Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Daily life under apartheid

South Africa: The Cordoned Heart, Introduction and Text by Francis Wilson. Foreword by Bishop Desmond Tutu. New York: W. W. Norton. 186 pp. $14.95, paper. THE first Carnegie Commission in South Africa was formed nearly 60 years ago by university and church people attempting to study the extent of ``the Poor White Problem.'' White farmers, displaced by the lasting effects of war, the industrialization of agriculture, and persistent drought, were migrating into the cities. The Second Carnegie Inquiry into Poverty and Development in Southern Africa set out to explore the structural dimensions of poverty for all South Africans, rural and urban, as well as for people in Lesotho, which has historically provided laborers for South African agriculture and mining. ``South Africa: The Cordoned Heart'' is the first publication of the inquiry, which is scheduled to end its work early next year. The photographs, selected from about 1,000 submitted to the project editors by South African photographers, are intentionally partisan. Omar Badsha, coordinator of the photography project and one of South Africa's outstanding documentary photographers, plainly states that these photo essays have no allegiance to the neutrality of journalism. The result, as Bishop Desmond Tutu writes in his foreword, is a searing chronicle of the daily life of ordinary people.

Political terror communicates best in the cumulative physical and psychological degradations of the individual. ``The Diary of Anne Frank,'' George Orwell's ``1984,'' Arthur Koestler's ``Darkness at Noon,'' and Alexander Solzhenitsyn's ``One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich'' gather their strength by focusing on one person's experience. Similarly, ``The Cordoned Heart'' defines the ordeal of the mostly black and Colored poor in southern Africa by visualizing the everyday life of individuals.

About these ads

As a consequence, these photos are earnestly different from most of those we encounter in the mass media. Television news, for instance, favors large gatherings: hundreds of black youths confront squads of uniformed military and police officials at boycotts and funerals. Conversely, the images in ``The Cordoned Heart'' coalesce around the universal rhythms of life: eating, sleeping, working, playing, loving.

Perhaps the major theme of these images is the disruption of family life by apartheid. ``The Night Riders of KwaNdebele,'' a photo essay by David Goldblatt, shows workers on their daily ride from the KwaNdebele reserve to Pretoria. Many riders spend five to six hours traveling to the city to work; some are away from home from 2:30 a.m. to 9 or 10:30 p.m. The pendelaars, as they are called, leave and return in an eerie Piranesian gloom. A life of bone-wearying commuting is preferable to life in the single-sex compounds outside the cities or at the mines. Ben Maclennan has captured the brutish existence in the compounds, especially in his views of the concrete coffin-size bunks allotted to each man.

One-third of black South African women perform service jobs that require separation from their families. Lesley Lawson found her subjects cleaning offices and apartments. Images of forced removals from what are called, in Orwellian language, ``inappropriately situated'' communities, the long treks for water and firewood, and the straitened life of the elderly precede a brief series of more political photos. But the weight of the book and its indictment of apartheid rest on the injustice meted out to the common man.

That focus will seem unnecessarily decorous to some, but it may just prove more politically effective than the more familiar scenes of strife and carnage. Racial separation, as Leonard Thompson has pointed out in ``The Political Mythology of Apartheid'' (Yale University Press, 1985), requires the notion of unassimilable inferior races. Cheeky Kaffirs, as the Africans are derisively called, must be pictured as so radically and unalterably different that the only sane and humane political policy is one of racial segregation. Much like ``The Family of Man,'' the celebrated 1955 exhibition of journalistic images organized by Edward Steichen, ``The Cordoned Heart'' quietly undermines that myth with a vision of shared human activities. Viewers see the human quotidian, debauched by apartheid, surely, but still fundamentally and empathically universal.

At the same time, there are aspects of these photographs that will be recognized mostly by South Africans. These images reverberate with the iconography of 30 years of adversarial photography in South Africa, and especially with the photo essays in Drum, the now-defunct Life-like magazine. Drum nurtured the documentary work of photographers such as Jurgen Schadeberg, Peter Magubane, Ernest Cole, and Bob Gossani. Documentary photographers in South Africa risk imprisonment and severe censorship. Magubane spent 586 days in solitary confinement, six more months in jail, and he was banished from his country for five years. Ernest Cole's ``The House of Bondage'' (1966), the first great photo expos'e of South Africa, is banned there. It is far too soon to measure photography's suasion in South Africa, but one can speculate that it has been and will continue to be greater than that leviathan, television.

``South Africa: The Cordoned Heart'' was published in conjunction with traveling exhibitions of the photographs in the United States, South Africa, and Europe. The photographers have agreed to donate their royalties toward the creation of a Center for Documentary Photography at the University of Cape Town.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.