JTF (just the facts): A total of 19 black and white photographs (drawn from a complete set of 61 images), framed in black and unmatted, and hung in the main gallery space, the side alcove, and the office area. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, each sized 16×20 and available in editions of 9. A monograph of this body of work was recently published by Archipelago Books (here) and is available from the gallery for $36. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: At first glance, Cedric Nunn’s recent landscape photographs from the Eastern Cape province of South Africa are decidedly underwhelming. Very little of what they document could be called beautiful or even memorable. Dusty villages and townships, quiet churches and mission stations, rivers and fertile farmland, and a sprinkling of forgotten monuments are their chosen subjects, and the vistas and views are captured in middle range black and white and with a significant measure of understated reserve. Even when inspected closely, Nunn’s deadpan photographs feel silent and empty.
The reason for this muted character is that what they really show us is an absence. From a historical point of view, much of what we know of Africa is viewed through the prism of active colonialism; the major events that populate most history books mark the comings and goings of various European invaders and occupiers, telling their biased stories of battles fought with natives, settlements scratched out from inhospitable lands, and cities and governments erected where none had apparently been before, taking full advantage of mining reserves, shipping lanes, and other strategic resources. As the old saying goes, the victors write the history, and in the case of the Eastern Cape, that history is dominated by Boer and British interests and vantage points.
What Cedric Nunn has set out to do is to write an alternate history, and to do it with photographs. Almost by definition, this is nearly an impossible task. Not only has most all of the evidence of the ferocious Xhosa resistance to roughly 100 years of frontier incursions by various colonists been almost entirely erased, Nunn’s task is in essence an inversion – to witness something that has disappeared and is now largely invisible. Violence, conquest, burials, battles (both wins and losses), killings, forced removals, occupations, displacements – they’ve all been consciously (and deliberately) forgotten, at least on the surface of things. His point is that these wounds still simmer below, where the denial of that history festers and distorts.
When we look again at Nunn’s unassuming landscapes, what we now see are the tiny historically significant fragments he has painstakingly rediscovered, traces of the Xhosa narrative that haunt the land like ethereal ghosts. There’s Cove Rock, where the warrior prophet Makana declared he would summon Xhosa ancestors from the sea to drive the whites away. There are monuments commemorating the burial place of the prophet Ngqika (behind iron fencing), the graveyard where Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko was laid to rest, and the arcing white concrete towers of Ntaba kaNdoda, a site of repeated battles. There are ruins of countless garrisons and forts, as well as European-style churches and missions that provided sanctuary to settlers. And there are the rich farmlands near the Inxuba River (the Great Fish River) that proved so enticing to land hungry foreigners.
Given there is so little visible substance in Nunn’s pictures, the whole project becomes an exercise in conscious reimagination. Can we see the hints of the warrior chiefs in the young boy standing proudly with his soccer ball? From the three kids standing in the scrub, can we imagine the Xhosa forces assembled in 1819 on the hill overlooking what is now Germantown, ready to attack the garrison? From the street view of modern day Peddie, can we look back and visualize the same place as a British frontier outpost? It takes some real effort to see the other side of every contested piece of land, and to understand that every cricket pitch and jailhouse was once something else of significance to the Xhosa, the traces of which have now been expunged. But it’s that deliberate recalibration of memory that Nunn is after.
Nunn’s photographs aren’t easy to engage with, especially since they offer so little to grab onto. But I found myself drawn into their thinking process, and soon I started to see the nuances of the land with some of the clarity that Nunn intended. Together, his photographs represent a kind of anti-history, a figure and ground visual where we oscillate back and forth between the accepted colonial storyline and its inverted opposite. For peoples the world over who have had their land forcibly taken from them, that land retains its power over their identity, regardless of the prevailing government or ideology. Nunn’s tireless investigations of the Eastern Cape are an important effort to rebalance the scales in favor of the marginalized Xhosa, and give those who have been dispossessed a renewed sense of their own narrative.
Collector’s POV: The prints on view in this show are priced at $2050 each. Nunn’s work has little consistent secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.
Karima Effendi (KE): When it comes to training and professional development, how important is the idea of exchange as demonstrated in the Joburg Photo Harare masterclass?
Cedric Nunn (CN): Exchange is key to the development of life in general, and in our specific regional context where countries were separated by ideological differences, fostering connections through exchange is critical. We need to be made aware of our commonalities and shared interests.
If you think of Zimbabwe, there are “perceived” differences between us (South Africa and Zimbabwe). We have a particular understanding of the processes that happened in Zimbabwe, which comes from these perceived differences.
But when you travel on the ground you get a different perspective. These exchanges allow for that process to take place and allow you to do your own research. Exchanges did that for me. I went to Mozambique for the first time in 1990 and it radically altered the way I saw the country. The same happened when I went to Zimbabwe in the eighties: it also altered my view.
