In 1956, 20-year-old journalist Lewis Nkosi said farewell to his colleagues at the Durban-based Zulu-language newspaper Ilanga lase Natal (The Natal Sun) and headed to Johannesburg to take a job at Drum, a new current affairs magazine pitched at black South African readers. There, he befriended a group of urban intellectuals, amongst them the writer Can Themba, with whom he briefly bunked in a one-room house in Sophiatown, a mixed-race residential neighbourhood known for its vibrant dance halls and slated for demolition by the white Nationalist government. Nkosi only spent three months living in Sophiatown before moving to a racially proscribed white suburb to live with a white woman friend. ‘He didn’t care a damn and would simply come out of that house in the morning always looking extremely well-dressed,’ recalled the writer Nadine Gordimer in 1986. Nkosi epitomized a volatile new intensity developing across the African continent in the post-war years: he was a ‘new African’, as Nkosi would later write, ‘urbanized, eager, fast-talking and brash’. This ‘new African’ is a recurring presence in the early part of ‘Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life’, curator Okwui Enwezor’s ambitious visual historiography of life in apartheid-era South Africa. This the ‘new African’ squats in Leon Levson’s undated photo from the 1950s, wearing a fedora and check jacket while hawking daily necessities on a Johannesburg pavement. And there she is again, skipping rope in a 1957 Johannesburg boxing gym while Peter Magubane takes her picture. But white South African voters had other ideas about the place of this ‘new African’.
Broadly chronological and bracketed by two key events – the 1948 election victory of D.F. Malan’s conservative white National Party and South Africa’s first non-racial elections in 1994 – Enwezor’s fine exhibition, the second in a trilogy on African photography commissioned by New York’s International Center of Photography, is both a sober analysis of an historical epoch and a sombre obituary for a political system that, at its root, was a grotesque neo-fascist vision. Featuring some 800 photographs, 27 films, various archival fragments (mostly magazines) and a truncated selection of art works by five South African artists working with collage and montage (earlier versions in New York, Munich and Milan also included work by Adrian Piper and Hans Haacke), ‘Rise and Fall of Apartheid’ tracks the pageantry and programmatic logic of white nationalism, beginning with unidentified photographs of a victorious Malan, as well as the broad-based civic agitation and resistance that ensued.
The arc of this resistance is marked by particular attributes. The 1950s photographs by Magubane, Bob Gosani, Jürgen Schadeberg and Eli Weinberg recall a time of fragile possibility encountering firm refusal. Their photos direct the viewer to the implementation and enforcement of restrictive influx control measures – and the rejection thereof – most famously in a 1952 photo by Weinberg showing protestors setting alight their passbooks. The action is typically concentrated around the law courts and community halls of the white city. The state’s retaliatory aggression, which escalated from cruel and absurd bureaucracy to the razing of mixed-race neighbourhoods, dispersal of non-white citizens to new peripheral ‘locations’, beatings, imprisonment of civic leaders and worse, shifted the action from the formal white cities to the impoverished labour ghettoes that surrounded them. Resistance after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, when police gunned down 69 protestors against the pernicious passbook system, was largely expressed in landscapes of visible neglect and longstanding deprivation that form a constant backdrop to the conflict images by Magubane and Sam Nzima in the 1970s, Gideon Mendel and Guy Tillim in the 1980s, and Fanie Jason and Greg Marinovich in the 1990s. In an exhibition that aggregates many well-known photographs, ranging from the wider Drum archive to the essays produced by members of the 1980s non-racial photographic collective Afrapix, Ian Berry’s photographs from Sharpeville proved both revelatory and jarring, particularly those frames showing the hats and bicycles left behind by fleeing protestors.
Enwezor and his co-curator Rory Bester, a Johannesburg-based art historian, demonstrate a quixotic faith in photography’s transparency. The largely black and white image archive is deployed in service of a relatively conventional socio-aesthetic praxis that broadly accepts photography as diagnostic and evidentiary (only a small room devoted to collage and montage near the end troubles this faith). ‘A defining feature of the anti-apartheid struggle is the paradigmatic role played by social and documentary photography, reportage and the photo essay in documenting, recording, transmitting and shaping a broad and complex understanding of the law, bureaucracy, institutions and everyday life under apartheid,’ writes Enwezor in the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue, reiterating an orthodoxy amongst South African photographers. In a special issue of the leftist literary magazine Staffrider, published in 1988, art critic Joyce Ozynski – who, along with David Goldblatt, played an important role in the establishment, the following year, of the Market Photo Workshop, a non-racial training institution – noted the special capacity of documentary photography to overcome the ‘blind spots resulting from an internalized apartheid ideology’, as well as its ability to ‘make visible what had been invisible’. Three years later, Paul Weinberg, writing in the same magazine, simplified all of the foregoing into a singular word: ‘witnessing’.
One photograph in particular reflects the vivid intensity and, to quote Nkosi, ‘appalling loneliness’ of living under apartheid. Taken by the Berlin-born Schadeberg in 1955 in a Sophiatown dancehall, it depicts a black couple dancing. She wears a beret and twinset, he a flat-cap and beige boiler suit. Their manner distantly echoes the carousing couples of Malick Sidibé’s photographs of 1960s Bamako, although here, their expressions are less joyous, more concentrated, their eyes pinched shut, refusing the political savagery disassembling their neighbourhood – a brutality happening more or less in tandem with the experimental modernism unfolding elsewhere on the continent. In an exhibition where the photographic subjects often seem to be heroically performing history rather than living it, whatever truth is on display in this singular image is obscure. Like Santu Mofokeng’s travelling worshippers essayed in his 1986 ‘Train Church’ series, or Cedric Nunn’s seated portrait of a mother mourning the death of her son taken in 1987, Schadeberg’s photograph dramatizes the retreat into an imaginary republic, a place of internal exile that is impervious to both the camera and to state ideology.