David Goldblatt – Books
On the Mines
We White children enjoyed almost unfettered freedom to explore the installations of the gold mines beyond our town, Randfontein.
Stopping at a headgear, we watched and listened in awe as a team of 20 men moving as one, swung a steel railway line off the ground, into the air, caught it on their shoulders and then walked it, chanting to its place. But we didn’t wonder about their lives. Hundreds of miles from home, 40 to a room in a compound of 6000 men. For a pittance. Whites were the bosses, they lived in the married quarters with their families.
Black men were not allowed to qualify for blasting certificates, thus were Whites protected from competition. Yet despite the seemingly unbridgeable racial divide, blacks and whites risked and sometimes gave their lives to save each other in emergencies. Now there are no restrictions on black advancement.
Heard across town a hooter signalled the change of shift or an emergency: men trapped in a fall of rock; a snapped rope and men hurtled to the bottom of the shaft; fire underground. Despite denials by the men who do it, work in deep level mines is extremely dangerous.
As White children growing up in Randfontein we enjoyed almost unfettered freedom to roam and explore the mines and their huge machines strung out in a long arc that curved around the town. On our bicycles we rode the tracks that veined the veld and connected the many parts of the Randfontein Estates Gold Mining Company.
Stopping at a headgear, we listened and watched in awe as a chanting team of some 20 men, moving as one, swung a steel railway line off the ground, into the air, caught it on their shoulders, then walked it, singing, to where it was needed. But we didn’t wonder about their lives. Sleeping 40 to a room in a compound of perhaps 6000 men, far from home and families. For a pittance. White men were the officials, the bosses, they lived in the married quarters with their families. That was the order of things.
The blast of the mines’ steam hooter could be heard right across town. It signalled the change of shift, or blown at the wrong time, an emergency: perhaps men trapped in a fall of rock underground, or a rope had snapped sending a skip full of men hurtling to the bottom of the shaft, or a violent clash of men in one of the compounds.
When I was 16, in 1947, I photographed the Millsite mine dump. It was said (by Randfontein patriots), to be the biggest mine dump in the world. Because the monthly tonnage of ore crushed by the Randfontein mill was the highest in the world, we therefore had the largest output of tailings (waste), therefore we had the biggest dump. QED. It was my first ‘serious’ photograph and won third prize of ten shillings in the Meccano Magazine monthly photographic competition.
In 1949, hoping to become a magazine photographer, I attempted a ‘photo-story’ on the men who worked on the top of the Millsite dump. Whatever the weather, twenty-four hours per day, 363 days per year (not on Christmas Day and Good Friday), they worked the string of cocopans that hauled the yellow sand, one ton in each, to the top for dumping. I have a few photographs of a good idea badly executed.
In about 1965 I went underground for the first time and learnt, as my experience of that world grew, respect and admiration for all who work in our deep level mines. They are hellish places and the work dangerous beyond telling.
Until the late 1980s black men were not allowed to qualify for blasting certificates nor were they allowed to form trade unions. By these devices whites ensured that they had the senior jobs and better pay. To the inherently hierarchic structure of labour in mining was added blatant racist oppression. Yet notwithstanding the seemingly unbridgeable divide that separated them, men, black and white unhesitatingly risked and sometimes gave their lives in efforts to save each other in any of the many emergencies with which they were faced in deep level mining.
Now (2017) the Millsite dump no longer exists: its billions of tons of sand have been reprocessed for minute quantities of gold. The tailings have gone as a slurry to a vast slimes dam outside the town.
Some Afrikaners Photographed
Apartheid was a grey matrix of legislation and regulation hanging over South Africa. It penetrated, restricted, controlled, cramped every aspect of life; nothing and no-one escaped it. Those who conceived and made it manifest – ideologues, philosophers, religious leaders, lawmen, policemen, men and women of power, supreme in their conviction of national and racial superiority – were mostly Afrikaners. As a young man working in my father’s clothing shop in Randfontein, I served many Afrikaners: farmers, miners, plot-holders, railwaymen, officials, doctors. They tended to be austere, upright, unaffected people of rare generosity of spirit and earthy humour. Possibly most, I surmised, were supporters of the National Party and its policy of Apartheid. I had great difficulty in getting my head and heart around this contradiction.
My father died in 1962. In 1963 I sold the shop, became a fulltime photographer and not long after embarked on an essay to explore my relationship with people whose energy and influence so pervaded my life and place of birth. Here are some of the photographs.
These photographs are of Afrikaners in South Africa in the 1960s. They are not a survey of Afrikaner life, nor do they attempt a cross-of the Afrikaner People.