Today in the region we have fewer ideological differences and more in common. For example, we no longer have Marxism in Angola and Mozambique anymore. We've all embraced a neoliberal model; we're all experiencing the same malaise. Our commonalities are around these similar experiences and problems that we now share in this context.
KE: How do social and political forces impact on the training that you do, and how can training respond to these forces?
CN: Social and political forces impact on society in general. Our society is shaped by these forces. In particular, the economic aspect of these forces is manifest. No photographer training or working in these conditions is exempt from their influence. To ignore these forces is to be misled by those who control them and, at worst, to be used as a tool.
Studying and understanding these forces is key to my educational and personal work because documentary photography and reportage deal with the very essence of socio-political and economic processes. And so when you're engaging with this kind of work, you're reflecting on these processes.
But, you can do so in critical or uncritical ways, in passive or active ways. For young people, the better they understand these forces, the more they can be articulate in their responses. My forte, and what I brought to the masterclass, is analysing and understanding the “hows” and “whys” in the society. I think this analysis is greatly lacking in training, to be quite frank.
Although I wasn't privy to the second and third phases of the masterclass, my sense was that the young people were, initially, not critically bringing their viewpoints to bear on photography or looking at the interests they were bringing to their consideration of images.
When you look at photography, you bring your own interests to bear on that process. You could be bringing working class interests, middle class interests or religious interests. The participants brought many of these different interests. My competency in the masterclass was to get them to analyse critically their own interests when analysing photography.
KE: How did masterclass participants react to the challenge of bringing a more rigorous critical regard to images?
CN: I was very impressed by the masterclass and think people generally are going in the right direction. There was a great deal of enquiry and zeal. People have some critical awareness, but it needs to be enhanced and taken forward. Sometimes that process is just developing an understanding of political and social forces. Many people in the class, for example, didn't understand the differences between neoliberalism, capitalism, democracy and other ideologies.
But, the process of bringing together a select group of trained and relatively experienced photographers, and of subjecting them to the scrutiny of their peers and more experienced photographers, is no doubt of great value.
The participating photographers have imbibed only a certain amount of information. They have had various levels of success in terms of implementing what they know. I found that everybody had very interesting projects that could be improved on. Their approaches were sometimes limited purely by their inexperience and, as young people, by their youth. Their engagement with the world was also limited, which seemed to be a consequence of being young.
There were imbalances in the class: some people showed a technical ability but not great analytical ability, while others had more enhanced analytical ability and less technical experience. The training allows for a feedback process at an early stage to correct imbalances and refocus and enhance efforts.
KE: I’d like to talk about the practicalities of training for a moment. Can you tell us about the forms and codes that influence your training methods?
CN: I have absolutely no formal training in photography, so I'm unable to comment on codes and styles. My approach is organic and informal as befits my growth, and responds to my personal research and experience. At this stage the approach is hard to quantify.
I believe I started my presentation to the masterclass with a quote by Einstein that has been a favourite of mine for a while. In it, he says that the biggest obstacle to his learning was his education. Most educational institutions are there to endorse the status quo, to confirm and enhance it, to keep it in place and to grow it. Even though we might have philosophical and academic engagement with these institutions that build our knowledge, dissenting thought is lacking and very hard to have in this system.
And, it's only people with a certain amount of income who can access that kind of education. For many people, to get educated they have to become seriously indebted, and some spend their entire lives paying back that financial debt to institutions. When you're in debt, it's very hard to engage with dissenting ideas. You need that education or job, so you won't endanger it by being critical.
I see it in young people too. Sometimes they come to my training with the expectation that I will show or tell them how to get a job. But I don't do that; that's not what I'm here to do. Working in this medium – documentary photography and reportage – means that if you are not engaging critically (with a particular social system), you are being complicit in that system. I see my role as reminding people of that aspect, which tends to fall through the cracks.
Notwithstanding these last points, I value the impact of education – while remaining critical of education models which reinforce the status quo. I believe in a method that equips people to educate themselves in an ongoing process.
KE: Considering the progression of your career, how have you used photography as a way of responding to socio-political forces and as a tool for change?
CN: My recent mid-career retrospective, titled Call and Response, speaks to the idea of being called on to respond to socio-political imperatives that are key in shaping our society. As a photographer, you cannot simply endorse a system. You need to engage critically with it and ask if it's the only model that can work, and then look at what the alternatives are. If the system does not satisfy you, then you must have the courage to pursue the alternatives. And I mean “courage”. When you are in a system that supports you as a photographer, it takes real courage to bite the hand that feeds you.
Photographers are working in the realm of media, and the media must ask itself why it presents a totally different perspective to the research that comes out of the region (Southern Africa) itself. I would argue that it is because of class interests. The media reflect elite class interests and it's difficult for them to own up to this. They defend their “independence”, and yet the facts remain.
I started off wanting to make a living out of this profession and it's very difficult. It's not easy to make it into a career. But this profession is much greater than a “mere job”. And I know it's hard, because a job is a big thing in our society. But in the bigger scheme of things, we have an obligation as photographers that is higher than us.
