In 1979, Charles van Onselen, a white social historian at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, began conducting interviews with Ramabonela ‘Kas’ Maine, a black rural sharecropper born in 1894. Maine, a lithe old man with a white beard, was eking out a meagre existence on a small plot of farming land in Ledig, a resettlement camp near the leisure resort of Sun City, when Van Onselen began the interviews. For decades, Maine had peripatetically survived as a sharecropper working with (rather than for) white landowners. In doing so, he acted contrary to the Natives Land Act of 1913, a segregationist piece of legislation that disproportionately allocated land along racial lines and aimed to obliterate black commercial farming. This act is the defining leitmotif for ‘Umhlaba 1913–2013’, a group photographic exhibition commemorating the arc of interracial cohabitation, dispossession, bondage and, finally – painfully, never fully realized – liberation.
That Maine was able to inventively live and work as his father had done before him represented an immense act of self-reliance and defiance, though it was, in a sense, a pyrrhic victory. In one interview, speaking in clipped, almost Beckettian language, Maine told Van Onselen: ‘The seed is mine. The ploughshares are mine. The span of oxen is mine. Everything is mine. Only the land is theirs.’ Originally spoken in Afrikaans, this statement functions as a sort of skeleton key to the exhibition ‘Umhlaba’ (‘land’ in the Nguni language) – a disparate presentation of ethnographic and studio portraits, archival news images, FSA-like black and white photographic essays (including David Goldblatt’s 1980 Ou Kas Maine, which shows Maine repairing his metal contraptions with a ball-peen hammer, anvil and broken pliers), and a recent vintage of self-conscious ‘art’ images (notable amongst them a lavishly scaled frontal portrait of a sugarcane cropper, made by Zwelethu Mthethwa on his brother’s farm in 2003).
The show begins with 32 portraits from the massive archive of 23,000 glass-plate negatives produced between 1892 and 1945 by studio photographer Hugh Exton. These formal portraits of self-possessed black dandies in three-piece suits, young white lovers and withdrawn farmers’ wives were made in Exton’s Pietersburg studio at the turn of the 20th century. Produced with formal care and equanimity for his racially diverse sitters, Exton’s portraits document a moment of possibility – of mutuality and racial equality – that was being savaged at the same instant. Together with Exton’s photographs, the show’s curators – Goldblatt, Bongi Dhlomo-Mautloa, Pam Warne and Paul Weinberg – opt to juxtapose a series of images that document the bitter conflicts that marked South African history prior to its unification in 1910. Hung above Exton’s work, some of these images introduce the language of racial oppression. ‘Kaffirs at home’, reads the original caption attached to an undated 19th-century study of a lone grass hut, its residents huddled outside. Another anonymous photograph of men standing behind the mining oligarch Cecil John Rhodes is labelled: ‘A group of native mine boys.’
There is an axiomatic relationship between black rural poverty and landlessness, and South Africa’s wealth-generating, life-consuming mining industry. ‘Mine owners and white commercial farmers needed workers and pushed for legislation that would give them easier access to African labour’, wrote political scientist Kobus du Pisani.
Sharecropping, which had its origins in the industrial revolution triggered by diamond discoveries in the northwestern Cape Colony in the late 1860s, posed a threat to this scheme. Like the Enclosure Acts in the UK, the Natives Land Act of 1913 formed part of a series of ‘racial and political inequities’ that, as Van Onselen records in his book The Seed is Mine (1995) – a landmark piece of historiography that announced the unknown biography of Maine – ‘came first with conquest, then with segregation, later still with the policy of apartheid’. Displayed in close proximity to Exton’s 1913 portrait of G.G. Maloisi in a dark suit and white shoes are the partially constituted remnants of an anonymous 1906 glass-plate negative showing the head of Bambatha, the Zulu leader executed for leading a rebellion against the introduction of a poll tax by colonial authorities. It is a grim photo, its import compounded by its fragmentary quality.
The history of photography in South Africa is, increasingly, marked by the articulation of safe academic positions in which the country’s documentary tradition is lionized rather than diligently interrogated, its limits and failings probed. ‘Umhlaba’ repeats this strategy. While too comfortable in its acceptance of social realism as the only mode for getting at the truth, the curators nonetheless manage to upset propriety. A quiet, unhurried immanence pervades the exhibition’s middle section, allowing people like Maine and Petrus Mulaudzi – a former ‘house boy’ turned rural farmer photographed over three decades by Chris Ledochowski – to embody history. A spare 1988 composition by Santu Mofokeng shows a white farmer seated in a pick-up, pointing, cigarette in hand, to three black labourers working in a sunflower field. The image elegantly summarizes the twin narratives of defeat and resistance that this exhibition records. Tellingly, Mofokeng took this photograph when he was a researcher at the African Studies Institute, which was headed up by Van Onselen at the time.
‘Umhlaba’ begins with Exton, an unheralded figure who made pictures of unknowns, and ends with another overlooked image-maker: the nurse-turned-photographer Gille de Vlieg. In 1986, De Vlieg photographed Lesego Makganye working the land on Braklaagte, a farm acquired by the Bahurutshe ba ga Moiloa people in 1908 and the site of numerous failed attempts by the apartheid state to forcefully evict them. The didacticism of the curatorial choice might lean towards the irksome – like the iffy selection of news images documenting recent farm unrest and the massacre of striking mineworkers at Marikana – but, viewed more expansively, De Vlieg’s photo speaks about what could be: restitution. As the descendents of Maine, Maloisi and Bambatha well know, it is a slow-going activity, painfully so.