I did not come easily to serving my father’s Afrikaner customers when, as a young man, I went to work in his men’s clothing store in Randfontein, where I was born. Growing up I had experienced bullying anti-Semitism by the children of right-wing Afrikaners who were powerful in the town. And although many of our young men, English and Afrikaans had volunteered to fight against the Nazis in the Second World War, it was the Afrikaners’ National Party, many of whose leaders and members had actively sympathised with the Nazis, that won the post-war 1948 parliamentary election. Their racist apartheid policies were spreading like a pall over the country when I joined my father in about 1951. I had loathed Afrikaans which was a compulsory subject at school, but now had to serve Afrikaners in the shop. Some refused to speak English, others couldn’t, many were fluent in both languages. I had at least to show I was trying…
A small-town, middle-class, White community in 1979 – 1980. It was as though I had known Boksburg for a long time yet was discovering it for the first. I stood on street corners, wholly engaged by what I tried to hold of the flow of orderly life. Spaces, roads, lines painted on them, low buildings, sky, veld; the people, White and Black, moving in their separate but tangled ways; all to be seen in the sharpness of the Highveld light.
Boksburg was shaped by White dreams and proprieties. Most pursued the family, social and civic concerns of respectable burghers anywhere, some with compassion, yet all drawn into a seemingly immutable fixity of self-elected, legislated Whiteness.
Blacks were not of this town. They served it, traded with it, received charity from it, and were ruled, rewarded and punished by its precepts. Some, on occasion, were its privileged guests. But all who went there did so by permit or invitation, never by right.
White and Black: locked into a system of manic control and profound immorality. To draw breath there was to be complicit.
That’s how it was and is no longer.
These photographs are about life in Boksburg, a small-town, middle-class, white community near Johannesburg, in 1979-1980. I come from such a place: Randfontein, on the West Rand, is quite similar to Boksburg, which is on the East Rand. My roots are in places like Randfontein and Boksburg. It was as though I had known Boksburg for a long time yet was discovering it for the first. I stood on street corners, wholly engaged by what I tried to hold of the flow of orderly life. Spaces, roads, lines painted on them, low buildings, sky, veld; the people, white and black, moving in their separate but tangled ways; all to be seen in the sharpness of the Highveld light. Like Randfontein, Boksburg was nondescript and elusive, yet strongly drawn and pungent. It was shaped by white dreams and proprieties. Most pursued the family, social and civic concerns of respectable burghers anywhere, some with compassion, yet all drawn into a seemingly immutable fixity of self-elected, legislated whiteness.
Black South Africans were not of this town. They served it, traded with it, received charity from it, and were ruled, rewarded and punished by its precepts. Some, on occasion, were its privileged guests. But all who went there did so by permit or invitation, never by right. White and Black: locked into a system of manic control and profound immorality. To draw breath there was to be complicit.
That’s how it was and is no longer.
Apartheid policy required that black South Africans be segregated in tribal Bantustans. Ruthless enforcement of the policy resulted in millions of black South Africans, most of them unwilling, “migrating” into the homelands. This was achieved by rigidly restricting black access to urban and rural “white” South Africa which constituted 87% of the country. Homeland “immigrants” were accommodated in camps divided into family plots too small for agriculture but each equipped with a long-drop lavatory. The Bantustans lacked employment for their expanding populations, and were remote from economic hubs.
People from the KwaNdebele Bantustan commuted on heavily subsidised buses to Pretoria for work. To do this some travelled up to eight hours per day, starting at 02:45 and getting home at 22:00
The first photographs were made in 1983/84. I returned in 2012 and photographed buses streaming from former Bantustan KwaNdebele en route to Pretoria before dawn. Apartheid has gone, its half-life will continue beyond knowing.
In 1983, I was one of twenty South African photographers each asked to contribute work to the Second Carnegie Inquiry into Poverty and Development in Southern Africa. My assignment was a photographic essay on homeland transport.
The policy of Apartheid applied by the National Party after 1948 required that black South Africans be segregated in tribal Bantustans. Ruthless enforcement of this policy resulted in the movement of millions of black South Africans, most of them unwilling, many forced, into the homelands. Essentially this was achieved by severely restricting the influx of black people into urban areas, while rigidly controlling their occupation of land in both urban and rural “white” South Africa which constituted some 87% of the country. The “immigrants” to the homelands were accommodated in “closer settlement camps” which were divided into family plots too small for agriculture but each equipped with a long-drop lavatory. The only other facilities provided were communal water points and in some camps a school and in some a clinic.
Not only did the Bantustans lack opportunities of employment for their rapidly expanding population, but most were remote from the country’s economic hubs. Yet to sustain themselves people of the Bantustans had to find jobs in those hubs, which were in “white” South Africa. This, precisely, was the apartheid plan. They would commute to work, thus providing labour, while being the civic responsibility of their “independent” homeland governments . Heavily subsidised bus and rail links were established to facilitate the commute. These together with privately-owned taxis constituted homeland or Bantustan transport.
I chose to follow bus transport between the Bantustan of KwaNdebele and its nearest major hub of economic activity: Pretoria. These are the photographs that I made of some of the people who did the journeys between their homes in KwaNdebele and Pretoria every working day in 1983/84, some travelling for up to eight hours per day.