Cedric Nunn uses photography to remind South Africa of the unsuccessful resistance of its indigenous people to the confiscation of their land. Nunn’s photographs not only keep alive the tragic history of land-thefts, but also show how indigenous people remain dispossessed and excluded from their ancestral homes, as the exploitation of the region by global mining and agricultural interests continues unabated. Cedric Nunn took his photography series in the Eastern Cape Province, Somerset East, Grahamstown, Peddie, and Hogsback.
Q. You have always been a socially engaged photographer. How does the series you completed for this project continue that work?
The project I chose for this series was one I was intending to do independently for myself, and indeed, it has just been begun and is in need of a lot more work towards completion. It dovetailed with the "Social Landscape" project and therefore it was imperative to begin with it.
In 1913, the South African Parliament passed the Land Act, which had devastating consequences for the already vanquished indigenous South Africans. One hundred years later, we commemorate this heinous legislation which condemned the majority of South Africans to poverty and dispossession. I took this series to be an opportunity to reflect on this state, and to place the 1913 Land Act in context, which was that of a final legislation to finish what had been a long time in the making.
The period I look at, from 1779 to 1879, and termed the 100 Year War, was just a part of the process of the theft of land from the indigenous peoples. This surprising fact, a one hundred year-long was, has been exorcised from our popular memory, and I want it to be firmly etched in our consciousness. That way I think we will have the clarity to move forward to heal and rebuild a very damaged society.
• How is the Grahamstown area representative of what happened in other regions of the country?
The eastern Cape and Grahamstown were at the epicentre of the Xhosa's unprecedented war of resistance to the colonising project. Before that the Khoi and San had led the resistance from 1650 to 1780. Immediately after the ultimate defeat of the Xhosa in 1879, came the war against the Zulu in that same year, with aggression and resistance against other tribes continuing until the Bambhaatha Rebellion of 1904. That was the final major act of resistance until the 1976 uprising of the youth in townships around the country.
The Xhosa war of resistance is largely forgotten in the public imagination, which seems impossible given its scale, and can only be credited to the success of the rewriting of history and propaganda which the masses have been subjected to.
• Can you tell me how it happened?
I have always felt challenged by landscape photography, and this challenge continues. But there is a real need to engage in the landscape, because it is so charged. It is a desired space and has been colonised, controlled, owned and interpreted in more ways then one. We, the dispossessed, have a real need to engage with the landscape, and regain our agency over it, put our stamp on it if you will, reinvent it with our meanings. Almost all the land taken in conquest is still in the hands of the conquerors. The high retail value of the land makes it almost impossible for ordinary black South Africans to acquire any. At present, a re-colonisation of land throughout Africa is underway, in which land is being bought up by foreigners in huge quantities as the realisation hits that food is the next frontier of war and control, and that Africa has large amounts of unpolluted land available relatively cheaply. The Xhosa people who mainly fought this war against the aggressors are largely seen today as a corrupt and defeated people. This series puts that process of degradation in context. And remembers the valiant heroes who fell and remain fallen.
•Do you think that your government ought to work harder for the return of, or compensation for, land that was confiscated? Are you optimistic about the future of your country ?
I believe government, had it the will, could do a lot more to transfer land to people in need. But I believe that government has been successfully lobbied by Big Agri-business into a close relationship which precludes small and emerging farmers. Government at present has little policy on assisting small and emerging farmers, and there seem to be no plans in the offing.
I used to be optimistic, but am now in doubt about the future of this country. This is mostly in relation to the huge geo-political shifts which are invariably impacting on our region. The contest and re-colonisation of Africa by the US superpower and China and India in particular are very important, though many countries are buying up huge swathes of Africa in their quest for food security and domination in the food industry. And of course the increasing contest for mineral resources and fossil fuels which is manifesting in occupations such as Africom. Africa is becoming volatile again, and divisions are being encouraged and exploited.
• You place people at the heart of your approach. But in your landscapes, they seem present only indirectly, and perhaps metaphorically through their habitations, their walls, and their animals. Did you do this intentionally?
In this project, which deals with distant memory, people are not the main focus, so they make only infrequent, and sometimes peripheral appearances.
• Among the photographs of the series, one is an urban landscape. It shows an almost empty street leading to a church. Did you take only one urban picture? What motivated you to take this particular one?
The urban landscape, the cathedral and town square of Grahamstown, are where the Ndlambe people claim their ancestor had his 'great kraal' or palace.
• Why have you chosen to work in black-and-white, and not colour? Is it perhaps because colour might trivialize the landscape, or, to the contrary, make it too picturesque?
I have chosen, mainly for technical reasons to return to film, and to black and white for its simplicity of use. Black and white also allows me to photograph in film, which I prefer for archival purposes. I don't have confidence in the archival quality of digital. Issues of trivialising the landscape are not foremost in my consideration.
• In many photographs we see a lot of walls and ruins.
