Roslyn Bernstein: Okwui Enwezor Traces the Struggle of Apartheid

A visit with the curator of “Rise and Fall of Apartheid” shows how photographers revealed South Africans’ struggles to the world.

Images courtesy of Roslyn Bernstein and the International Center for Photography

By Roslyn Bernstein

Ten years ago, Okwui Enwezor, then an adjunct curator at the International Center for Photography (ICP), first started to think about doing a major exhibit on apartheid, its focus, the history of the struggle and the photographers, especially the South African photographers, who made the struggle evident.

There is a striking image of Magubane being arrested in December 20, 1956 … Magubane, who attended the media preview, stood in front of the photo; now a man of 80 … Who can ever imagine what he was thinking?

The exhibit, “Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life,” which just opened and will be up until January 6th, is much more than a fifty-year photojournalistic survey of the civil rights struggle in South Africa. The protests, the marches, the street signs are all featured, but also present are powerful images of life going under these harsh conditions. “The exhibit explores the contradiction,” said Enwezor, who is now Director of Haus der Kunst in Munich, “It traces the struggle but it also shows how people construct life out of difficult moments.”

Initially, Enwezor had 1000 works on his checklist, ultimately whittling the number down to 500 photographs, artworks, films, videos, documents, posters and periodicals which are now installed in a space that has been completely reorganized to accommodate the exhibit. Curated by Enwezor, with assistance from South African art historian Rory Bester, the exhibit examines the power of the documentary form–from the photo essay to reportage, social documentary to photojournalism and art—in recording, analyzing, articulating, and confronting the legacy of apartheid and its effect on everyday life in South Africa.

Enwezor is careful to point out that while the majority of the most stringent laws were rescinded [in 1990], the law controlling visual material remained in place.

Installed in the lobby, confronting the viewer and framing the exhibit, there are two film clips which encapsulate the history of apartheid. On the left, there is footage of the elections of May 26, 1948, when the National Party defeated the United Party. For the first time in history, an exclusively Afrikaner party led the government. In his victory speech, D. F. Malan proclaimed, “Today South Africa belongs to us once more.” In the film, we see Malan arriving at the Pretoria station, with a crowd of supporters surrounding him.

On the right, there is footage from the South African Parliament on February 2, 1990, just before the imminent release of Nelson Mandela and the rescinding of many apartheid laws. President F. W. de Klerk announced to South African legislators that political parties would be unbanned and political prisoners released. Curator Enwezor is careful to point out that while the majority of the most stringent laws were rescinded at this time, the law controlling visual material remained in place.

Using a chronological trajectory, the exhibit begins with the early period, 1948-1955, when most of the major apartheid laws were passed. Here, we see the key moments in the formation and bureaucratization of the apartheid regime. These included prohibiting mixed marriages and sexual relations between blacks and white, drawing up distinct areas for blacks to live in, and banning the Communist Party.

Just inside the first gallery, is a film clip from “We Built A Nation,” (Bou van-n Nasie) a 1938 pro-Afrikaner film, often compared to D.W. Griffiths’ 1915 film, “Birth of a Nation.” The docudrama, directed by Joseph Albrecht, was commissioned by the government on the anniversary of the 100th anniversary of the Great Trek, 1838. For decades, the film was used as a propaganda tool of the apartheid regime. Designed to celebrate Afrikaner nationalism, it portrayed the Afrikaner settlers as hard-working and pious souls who treated their workers well. Smiling workers jump up and down, pressing the grapes with their bare feet. The text reads, “Slaves were not wretches but were close to their masters.” The 11-minute excerpt includes footage on the decision to trek north, the murder of Piet Retief, and the attacks of Zulu warriors on Afrikaners homesteads.

On the opposite wall, the focus turns to the Treason Trial and the faces of many of the leaders who were imprisoned. There is a powerful image here of Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, 1958 taken by Jurgen Schadeberg and a shot by Peter Magubane, showing leaders of the women’s movement handing out petitions protesting against women being forced to carry pass books (1956). There is a striking image, by an unidentified photographer, of Magubane being arrested in December 20, 1956. In the photo, the policeman stands next to him and Magubane’s eyes are closed. Magubane, who attended the media preview, stood in front of the photo; now a man of 80 with grey hair, he was spry and dressed in a dark blue shirt and sporty black cap. Who can imagine what he was thinking?