In 2012 I went back to the bus route between KwaNdebele and Pretoria and before dawn photographed buses streaming from the homeland to Pretoria as they have done since about 1976 and which they will continue to do far far into the future. Apartheid is gone, but its half-life cannot be wished away.
Structures of Things Then
Embedded in the stuff of all the structures in ‘South Africa, are choices we and our forebears have made. No building, shack, skyscraper, road, township, walled estate, dorp, city, monument, sculpture, artwork, computer, cellphone or, indeed, anything made by humans, can exist but for choices that gave rise to it and others that are a condition of its continued existence.
The choices and the values from which structures derive, all enter their very grit and may be deducible from it. Structures are eloquent of the needs, preferences, imperatives and values of those who made and use them, and of the ideologies upon which their beliefs and lives may have been contingent.
Congealed in innumerable structures and many ruins throughout South Africa is the evidence of who we were and are. Like geological accretions in the cooling crust of the earth structures tell of the long era of baasskap, of dominion by whites out of which we have come. And they tell of this new time, precariously that of democracy, in which there is much that is redolent of dominion.
Embedded in the bricks, mud, stone, wood, plastic, cardboard, steel, aluminium and concrete of all the structures in South Africa are choices we and our forebears have made. No building, shack, skyscraper, road, township, walled estate, dorp, city, monument, sculpture, artwork, computer, cellphone or, indeed, anything made by humans, can exist but for choices that gave rise to it and others that are a condition of its continued existence.
Structures are eloquent of the needs, preferences and values of those who made and use them, and of the ideologies upon which their beliefs and lives may have been contingent. When structures cease to exist, their footprints may yet declare much about who and what brought them down. Congealed in innumerable structures and not a few ruins throughout South Africa is the accumulated evidence of who we were, and are. Like geological accretions in the cooling crust of the earth, it tells of the long era of baasskap: of dominion by whites out of which we have come. And it tells of this new time, precariously that of democracy, in which there is much that is redolent of dominion, though by whom is not at all clear.
In the early 1970s I photographed many people in our gold and platinum mines and in the townships and suburbs of Johannesburg. These were mostly portraits, quite formal encounters between the subjects and me, in which I was often intensely conscious of details: folds of flesh, the weight of limbs, roughness of hands, length of fingers, movement of a tendon in a foot, the drape of cloth on hip or breast, repose and tension. Such awareness was part of the making of portraits. But then I found that it was the thing itself. For about six months in 1975 I became completely absorbed in exploring something that I had possibly had since childhood – a certain way of knowing our bodies; a heightened awareness of our particulars. Since then, while that sense of our bodies is nearly always there, I have only occasionally tried to touch it in photographs.
In the black and white work of the later part of last century, the expressive discourse is centred on the photographer as betokened by the virtual eye of the camera; as such the work subsists in the relation between the perceiver and what is perceived. In the landscape colour photographs in question, that essential coherence is lost and instead what we are presented with is an engagement across and throughout the two-dimensional surface. It is as though Goldblatt has warped into an ontological universe fashioned by the Ludwig Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations, a universe of the mind in which the languages of art are nothing more or less than the ways in which they are used, and in which the objects of perception are glued together in a way analogous to Wittgenstein’s language families, where the connectedness and the identities of things are not given in any way, but need to be renegotiated, as it were, each time they are invoked.
Ivor Powell, Parallax and Parallel: The Uses of Time and Space in David Goldblatt’s Pairings in Intersections Intersected
Johannesburg, Joburg is not an easy city to love. From its beginnings as a mining camp in 1886, whites did not want brown and black people living among or near them and over the years pushed them further and further from the city and its white suburbs. Eventually, under Apartheid the areas were prescriptively defined by race: laws required that only a certain race – black, white, coloured, Asian – could occupy a given piece of land. Soweto and Alexandra were for blacks, Hillbrow, Houghton, Pageview for whites, Lenasia for Asians, Protea for coloureds and so on. Changes were brutally made and people mercilessly moved, invariably to suit white wishes.
The racial laws have gone, people are now free to live and work where they choose and the sharpness of the racial divides is softening in many areas. A huge influx of people from all over Africa has changed the demographics. But essentially we have a city of fragments widely scattered over one of the largest municipal areas in the world. It is difficult to imagine Joburg as a coherent whole.
Ours is a city of fragments that do not lie comfortably together. The reason for their disconnectedness is simple. Not long after the discovery of gold there in 1886, and its beginnings as a mining camp, race, and later class, became the principal criteria for the occupation of land in Joburg. Whites did not want brown and black people living among or near them. and over the years they pushed them ever further from the city and its white suburbs. The pieces are scattered with large spaces between them, across one of the biggest municipal areas in the world.
Although everyone is now entitled to live anywhere they choose, and many do, the change has not sufficed to make a noticeable difference to the fragmentary nature of the city. A rapid-transit bus system is being developed and will help reduce the dividedness. But it would take an underground railway connecting all the parts and drawing large numbers of us more closely together to make a marked difference. For many years to come, such a system will be wholly uneconomic. The racists may have gone, but their legacy lives.