The focus of this project was to tell the story from the perspective of the Xhosa resistance. Some other aspects had to be incorporated, such as the family credited with starting the conflict, and since there were ruins owned by this family which seemed to date back hundreds of years, I felt it pertinent to include them in the story. The other walls are of a significant battle which was conducted against garrisoned British forces at this little known location. And of course the British were garrisoned within the walls in the picture. There are many many forts which were erected by the British, and they are well documented, but I chose to take another approach which excluded them, because that is the British and European perspective. Of course, one could argue that one should remain neutral and include all aspects of the conflict, but since I chose to focus on the land, which was the desired and coveted asset in the conflict, and moreover, to make the story of resistance the focus, I excluded the many forts and superior technology which was at the heart of British aggression.
•Your photographs are testimonials, witnesses. What do you think is photography's capacity to effect social change?
Photography has as much ability to effect social change as any other Media. Photography, still photography in this instance, allows one the opportunity to observe and reflect, thereby facilitating the feedback loop with which we critically engage in the act of living.
•The stories you talk about are full of violence, and yet your photographs are not at all violent. They are dramatic, but at the same time radiate an enigmatic peace and luminosity. Can you comment on these apparent paradoxes?
Some of the most violent people and situations present as paragons of peace. Genocidal tragedies played out in perfect settings, which increases their horror. I'm simply resisting amnesia which has set in and bogged us down in an unrealistic intellectual, moral, and political quagmire.
Photographer Cedric Nunn’s black and white images cover a range of familiar subjects. It confronts ideas of structural racism, class politics, the legacies of Apartheid, and the chimera of new South African black economic empowerment. Nunn’s work is consisted with his long-held politics. He spent the 1980s as charter member of a group of photographers who were associated with a second wave of “social documentary photography” in South Africa. He continued that tone in the 1990s and since the fall of legal Apartheid. Nunn is philosophical about his work: “ … I'm not totally opposed to either ‘Rainbowism’—the ideology of the mid-1990s that took on a self-evident quality—or BEE (the official government policy of black economic empowerment), but obviously find their present manifestation problematic. I find it necessary to mediate the aspiration and the reality, lest we start to believe our own propaganda, or in these days more likely public relations exercises and bumpf.” At the same time, Nunn’s work is also very personal. His most recent work took him back to his rural Kwazulu-Natal roots where he photographed the world of his childhood and that of his ailing mother who passed away in 2010. In the interview I began by asking Cedric what made him decide to be a photographer and who his greatest influences are. –Sean Jacobs
- When and what made you decide to be a photographer? Who were your greatest influences?
I was expelled from high school at the age of fifteen, and was working in a sugar factory soon after I turned sixteen. I spent the next eight years working in that factory, and the experience was a transformative one in which I was swept up in the upsurge of worker organization and politics of the mid to late seventies. The resultant politicization led me to seek a way in which I could contribute to the transformation of society, which I saw as of critical importance. I had also found myself as a factory worker by default and sought to change that, which given my lack of education and the job discrimination of the day made it no easy task. I found photography when I saw the portfolio of a third year Technikon[i]student, Peter McKenzie,[ii] and recognized the medium as one I could attempt. With his help I set out to learn and soon found a mentor in Omar Badsha.[iii] I recognized with hindsight that I’d been exposed to the best of the Magnum photographers through the Time Life books that my dad subscribed to. Subsequently, the Magnum photographers had an influence on me. Many South African photographers like Paul Weinberg, David Goldblatt, Santu Mofokeng and Guy Tillim, Peter McKenzie and Omar Badsha also influenced me.
- I know that you find the description "social documentary" for the kinds of photographs you made in the 1980s limiting. Can you say something about that?
A: I have never felt competent as a documenter, and half seriously say that I’m not “a photographers photographer.” I see photography as one of the most democratic mediums of the contemporary world, much as writing is, in that since the advent of Kodak and the Brownie camera, photography has been a potential medium of the masses. Quite untrained, I was able, with a little direction, to use the medium to express my view of the country and world I inhabited. So, I wasn’t really trying to document neglected aspects of my society, as bringing witness to a view that was neglected by the mainstream media of the time. Naively, I thought I could record images of my familiar world, as well as the attempts to change the socially engineered world of the time, and this intuitive attempt was largely proved correct with time.
IMAGE 1: Nothando Ntsibande and her one year ten months daughter, Aphelele Mbonambi. Mangete, 2007 © Cedric Nunn
Sean Jacobs: I found this photograph quite striking as it contrasts with the way young people, mostly black young people, are now portrayed in photographs about South Africa both by media and academics, by artists (including photographers) and by marketers?
Cedric Nunn: This image was made as part of a series on learner-parents—that’s an official term for young mothers still in school in South Africa—and Nothando was one of at least ten kids I was introduced to at one particular school in Mangete, in rural KwaZulu-Natal. The phenomenon of learner-parents is endemic to South Africa and the only issue with regards to accessing these kids was the ethical considerations—both, for me as photographer and the [heads] of the schools concerned with identifying the learners.
