South African history through the eyes of a photographer

David Goldblatt is among photographers who’ve been consistent in documenting South Africa’s history. He now has a comprehensive archive of the country’s ever-changing landscape.

One of his iconic images is the Soccer City — a photo taken just before the kick off match of the 2010 World Cup, which took place on African soil for the first time.
While most photographers concentrated on the beauty of the calabash shaped stadium, Goldblatt juxtaposed the stadium against the ruins of what was formerly Shareworld, a theme park built for Soweto residents in the late 1980s.

A lot of time was spent scouting for that viewpoint because he wanted an image that “would define the nature of the investment and show how certain prominent people wanted to keep the masses happy as well as boost their wealth and aggrandise themselves.”

To Goldblatt, Soccer City highlights certain “critical and unsatisfactory aspects” of Johannesburg. He reasons that the millions of rands spent building the stadia should have been used to boost South Africa’s educational system. Goldblatt attributes the high levels of unemployment to a lack of proper education, which in turn perpetuates crime.

“The education today is as Bantu education — a system designed to make people unemployable in a modern technological society.”
Another aspect of the city he finds disturbing is the refugee situation. Goldblatt took images of Zimbabwe refugees housed at the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg. He also has images of crime, reflected in a photo series of ex-offenders.

The pictures, taken at the exact spot the ex-offenders committed the crime, are straightforward.

Trevor Mabuela from Alexandra Township, for example, is one such ex-offender. Goldblatt took his picture in Kew, a suburb of Johannesburg where he tried to hijack a woman as she reversed out of a factory in 2000. Mabuela was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison but he appealed and only served five.

These and other images were part of an exhibition titled TJ: Some Things Old, Some Things New and Some Much the Same held at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg last year. TJ is an obsolete acronym for Transvaal Johannesburg — which were prefix letters for cars before the computerisation of license plates.

“For years I dreamed of doing a book about Johannesburg and calling it TJ. When the opportunity arose, TJ had become obsolete but I stuck with the letters because they signified a great deal about Johannesburg and in particular, that while a great deal has changed, a great deal hasn’t and it’s going to take a long time for it to change,” said Goldblatt.

South Africa, The Structures of Things Then (1998) is an interesting book that contains pictures of houses, churches, mosques and synagogues and it took five years of research to put it together. The images show how South Africans express themselves in structures.

“If you bought a house, how we choose to organise it is an expression of our values. If you look at our structures, in my opinion, we express ourselves almost nakedly and we do not hide things.”

The church was a significant force during the apartheid era and for some it was obvious which side they were on.

“The Anglican churches are quiet and undemonstrative; they did not rock the boat while Afrikaner churches made major statements.”

Other books that he has published include On the Mines (1973) and In Boksburg (1982) which have had numerous exhibitions.
Goldblatt, now in his 80s, grew up in the small gold mining town of Randfontein and started taking pictures while in high school.

The self-taught photographer bought a 35mm camera for commercial photography for local and international magazines, which helped him refine his skill.

At the same time, he enrolled as a student at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and did a Bachelor of Commerce degree. It might have seemed ironical that he undertook a course that had very little to do with photography but he argues that it “gave him an understanding of the world and taught him how to think.”

Today, Goldblatt uses an old-fashioned 4 by 5 camera and mainly takes black and white pictures for his personal projects because he feels that colour is “too sweet to express the kind of situations in South Africa.

I need the rawness of black and white.”

Every now and then he takes colour photographs but still controls the colours as he would in a darkroom by either over saturating or increasing the contrast to match the message he wants to put across.

Despite having made powerful statements with his pictures, Goldblatt says he is neither an activist nor a missionary and unlike other photographers who used the camera as a cultural weapon against apartheid, he regards himself as an “unlicensed critical observer of society.”


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