David Goldblatt – Projects
To have been a black farmer in South Africa for most of the twentieth century was to have defied legal, political and economic odds. Kas Maine was among the few who managed to create a livelihood as a farmer for himself and a large family despite a barrage of legislation and discrimination designed specifically to prevent this being possible.
In 1979, the African Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand began to seek out people like Maine who could reveal something of the texture and contradiction beneath the conventional and generally misconceived narratives of rural life. As Maine unravelled his life story through many hours of oral interviews, it firmly countered a pervasive myth of the time that successful farming was a prerogative of the white population. Over the course of at least 45 years, many white farmers depended on Kas Maine’s farming skills, equipment and livestock. He was a competent cobbler too, a legendary sheep-shearer, a man who could treat a sick animal or skin a dead one, make shoes or shoe horses.
Laws forbidding land-ownership and a raft of other measures stripping black farmers of mobility and means gradually pushed Maine to the margins of farming life. From 1966 until his death in 1985, Maine lived and farmed on a small plot in the bantustan called Bophutatswana. It was to this forsaken place that David Goldblatt came with me and fellow researcher Malete Nkadimeng to photograph Maine in 1980.
Goldblatt’s photographs reveal the coherence, resilience and dignity of Maine’s life on the edge of modernity in a degraded landscape. The house and other buildings are made mainly of corrugated metal. The placement is meticulous. A water barrel lists on its saddle in the scrupulously swept yard. His tractor, his proudest purchase and faithful workhorse, is parked immediately outside his bedroom. His wife Leetwane’s window is covered by a sheer curtain. Her handbags hang above her bed and her gardening shears cover a newspaper on the bed. A settledness has been moulded in the impermanence.
Given South Africa’s history and present conditions it is not surprising that we who live here, people of all races and classes, suffer under widespread crime, often violent. At heavy cost we try to protect ourselves and our possessions. But short of going into perpetual armed retreat, we remain vulnerable to attack by people who would seize our things, violate our private spaces, our bodies and life itself. In fear, humiliation, helplessness and anger at holdups of my wife and myself by men threatening force with knives and guns, I have asked, Who is doing this to us? Who are you? Are you monsters? Are you ordinary people – if there are such? How did you come to this? What is your life? Could you be my children? Could I be you?
I decided to explore these questions through photographs and words. I wanted to meet people who had done crime or been accused of it and punished. I wanted to meet them not as incarcerated criminals, but paroled or free. I wanted to photograph them not in re-enactment of crime, but in stillness at the scene of crime. And I wanted to record whatever they wished to tell me of their life. And do this not as a journalist or activist, but simply out of a wish to know.
In the 1890s, shortly after Johannesburg started, three suburbs, bluntly named, were proclaimed for occupation by people of colour: Coolie Location, Kaffir Location and Malay Location. After an outbreak of plague in 1904, Coolie Location was razed. Kaffir Location became a cemetery for Whites. Malay Location, later named Pageview and called Fietas by its residents, became one of the few places in the city reserved for people of colour – Africans, Coloureds and Indians, none of whom had the vote. Whites in a neighbouring suburb didn’t like people of colour living so near and put pressure on the City Council to move them out. Gradually, on the pretext of public health and slum clearance, Africans were forced out and Coloureds were enticed to new suburbs. That left Indians.
In 1950 the apartheid government passed the Group Areas Act, under which residential and business areas in cities, towns and villages were to be reserved for different ethnic groups. In 1956 Pageview/Fietas was declared a White Group Area. The Indians were to be removed to Lenasia, a Group Area reserved for them 40 kilometres beyond the city – Fietas was about five from the city centre.
Fietas was a small place with narrow streets and compact houses, heavily overcrowded, but with a strong sense of community. Three generations had grown and lived there. Rich and poor, Black and White had come from many miles to shop there. Using every loophole in the law the people of Fietas fought against removal. But eventually in 1977 police with dogs moved in and except for a very few, the last of the Indians of Fietas were forced out. Shops and houses were destroyed and new houses were built for low-income Whites.
David Goldblatt travelled to the Transkei on a number of occasions in his early career to take photographs. While this has never been a self-standing project in itself, it has been rich repository of images that have played themselves into various exhibitions and books. The Transkei must have been a continual echo throughout his work in and around Johannesburg and on the mines. Many of South Africa’s migrant workers came to work on the mines from the Transkei. Looking at his broader body of work through work on the Transkei, he was able to connect rural South Africa, the migrant labour system, the capitalist system and urbanisation of the former peasants together that so indelibly marked the national socio political landscape.
When I was working with Optima magazine in the late 1960s, I suggested they hire Peter Magubane to do a photo essay on Soweto. He started and then was detained for a considerable time. I had an interest in photographing Soweto so in the early 1970s I went out a few times with playwright Sipho Sepamla, whom I had helped with his matric exams. It was hopeless. I was swamped by children and couldn’t take a photograph. I then began working with a man named Joshua, a member of the Damaras gang. He was very helpful. I would go about twice a week. My idea was to photograph where I landed up. After a few years I felt my work was good enough. Optima published the essay with a text by Ellen Hellman.
Fundamentally, from a very early time, white people in this country did not want to live near people of colour. This led to apartheid, and apartheid meant we were shut off from each other. With a camera I was for the first time able to expand my experience of other people’s lives. Making portraits of people in Soweto in 1972 was in this regard a significant moment for me.