The learners themselves had few qualms about being photographed though they knew full well it would be for publication in a book. Most lived in conditions of extreme poverty, though evidence of extreme poverty was less apparent in the Western Cape where about six such learners were also photographed. Some of the kids concerned had two or more children.
What was also apparent is that the more working class (or more likely unemployed) the family from which the learner-parent emerged, the more likely they were to have carried the pregnancy to term, becoming parents while still at school in the process. There seemed to be little stigma attached to their new status as parents from their peers.
Nothando lives with her child, one year ten months old Aphelele Mbonambi, her mother Mpho Mabaso and grandmother Goodness Mabaso, and a few other relatives. Again, it seems that her grandmother is the breadwinner, through her pension. The family seemed somewhat dysfunctional, displayed by outlandish behavior and a very neglected and disorderly yard. Her child itself seemed to have physical and mental defects. There was no coherent answer to my queries as the whereabouts of the child’s father, and whether there was a financial contribution forthcoming. I must also say that in all the examples I saw, this was the exception in regards to the extreme evidence of poverty and neglect. Poverty affected most of the subjects, but their response to it was different, most overcoming it by diligent application and support through stokvels (saving clubs) and family.
South Africa is gripped by a need to reinvent itself as a ‘world-class African Country’, and to do this in the context of the paradigm it has embraced, namely the capitalism model, hence the major drive to promote entrepreneurs and business. In keeping with this model, even government departments and many NGO’s have adopted the concept of public relations and advertising wholeheartedly. So it has become rare to see the use of ‘reality’ images, unless in the pages of a newspaper, which of course is a medium for all that is bad in the country, as largely the mainstream media approach is sensationalist in its quest for circulation and advertising revenue. Young people are meant to reconstruct themselves as shining stars of this ‘new paradigm’, and the majority who fail to do so are seen as failures, fit only to labour in the workplace and be happy that they at least have a job. It’s common to hear social commentators of all sorts deride workers who are on strike for better working conditions and express fatigue at the temerity of workers who really should be grateful to be employed. The attempts at bringing government back to its mandated position of protecting the interests of the poor and marginalized is a slow one that bears little fruit presently.
IMAGE 2: Sport and recreation activities such as these, sponsored by corporates such as Mr. Price in this instance, largely exclude the majority by the costs associated with entering and maintaining the activity. Karkloof Bike Challenge, KwaZulu Natal 2009. © Cedric Nunn
SJ: This could be anywhere in the world where you don't see lots of black people, except this in a country where whites are less than 10% of the population. Yet this is also true for leisure in general in South Africa?
CN: A mountain bike such as these pictured here would cost probably no less than R10,000,[iv] five or six months income for the lowest paid workers, who are the majority of employees in South Africa. Then there’s the cost of associated gear, fees for entering such competitions, the transport to events around the country, accommodation, meals, refreshment and entertainment. This clearly makes for a high cost, which would preclude most South Africans. These sports are the new segregated barriers that prohibit much mixing of the classes. At this event I saw only one person of color. Whilst there are many black people that cycle, probably only those in corporates could afford to enter such events. Then again it seemed to me that these events are tailor made as networking opportunities and as well as ensuring the fitness of employees, sharpening their competitive skills vital for survival and success in the race to the top.
I suppose we have to remember that leisure for the masses is a recent construct, associated with the fruits of capitalism for the western world. Black people would recreate through culture typically, as in choirs and dance ensembles, etc. Activities such as that pictured are ideal for honing and maintaining the competitive edge in commerce and industry, as well as a networking opportunity.
IMAGE 3: Workers converge on the taxi rank for their commute home.
Ballito, KwaZulu Natal, 2009. © Cedric Nunn
CN: Ballito, on the KwaZulu Natal north coast, is home to ostentatious wealth and attendant workers and servants. The obvious comment is on the illusionary world created and sold through the billboard in view, which primary reason, apart from the panacea of a distracting entertainment, is to create good consumers. And here we see the consumables of the poor and working class, bulk goods and cooking oil. The taxi rank pictured in the background is actually occupying illegal ground, a no-mans land island between a shopping complex and a main road, simply because no provision had been made for the vital task of ensuring adequate space be made for the transportation of workers, let alone consumers without their own vehicles.
SJ: So this is also a comment on the absence of an affordable, reliable, safe, public transport system that restrict people’s mobility?
CN: Absolutely. It’s an indication of the degree of neglect of the laboring classes. A continuation of the lack of ethical consideration the West has always had for the poor and one, which our new order [in South Africa] has taken on without much critical thought.
SJ: This is a recurring theme in your work, of the coexistence of the “two worlds” of South Africa, of poverty next to that of consumption, of the fantasy of the new South Africa. But we know of course that the system only works in this way in its present form—that is the stark inequalities, the cheap labor, make possible the kinds of super profits the wealthy enjoy—even after the 'end' of Apartheid. The billboard is of course for satellite TV provider, DStv, which few can afford (although DStv offers a cheaper package to lower middle class customers).
