larger exhibition space, or because we are in Johannesburg—but many of the images that greet us, and those that are blown up to billboard size to help create the audience’s emotional response to the show, and help fashion our initial responses are very different. When New Yorkers walked into the ICP, the first, blown up poster they got to see was that of the women of the Black Sash protesting—which, I feared, may have given them an erroneous impression of what protest marches were like, and who protested; it’s not that the women of the Black Sash did not do important or dangerous work, but seeing nice, white, middle-class ladies gathered around carrying protest placards was hardly a common sight. At Museum Africa, it is Noel Watson’s photograph of a young man—a boy, really—who steps out from the half-moon of fellow protestors, and into the space of gun-wielding, police in riot-gear: his arms are outstretched, his forefinger and middle finger raised in defiant peace signs.

Although the subtitle of the exhibition—“Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life”—tells us that Okwui Enwezor, the curator of this show, attempted to show how the everyday and the ordinary were infiltrated by apartheid policies, he has devoted more space to protest culture. And perhaps that is to show that people did not simply lie down, and remain cowed.

Undoubtedly, in an exhibition of this scope, intended for audiences in several global centres of art (after New York, the exhibition went to Milan, Munich, and finally, to Johannesburg), a curator must act as an editor, shaping the exhibition in a way that audiences in each location will find palatable, while challenging them at the same time. What’s lost here? Photographer and trade union leader Omar Badsha finds that one of the most problematic aspects of Rise and Fall is that “you come out thinking that all photographers were equals and all were progressives” deeply involved in exposing the horrors of apartheid. He notes, also, that hierarchies between white and black photographers, “power relationships between news houses”, as well as the difficulties faced by black photographers in trying to find work over their white counterparts is absent. Badsha fears that as we walk through this exhibition, we might imagine that “[white South Africans] played a major role” in the struggle against apartheid: the proportionality of risks taken, the percentages of involvement (and this goes for the Indian and Jewish radicals who also took part in the anti-apartheid movement), isn’t obvious—we get to hide behind a few representatives who sacrificed their entire lives for liberation, and refer to them when we are asked, “What did you do?”.

The ICP and their partners supporting the exhibition in Johannesburg went to some lengths, through a pilot campaign, to get people from a different demographic here from the usual museum-goer—black working-class people in inner city Joburg—the exhibition’s publicity campaign sent people with flyers to high-traffic zones such as taxi ranks to invite commuters to the exhibition with their families and friends and also advised trade unions and political parties to get involved in spreading the word. From the opening night on 13 February until 28 February, more than 2,300 visitors were registered, and the number of visitors per day increased to 170 per day. People have come and recognised family members in these photographs. In a way, this exhibition has recaptured what this building was originally intended for: a marketplace, meeting ground; only now, we meet to exchange thoughts and ideas, haggle over who gets to tell history.

So it was no wonder that on June 24, the night on which we organised this conversation, the auditorium was packed—and with a largely young audience. Here’s the trailer of the talk (the full video is at the end of this post):

I began the conversation at by asking Goldblatt about the title, and whether apartheid has really “fallen” and whether—given the structures that still maintain it remain strong in South Africa—it isn’t problematic to bookend apartheid.

Goldblatt’s at his best when he speaks about the details of the structures he photographs, and what “values” these structures uphold and display to the world. His ability to analyse how the architecture of Afrikaner churches changed—listen for it on the video—as the National Party and Apartheid became ever more powerful—is brilliant. Soon thereafter, the conversation centered around how our churches or other religious organisations helped uphold the structures of apartheid by staying “quiet.” Around min. 50, the audience began speaking about whether attempting to survive—keeping one’s head low—is a form of complicity. Goldblatt said, of churches, “The prevailing value in the Protestant communities at the time was, ‘Don’t rock the boat.’” Yet, he also made it clear that leaders of the Anglican, Methodist and other churches and small churches in small towns were vehemently—and at some risk—against the apartheid system. In contrast, he said, the Afrikaner churches were riding high at the time.

I understood, on an academic level, the point he was making, but I knew I had to mediate that comment. So I said, “My experience is that most people do stay quiet, because we want to get on with life, send children to school, you want a future for them that’s different. When I think of what happened after 9/11, my response was to do what my friends urged me to do when I travelled”—which was to squeeze my “ass into tight jeans and look like a ‘Mexican chica’” in the eyes of the authorities. I chose to capitalise on (and thereby reinforce) an existing American stereotype. Essentially, I was “passing”. I wasn’t interested in giving border guards a chance to harass me. I knew I wouldn’t be “threatening” to them until they looked at my name on the passport, and I hoped that dissonance between embodied signals and my label would aid me somehow.

David then said, in that quiet way that I now know, after eight years of interviewing him, is going to be the prelude to a bomb: “I’m going to throw a thought out that will possibly get me into trouble… we were all complicit in apartheid except those who were prepared to risk their lives. And I include the black people in South Africa.Until the students in South Africa came out and revolted in Soweto in 1976. We were not prepared to risk our lives.”

There was a literal, palpable bristling in the entire auditorium. Omar Badsha, who was in the audience, reminded him that black South Africans took up the armed struggle long before, in the 1960s, in fact. Someone asked, quite innocently, about Jewish people who made “piles of money”; and another alluded to Indian collusion. Yet another reminded us of photographs of the poorest Indians—children working in sugar cane fields in what was then Natal: some went along and capitalised via the back avenues of apartheid, but most were enormously damaged. Goldblatt and I both made an attempt to remind ourselves about those Jewish and Indian men and women who risked their lives, challenging the system—but I always fear that such reminders are heard as weak rejoinders about a token few, who become the face of uglier collaborations. It’s always like that for those who live in the “in-between”—I suppose it’s that discomfort that began my political education, and opened up my political mouth, too.

Meanwhile, I’d seen this young man in the front, shaking his head, and shaking his head, looking down at the floor. I remembered being that kid—full of disagreement and a kind of knowing that came from an embodied experience of difference from those who got to be on the stages of the world, but having no avenue to offer my “correction.” So I stopped the order of questions from the audience, and said, “I saw this young man in the front, shaking his head, would you mind offering us our thoughts?” (He didn’t even realise he was the one being addressed; his neighbor had to nudge him.)

Then, the conversation really began.

Here’s the video:

* Rise and Fall will continue on at Museum Africa in Newtown, Johannesburg, till 30 April 2015. Many thanks to the Goethe Institute, Pro Helvetia, and City Press for helping make this conversation happen.

Image Credits:

Top: Writer Percy Zmvuyo with photographer Omar Badsha looking at a Black Sash protest image at Rise and Fall of Apartheid in Joburg 2014 – Photograph by Masimba Sasa.

Second Image: (c) Noel Watson, Security forces with dogs hold back crowd protesting against Minister Piet Koornhof being given the Freedom of Soweto, 1980.

Further Reading

No more caricatures

Engaging seriously with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life could help us understand how South Africa got where it is and where it’s going.