Throughout the 1950s, photographic images reflect strategies of protest and resistance. There are members of the Black Sash, a group of white, middle-aged women, perfectly manicured, who use signage to carry the protest to very public spaces. In one image, a protestor has inserted herself (with a protest sign) on a Europeans-only bench. Another image shows a protest outside of Parliament over the expulsion of tens of thousands of Afrikaners to land outside the city. A photo by Eli Weinberg of a crowd near the Drill Hall on the opening day of the Treason Trial, December 19, 1956, shows a group of black protestors with signs reading, “We Stand By Our Leaders.”

Ironically, at this moment of crisis, black life was thriving. Issues of Drum Magazine, first published in Cape Town in 1951 and bearing the tag, Africa’s Leading Magazine, included powerful documentary about the struggle and images of the renaissance of popular black culture. Modeled on Life Magazine, with essentially the same format, Drum’s covers were clearly designed to sell. The April 1957 cover features a glamorous Dolly Rathebe, in a very revealing, strapless dress, with the cover line, “Dolly! Her Strange Life and Loves.” Nearby, is a film clip of Dolly and The Inkspots from 1977, directed by Jurgen Schadeberg. For a story on “Stars of Jazz,” Miriam Makeba adorns the June, 1967 cover of the magazine in a bright yellow dress.

During the 1960s, there was a shift toward armed conflict and photographers captured the violence. Protestors were killed and funerals became spaces for expressions of solidarity. Photos of The Sharpeville Massacre (March 21, 1960) appeared in many publications. Peter Magubane’s shot of the Sharpeville Funeral where more than 5,000 people gathered, shows an unending line of coffins, receding into the distance, uncountable. Mandela and his associates were tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. “The movement was almost destroyed,” Enwezor explains. “It was truly paradoxical that this repression came at the very same moment as a wave of decolonization in other African countries.” Powerful images from this period include Alf Khumalo’s South Africa Goes on Trial (1963) and Eli Weinberg’s Nelson Mandela’s Portrait, where Mandela, wearing traditional beads, is draped in a chenille bed spread (1961).

Adjacent to the stairs leading to the lower level, there is a wall of signs—visual images which were especially important in the struggle against apartheid since television was first allowed in South Africa in 1976. One sign reads: “The Bible Proclaims Segregate,” followed by three chapter and verse citations. Elsewhere, signs read: “Happy Birth-Day to Segregation,” “Dave Webster—Killed by Apartheid,” and “God Save Africa.”

The turning point in the apartheid struggle came on June 16, 1976 when young, black students revolted against being forced to learn the Afrikaner language in school. Their anger brought new energy to documentary photography in South Africa with images of murdered students appearing in the media. Sam Nzima’s photos from this period reveal the brutality of the conflict. We see South African police shooting students who are throwing stones and children protecting themselves with lids from garbage cans.

As the discourse of protest heated up, activists, artists, and musicians joined forces. Around the globe, a series of art works challenged multinationals who were doing business with South Africa. Several of Hans Haacke’s anti-Alcan pieces (Voici Alcan, 1983) are included in this exhibit. As the most important producer of aluminum sheet and the only fabricator of aluminum sheet in South Africa, Canadian-based Alcan drew fierce criticism from Haacke whose art work featured glass panels with Alcan’s silver logo, art shaped like aluminum storm windows, two with images of the Montreal Opera Company’s productions of Lucia Di Lammermoor and Norma, both funded by Alcan, and one with a photo of the body of the deceased activist Stephen Biko, who died following torture and a police beating in 1977. Haacke criticized Alcan’s South African affiliate for selling the South African government products that could be used in making police and military equipment and for not recognizing the trade union of black workers.

For many, Kevin Carter’s shot of a starving child in the Sudan, a vulture waiting nearby, which appeared in The New York Times in 1993, became a metaphor for Africa’s despair.

Prominently highlighted in the exhibit is the photography of Afrapix, a multi-racial collective formed in 1982 and modeled on Magnum Pictures. Afrapix enhanced the role of social documentary photography in the struggle, both as an agent for extended coverage and as an agent for change. Photographers in the collective included in the exhibit are Lesley Lawson, Aksie Liefde, Paul Grendon, Chris Ledochowski, Santu Mofokeng, Guy Tillim, and Paul Weinberg.

Enwezor pauses by two images shot by David Goldblatt. The top one is a photo of a remnant of a hedge that was planted in 1660 to keep the indigenous Khoikhoi out of the first European settlement. Directly beneath it is a photo of the destruction of District Six under the Group Areas Act, Cape Town, shot in 1982. The destroyed shacks in the foreground contrast with the skyscrapers rising in the distance. “These photos,” Enwezor said, “provide us with a powerful picture of South Africa and its landscape.”

