Seeing: Apartheid in words and pictures
Reading about South Africa’s apartheid past and travelling about the country, one becomes almost used to arriving at a town or village and thinking, oh Cradock, here is where…, oh George, here is where…, oh Brandfort, here is where…., for in all these places terrible horrors, pain and suffering occurred. David Welsh’s (2009) The Rise and Fall of Apartheid (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball) is one of a number of very fine books about that time, which lasted for far too long a time. It is indeed in my estimation one of the very best, being detailed, thoughtful, thorough and immensely powerful in its delineation of racial oligarchy while also recognising the period of transition and its turning points, taking the reader from the gloom of the 28 May 1948 election result to that of the 1994 election. Its 578 pages of text have a weight beyond the mere number of words included. Reading it is a cerebral experience – there is but one photograph, and that is on the cover of the paperback edition – so that considerable work of recollection is needed to map its events, descriptions and analyses onto place; the index has the names of a few ‘homelands’, but otherwise people and events occur… well, in the mind I guess.
However, apartheid was immensely visceral and visual, as another book of almost the same title, Okwui Enwezor and Rory Bester’s (2013) Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life (New York: International Center of Photography) conveys. This is as many pages long as Welsh’s book but replete with photographs from start to finish, many of them unfamiliar and not widely used in the mass media. But almost all of them can be mapped onto recognisable places. Yes, that bus-stop can be recognised; yes, that building is familiar; yes, that township has been visited; yes, that park has been walked through. Yes, the pain on that person’s face is palpable; yes, the grief and anger is visible in that person’s eyes; yes, the hatred that infuses a face can be seen.
The result is that reading these two books is a very different kind of experience. One is a kind of ‘pure reading’, in which seeing requires some complex work of recollection and visualisation; the other is a form of reading completely infused with seeing, and in which ‘now’ and ‘recollection’ are bracketed, side-lined by that conjuring trick of photography as a medium, of seeing ‘there and then’ both through the frameworks and understandings of the present moment of looking, and also and simultaneously as though through the camera’s lens at that past moment of seeing.
Last updated: 7 January 2016