Friday, May 09, 2008

Back from South Africa

I returned to Kinshasa from Johannesburg the other days, after what was, for me, a highly instructive and enjoyable two weeks in South Africa.

Initially hoping to have a short break from pretty much three-months non-stop reporting here in Congo, I was yet again reminded of how interconnected our word is when I was presented with the heart-wrenching story of the plight of hundreds of Zimbabwean refugees sleeping rough Joburg’s downtown, and was heartened by the wit and insight of their advocate. Busman’s holiday, as usual.

I ranged not only through the thoroughly salubrious Melville area (where I met up with my old friend and fellow journalist Gretchen Wilson, who has been in South Africa since 2004) but also the heavily-immigrant districts of Hillbrow and Yeoville, where South African tongues such as Zulu and Xhosa mingle with French and Lingala. A visit to Soweto offered the opportunity me see the house where Nelson Mandela, one of the handful of politicians I still have any respect for at all, lived at one time, as well as the Hector Pieterson Museum.

Perhaps no other icon better illustrates the stupid, banal brutality of the apartheid system that governed South Africa from 1948 until 1994 than the image of the lifeless body of schoolboy Hector Pieterson carried by another young boy, Mbuyisa Makhubo, as Pieterson’s sister, Antoinette, wails beside them. Pieterson was killed on June 16, 1976, when thousands of Soweto students were protesting the imposition of the Afrikaans language - the language of South Africa’s apartheid government - as the medium of instruction (along with English) in the country’s predominantly black schools. The killing sparked the Soweto uprising of 1976, an interesting account of which by Harry Mashabela I am currently reading.

While idly browsing through the bookstore at Oliver Tambo airport, I also picked up a copy of the The Bang-Bango Club, the account by the photojournalists Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva of their years, along with fellow photogs Kevin Carter and Ken Oosterbroek, of chronicling the violent era between Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 and South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. It was a time during which, Marinovich and Silva, write, the forces within the country’s white power structure implacably opposed to a genuine democracy used members and affiliates of the Zulu-centered Inkatha Freedom Party as a bludgeon against the multiracial African National Congress in an effort to disrupt or even derail negations and the 1994 ballot that brought Nelson Mandela to power. The book is tough going - the photographers witnessed some truly ghastly violence, Ken Oosterbroek was fatally shot on the job and Kevin Carter later committed suicide - but it is an edifying read as the layers as the deception and collusion of that era’s violence are stripped away before the reader to reveal the naked power-play that was in fact at work. Reading about the constant money struggles of these, some of South Africa’s most well-regarded and courageous photographers, is also heartening for those of us who still do journalism for the love and mission of the craft and, as such, end up sacrificing a great deal in terms of comfort and financial security.

Walked through Kin La Belle again today, which swirls on to its own rhythm, as usual.


Leonie said...

Hi Michael, I just saw your blog post on Greg's book (I'm his wife and also a photographer) and seeing that you are based in the DRC, I thought you might be interested in our book on the DRC. Go have a look at:

There will be a website up and running soon, but I hope the book is something you can relate to.

Michael Deibert said...

Thanks for the note, Leonie (and Greg). Good luck with the new project. I will definitely check it out.