Primo Levi’s harrowing personal experiences of the holocaust led him to make the assertion that the human species would never again be able to deny its inherent potential for horrific cruelty. Nelson Mandela, following his 37 years of imprisonment by the apartheid government said, “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”

The continuation of atrocious genocidal acts since the holocaust, have resulted in the deaths of an estimated 10 million people. Devastatingly, this reaffirms another Primo Levi observation: “It happened, therefore it can happen again’.

During the past two decades, South Africans have been subject to repetitious trauma and neglect that characterized the apartheid era. Rampant corruption, greed and mismanagement have resulted in the near collapse of the country’s economy, the state health and education systems as well as a the security structures. Since the optimism of Mandela’s Presidency, the country has limped from one catastrophe to another. President Thabo Mbeki’s AIDS denialism led to an estimated 300 000 deaths, while President Jacob Zuma’s systematic looting through state capture has resulted in the country being devalued to junk status by the world’s credit rating agencies. Unemployment has grown to around 50%, while 33% of the population rely on social grants of some form.

In reaction to the failing economy, crime has escalated to alarming levels. There are an average of 57 violent deaths per day in South Africa. This number is greater than the daily body count recorded during the Vietnam War. Rape statistics are amongst the highest in the world, while only 8% of rapists brought to court are convicted. Other disturbing information: The UN recently rated South Africa as the worst country in the world to raise children, The WEF placed the country at 137th out of 139 countries for the overall quality of its education system and it has the largest HIV epidemic in the world.

The essay

These photographs focus on both the complexity and the trauma experienced by South Africans. It is personal, in that it mirrors my own sense of unease with the present state of the nation as well as my fears for it’s future. It also reflects my sense of disappointment and anger that such hard won freedom has been squandered.

The essay makes a distinct shift in focus and tone following a double page spread showing two children that had been left unattended at a derelict house number 802 in Brandfort. At this point, the dominant theme of the book is the society’s proclivity for trauma. Winnie Mandela was compelled to live in this Brandfort structure as part of the banishment order imposed on her in 1977 by the apartheid government. It would be disingenuous to make a personal judgment on someone who was forced to endure such incredible hardship. Apartheid security forces admitted at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) how they had gone out of their way to make her life a “living hell.” Therefore, my choice of this image to mark a turning point in South Africa’s history is not based on a criticism of Winnie. Rather it is based on the series of decisions that were taken during the early 1990s, a time of political transition, in order to shield her from prosecution for the deaths of Stompie and Dr Asvat. Leaders of the African National Congress (ANC), the exiting apartheid government, the security forces, religious and civic organizations, together chose to bury her crimes in order to open a pathway for a new democratic society.

It is possible that this decision, a corruption of the law, ethics and the notion of equality, opened the door for the leadership of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ to assume a status and a perception of accountability beyond that of ordinary South Africans. As a consequence, the groundwork had been laid for Sigmund Freud’s repetition compulsion to play itself out within the decades that followed the transition to democracy. (Wikipedia’s definition of the Repetition Compulsion: It is a psychological phenomenon in which a person repeats a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again. This includes reenacting the event or putting oneself in situations where the event is likely to happen again). The ‘born-free’ youth (those born after the end of apartheid) of South Africa seem to have lost faith in politics as well as in the will of the politicians to bring about meaningful change. In the lead up to the 2019 elections only 15,6 percent of 18 and 19-year olds have bothered to register to vote.  

The images within this essay are without colour and often without focus. Unlike my previous bodies of work that focus on South African society, traces of hope have been replaced by a sense of foreboding.