CN: Yes, DSTV is being packaged and promoted to the working classes, as of course their 'buy-in' to consumerism is vital, they are to be both producers and consumers, and of course aspirants to the ideal life promoted (as the carrot) by the system of capitalism.
SJ: This brings up a general observation: To what extent do you still feel the urge to photograph subjects that militate against rainbowism, entrenched racial inequalities, or the idea of rampant Black Economic Empowerment (BEE, a government policy that promotes black business development to overcome white control over the economy), etcetera?
CN: I'm not totally opposed to either 'Rainbowism' or BEE, but obviously find their present manifestation problematic. I find it necessary to mediate the aspiration and the reality, lest we start to believe our own propaganda, or in these days more likely public relations exercises and bumpf. I find the continued exploitation of the poor in extreme bad taste, and the cycles created above, of the poor consuming the worst of nutrients and subsequently feeding into the medical and pharmaceutical industries as poor health kicks in, are again extreme manifestations of what we are all subjected to in the diets, middle class aspirations and lifestyles we live.
Image 4: Women Fishing in Kosi Bay.
CN: These Kosi Bay fishing folk used methods that have been used traditionally for centuries. What was now different, in that though their rights to continue fishing in their age old traditions were entrenched, they were now under close supervision and stricture my the authorities, the Ezimvelo KZN Wildlife Trust. What does the abbreviation stand KwaZulu Natal KZN for? And so I saw the beginnings of an infringement on they're way of life by a culture which had little value for human life, placing that of the marine ecology supposedly higher, whilst simultaneously allowing wealthy white recreational fishing to fill freezer loads of fish for sport, whilst closely monitoring rural inhabitants for whom fishing was their livelihood.
IMAGE 5: Yeoville, an inner city suburb that has been at the forefront of transformation to a truly African demographic residential area. Johannesburg. 2003 © Cedric Nunn
CN: I lived on and off in the inner city Johannesburg suburb of Yeoville over many years, and saw it through the vibrant years of 1990 and the difficult transition years of around 2000. Yeoville has always elicited strong passions and been a suburb on the ‘edge’. It has attracted migrants through the ages, starting with Afrikaners coming off the land, Lithuanian Jews escaping persecution, South African blacks seeking sanctuary from racial bigotry and recently is a favored destination for Africans from all over the continent. This image was part of a series published in the volume ‘Voices of the Transition; The Politics, Poetics and Practices of Social Change in South Africa,” published by Heinemann, on the occasion of ten years of democratic rule in South Africa. This image typified the kind of bohemian energy that Yeoville has always attracted.
SJ: I was struck how 'old' this guy looked--worn face, tired eyes--in a school uniform? Or is he a security guard? But he rocks the pantsula/township style with the upturned "Cerani" brand hat?
CN: Yes, I suppose that beyond the hype of 'The Image' of Pantsula or the many other styles and trends that emerge, is the fact that the many adherents are in fact working class at best or more probably unemployed. In many instances, desperate people, such as this man, who do still try to hold on to attempts to make meaning of their lives. So the resultant image is a poignant one.
Image 6: Blood Relatives
CN: This image, of my mother in about 1986 or so, captures the conditions and weariness of her life at the time. Thankfully, conditions did improve. Mother was born in the heart of Zululand in 1924, and until she began school at the age of about ten, she spoke mainly Zulu. She attended a missionary run school for orphans in Durban, about 350 km from her home, going home once a year for holidays.
Her only formal job was as a domestic servant for wealthy whites in Durban.
SJ: I can recognize that world of domestic work. My mother, born in 1945 in the Small Karoo, worked as a domestic servant all her working live in Cape Town, first living “in service” and then once her children were born, working as a “char.”
CN: This image was done when I had returned from Johannesburg to assist in turning around the family fortunes when it had fallen on hard times. My parents were starting a new business without any capital and through a forced removal had lost all of their clientele. The photo was taken at about 7pm when mom was preparing supper and ironing after a full day in the family shop. Conditions were bleak, without electricity of potable water and a house that was far from completion. Happily, mom who died in August 2010 at the age of 86, enjoyed many years in a completed home and a sense of accomplishment in her life.
SJ: What I find interesting about this image and large parts of your recent work, is that a lot of what you photograph is personal in the sense that your family background is reflected in the subjects you photograph?
This is probably so because of a decision I made in the early eighties to photograph family (my large extended family which originate from the trans-frontier ancestors who married many wives, as in John Dunn who had 49 wives and sired a clan) in an attempt to understand my identity within the South African racialized context. There were then of course many other spin-offs from this initial study. For example, it was a photographic project in the early eighties that led me back to reconnect with my maternal grandmother, Amy ‘Madhlawu’ Louw.