The end of any dictatorship is chaotic and messy and South Africa was no exception. In the 1990s, South Africa was not a brotherhood of love. There were multiple killings, a state of civil war, and photography during this period inevitably become more frontal and immediate. In fact, Enwezor said, images from this period have often been criticized for lacking nuance and for being too violent. Just as Kevin Carter’s shot of a starving child in the Sudan (with a vulture waiting nearby), which appeared in The New York Times in 1993, became a metaphor for Africa’s despair, the photos coming out of South Africa at this time were accused of being similarly heavy-handed, of reducing the nation’s story to one purely of violence and suffering. Perhaps instead they should have been understood as necessary to advance the anti-apartheid movement. In actual fact, life in South Africa was a mixture of hope and chaos.


Sue Williamson stands in front of her contribution to the ICP show, A Tale of Two Cradocks, 1994. Williamson’s work juxtaposes text and images from a guidebook to the area with the word and images of Nyameka Goniwe, the widow of Matthew Goniwe. The work, mounted in an accordion fold along the wall, looks at the story of the Goniwe family as told in an interview with his widow Nyameka. It is the story of how the couple met, married and had children, and of how he died. A popular teacher and a charismatic popular leader, Matthew Goniwe was targeted by the apartheid government. In the piece, Nyameka said: “We live in a cruel world. The experience of losing Matthew…he was different—too good to be true. He taught me a lot, too. I don’t have time for gossip. I reserve my strength for real things,”

In from South Africa for the exhibit, Sue Williamson speaks about her work: “It’s about seeing things from different perspectives,” she said. “I’m always asked what happened to Nyameka and I have the answer. She’s the mayor of Cradock now.”

Determined to end the exhibit in another place, Enwezor added an epilogue to the show by concluding with the work of two younger photographers, Thabiso Sekgala and Sabelo Mlanserni, both of whom are reclaiming the social documentary style. It is intended as a reminder of South Africa’s unfinished history—of images of decaying cities and settlements. Mlanserni’s photos are strong. In a shot of the Department of Labour, 2011, the building has iron bars on its windows and appears to be closed. Outside, by the entrance a group of men hang out. A sign in a window on the second floor has one word: Epilepsy. Another photo is of a clothing store on the street, a rack of garments, standing next to a sign which reads, “We are always cheap.” (2011)

The sign is haunting. A double entendre? An indication that life since apartheid has not changed enough? A sign of freedom? Hard to know for sure, but Enwezor is determined to have the last word. “The apartheid state remains intact,” he said. “The power of the president remains firmly rooted and many of the laws are still on the books.”

“Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life” runs at the International Center of Photography in New York through January 6, 2013

In addition to Guernica, Roslyn Bernstein reports on arts and culture for such online publications as Buzzine, Huffington Post, Art Critical, and Arterritory. Bernstein is a professor of journalism at Baruch College, CUNY, and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She is the author of Boardwalk Stories and the co-author of Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHo.

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3 Comments on “Roslyn Bernstein: Okwui Enwezor Traces the Struggle of Apartheid

  1. It is a shame that the writer, a professor of journalism, did not bother to get the names of all the photographers correct. She wrote: “Lesley Lawson, Aksie Liefde, Paul Grandan Wolfson, Chris Ledochowski, Santu Mofokeng, Guy Tillim, and Paul Weinberger.” There is no photographer in South Africa called Paul Grandan Wolfson, nor Paul Weinberger, nor has there ever been. She clearly means the late Giselle Wulfsohn, and either ANC activist photographer, Eli Weinberg, or Michaelis art curator, Paul Weinberg – the two are not related in blood, nor the type of photographs they shoot.

    1. This article originally misstated two names of photographers. The photographers are Paul Weinberg and Paul Grendon, not Paul Weinberger and Paul Grandan Wolfson. Thanks to our expert reader Charlene Smith for noticing the error.

  2. 4 photographs by Gisele Wulfsohn , 3 black and white pictures which depict nannies /domestic workers deserve to be mentioned. They offer a softer glimpse into daily life during apartheid and currently. Today many women still work in that role, hopefully more fairly reimbursed with the existence of the Domestic Workers Trade Union movement. The color print shows white school children in uniform passing a woman holding a placard “Free the children”. The irony of the children noticing the placard conveys a strong message Thank you Charlene for making mention of Gisele , an active participant in Afrapix and in her own right as a sensitive photographer .

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