SJ: To ask a follow up question on the quest to understand your identity. On your website[v] you are more explicit as to why you took the photographs of your mother and grandmother. That you had developed "... a deep need to explore my identity as a South African of mixed origins.” That you “… felt uncomfortable with the moniker of ‘coloured’, or more exactly, ‘Cape Coloured’ bestowed upon me by the state and needed to come to a new understanding of my origins and place in my country in light of my political perspectives." As a result your extended family served as a "palette" to explore these issues. Can you say more about that?
CN: I have written about this before, especially in the text that accompanied my “Blood Relatives” project. There I argue that “Blood Relatives” a look into an ordinary community, which has had to withstand the ravages of exploitative social engineering, and done so with the classic human ability to rise to challenge. These images are of the communities from which I emerge and map the recent worlds, which my predecessors inhabit. However, they are also a case study if you like, of the results of our curious and disastrous recent social experiment. I grew up on a steady diet of discussions, debates and complaints by my father and extended family, regarding the effects of apartheid. However, as I ventured into the community, I was at odds to understand how it was that people, who were suffering so much at the hands of the state, could themselves be the source of such virulent hate against people of a darker hue than themselves. My burgeoning consciousness was being affronted by the racism I discovered within the communities of 'colored' folk, or people of mixed descent. All this brought me to photography, with the intention of using it as a medium to address fellow community members. I wanted other 'coloureds' such as myself to recognize that we were all human, no different than each other. As a teenager entering high school, I had had the experience of a debate with about twenty hostel inmates in my exclusively 'coloured' school, when discussing ancestry, every single one of my fellow dorm mates had denied any black ancestry. This shocking assertion got me thinking. So, at the very beginning of my advent into photography, it became clear to me that the bigger challenge was to remove the source of the social order that created the climate for racism in the first place.
Coloured has always been a difficult and contentious term. During the struggle we pre-fixed it with 'so-called' so as to leave people in no doubt as to who had coined the name. Today the struggle as we knew it then has past, and we all have the opportunity to reflect on our cultural origins. For some of us this has begun a painful process of self-exploration. I think I've come full circle now, and am once again confronted with he nasty remnants of racism. I see it in my community of origin, and I also see how it has permeated every facet of every social structure and community throughout the land. However, I'd like to address the broader issue of people of mixed descent, or the many communities of 'coloreds' who people this land. I do it through what I know best, my community and family of origin. I hope that this will not be interpreted as a betrayal of family in any way. The roots of racism are as insidious as they are deep. This is a story of 'bruinous', 'klonkies', 'hotnots', 'griquas', 'coloreds', 'bushies', 'bastas' or 'bastards', people of mixed descent or whatever you want or choose to call them. It’s about people born of Khoi, San or more specifically born of white and black parentage and who were by legislation, bound to associate only amongst each other. Etched in my memory is a scene when, aged about twelve, my dad parked his truck outside a kraal in the heart of Zululand, and an infant was brought, shrouded in blankets against the cold early morning air, and handed to me. I nestled it in my lap for the thirty or so kilometres journey to acceptance in the home of aunt May, a spinster and my Dad's cousin. Concerned elders had approached my father to adopt the child, which was identified as his 'nation'. Another two siblings arrived in quick succession, in the secrecy of night, to be discovered at the break of day by my aunt, clearly the blood relatives of the first, borne of the same black mother and white father. Was their love thwarted by bigotry, was the situation exploited by any of them? Was the intolerance of both whites and blacks at fault? We pass judgment, if at all, with hindsight. We all know what happens to a child who is abandoned by both parents. Could the same happen to a people, abandoned by both societies, because their parents had dared to defy the social norms, boundaries and taboos of the time?
Perhaps this would explain the much debated issue of the pattern of voting in the Western Cape during the 1994 elections, when wooed by a particular political party, a people essentially interpreted this overture as an errant parent saying, all is forgiven, we love you, come back into the fold. A powerful emotional pull for anyone once abandoned to resist. My suspicion is that nationally people of a brown hue voted much the same way as did those of the Western Cape, but because they were in the minority in the other provinces, not with the same consequences.
I suppose my generation is still trying to come to terms with the effects of the social experiment foisted on us. Subjected to years of isolation, in which we were shepherded in the direction of the trades or the shop counter, and mostly locked in ghetto's until we began to recognise ourselves in the eyes of our fellow inmates. This had been our reality, all we'd known. Now the gates are thrown open to a rapidly transforming world that is frankly threatening to most.
There is nothing rational about racism, which is based on bigotry and prejudice. Nor is there much rationality about the need to be accepted. 'Colored', brown people or people of mixed descent, need to be accepted as true South Africans, not some exotic aberration or genetic cocktail to be endured. There is a psyche that needs to heal; to begin to feel that it is truly one with this newly created democracy we call the new South Africa. Continued denial will only feed the monster further. No doubt new generations will be imbued with this new spirit more readily. But as long as old animosities persist, some of these will be carried down to children and grandchildren, creating divides where none are necessary.
I don't claim to tell the whole story, to recreate history or conjure up an audit. But merely to tell a simple tale of those I happen to know with whom my paths have crossed. Small and not so small happenings, events, occasions when my interests is piqued and I've been aroused to raise my camera and record a moment, or more exactly, to transform a sliver of time past.
This transformation could be a mirror in which we see aspects of ourselves, hopefully in a new light. The intention of seeing in this way is to use a particular human ability to observe our self-consciousness, and having seen, to perhaps question, and ourselves who? What? Why? How? In seeing myself and my world, through my own eyes, I attempt in a highly mediated world, to comment on the effects of that great and notorious social experiment called apartheid. Once we were dictated to, told who we were and corralled into a 'colouredstan'.[vi] Told we were colored, some exotic new breed of being. We seem largely to have bought the lie and the myth, and by default, by virtue of living cheek by jowl in our ghettoes, marrying each other, working at the same counters, attending the same schools, a culture of sorts has indeed come into being. The culture is a reality, though it is as flawed as the thinking that created the experiment that brought it into being.
Thankfully we are entering a new era, one in which we are able to decide for ourselves who and what our identity will be. And our options are broader than a one-way ticket to a foreign land. Answers can be found closer to home. The young and new generations are obviously more able to grasp this opportunity.
We, that is, all South Africans, have an obligation to examine where we stand on this issue, since it affects us all as we try to build a new united community and country. The script is not cast in stone; it is fortunately as fluid as culture itself. Open to persuasion, influence and remodeling. The whole country and all the people in it have to re-examine their scripts, redefine who they are and exactly how they relate to the myriad other constantly evolving peoples they share the confines of these border with. We 'coloreds' are no exception, and we ignore, delay or avoid this task at our own peril. The history of nature is full of blank spaces. Species that were unable or unwilling to adapt, died.
Change is never easy, but to be avoided at our own peril. This is a unique moment to rise and determine our own identity. We live in a world of tension and strife. This doesn't have to be. We can retain, rearrange and attain our lives and lifestyles to suit us, and still retain respect for our fellow South Africans. By respecting them, we respect ourselves.
This is largely a taboo subject; one that few will admit is a ready issue for discussion and debate. How do we see fellow South Africans, and how do they see us? Are we disparaging in our attitudes to each other because of past injustices, slights, mistakes, myths or plain circumstances? How long will we hold on to our past by refusing to engage with it? How long will we be silent about our feelings, harboring them like festering sores? When will we begin to talk, to heal ourselves? These questions are not the sole preserve of people of mixed descent, but rather are addressed to all South Africans. The 2001 Racism Conference held in Durban, South Africa, gave us an indication as to the extent of our denial of our racist attitudes. While it’s perfectly natural for us to be this way since we were carefully scripted in the apartheid experiment, it’s certainly not normal for us to accept this status quo. In denial we remain way off the mark. It's inevitable that we make this journey; it’s simply a matter of when we choose to start it.
This is a unique moment to rise as a country, and determine our own individual identity, devoid of political dictates or chicanery. We live in a country where trust was at an all time low, with good reason. We have had a sad history of tension and strife amongst the citizens of this land. The fact that we have had a profound transition should not make us complacent. We have some way to go before we can claim to be home and safe. In fact, the home is still being built, and until we are able to determine our place within it, we are unable to constructively contribute to its structure.
Herein lies our opportunity, to determine and demand our place in the construction of this new land we call home.
* Sean Jacobs, born in Cape Town, is assistant professor of international affairs and chair of the media concentration in the Graduation Program in International Affairs at The New School in New York City. Cedric Nunn is a social commentator through the visual medium of photography and currently ling in Byrne Valley in the KwaZulu Natal Midlands.
[i] A technikon is a non-university higher institution in South Africa offering vocational and professional education. More recently technikons have transformed themselves into universities granting degree programs.
[ii] See http://www.sahistory.org.za/pages/people/bios/mckenzie-p.htm.
[iii] See http://www.sahistory.org.za/pages/people/bios/badsha-o.htm.
[iv] One US Dollar is equal to about six South African Rands.
[vi] “Colouredstan” is a clever wordplay on the Bantustans, the “ethnic homelands” created by the Apartheid State to where it forcefully removed black people and to denationalize them. The homelands also served as cheap labor reserves for white capital.
 A technikon is a non-university higher institution in South Africa offering vocational and professional education. More recently technikons have transformed themselves into universities granting degree programs.
 See http://www.sahistory.org.za/pages/people/bios/mckenzie-p.htm.
 See http://www.sahistory.org.za/pages/people/bios/badsha-o.htm.
 One US Dollar is equal to about six South African Rands.
 “Colouredstan” is a clever wordplay on the Bantustans, the “ethnic homelands” created by the Apartheid State to where it forcefully removed black people and to denationalize them. The homelands also served as cheap labor reserves for white capital.