Rainbows of the inner city

Photographers in South Africa are striving to find new ways
of recording the transformation of the

In his 2006 memoir, Portrait With Keys, the South African writer Ivan Vladislavic describes how, for many years, he would meet his brother for coffee at the Carlton Centre, an office block and shopping mall in central Johannesburg. When he and his brother first began to meet there, in the late 1980s, he would always have to drive up to the fourth or fifth floor of the adjacent multi-storey car park to find a space. But by the mid-1990s, in the early days of the new, post-apartheid South Africa, the car park had begun to "shrink". The "demand for parking fell, level by level, like a barometer of change in the city centre. The people with cars were going elsewhere." They, and hundreds of white-owned businesses along with them, were heading to Johannesburg's northern suburbs where, Vladislavic's brother tells him, there are "coffee shops . . . where you can still read your paper and eat your biscotti in peace".

The people they left behind in what used to be the central business district (CBD) were mostly poor and mostly black, their numbers swollen by migrants not only from rural areas of South Africa, but from elsewhere on the continent, too. When I visited Johannesburg earlier this year, I asked a taxi driver to take me from my hotel in a secure enclave in the suburb of Melrose to the country's new constitutional law court in the inner-city neighbourhood of Hillbrow. He complied, while muttering something about "the Bronx" and the "United States of Africa".

In 2009, tensions between black South Africans and African immigrants boiled over. Hundreds of Zimbabwean refugees who had fled Robert Mugabe's regime were forced to seek sanctuary from xenophobic attacks out on the streets of Johannesburg. They found shelter in the city's Central Methodist Church. David Goldblatt, the 80-year-old éminence grise of South African documentary photography, captured the scene. His black-and-white picture (see facing page), shot from above, of sleeping Zimbabweans crammed head-to-toe in the pews and aisles will be on display as part of a major exhibition of work by 17 of South Africa's leading photographers that opens at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in April.

Today, many of those Zimbabwean migrants and their South African counterparts, new arrivals from the countryside, improvise lives as best they can in former office blocks and warehouses. They squat, or else pay criminal landlords extortionate rents for dangerous and insanitary accommodation.

In 2005, Guy Tillim won the Leica Oskar Barnack Award for Jo'burg, a series of 61 images of slum dwellings in Hillbrow and neighbouring areas such as Berea and Jeppes­town. Those pictures - which the curators of the V&A show have chosen not to include (preferring Tillim's photographs of a village in Malawi blighted by famine) - record the precarious lives of the new inhabitants of the CBD: ragged sheets hanging at a broken window; a stairwell clogged with rubbish; the aftermath of an eviction carried out by a private security detail known as the "Red Ants" because of the colour of their overalls.

I was shown inside one particularly gloomy and decrepit block in central Johannesburg by the young photographer Sabelo Mlangeni, who lived there when he first arrived from Mpumalanga. "It's the story of young South Africans," he told me. "We move from the country to the city to find jobs."

Mlangeni's Men Only series, shot in the George Goch men's hostel in the East Rand area of Johannesburg, focuses on some of those who have made that journey. Goldblatt's influence on these often tender pictures is evident in Mlangeni's decision to shoot exclusively in black and white. Indeed, he is a graduate of the Market Photo Workshop, which Goldblatt set up in the mid-1980s with the aim of providing training in photography to those who were excluded from higher education by the policies of the apartheid government.

Mlangeni eschews a straightforwardly documentary approach to his subjects in favour of placing himself inside the communities he photographs. He insists that the Men Only series is not just about poverty: "I try to photograph people in their daily lives, to find beauty where there is no beauty."
The critic Bronwyn Law-Viljoen, editor of Art South Africa, says that although Goldblatt's importance "cannot be overestimated", many of the younger South African photographers are beginning to "interrogate the documentary tradition". A good example of this is Graeme Williams, who began his career as a news photographer in the late 1980s, during the violent, final phase of the struggle by communists and the African National Congress against apartheid.

Williams's first project in the post-1994 era was The Inner City, images of Johannesburg that document the same abrupt changes in
the urban fabric as described by Vladislavic. He says this was a "transition project", a tentative step away from the kind of "message" or "struggle" photography he practised during the apartheid years. Certainly Williams's subject matter had changed, but the visual grammar of these black-and-white photographs remained recognisably that of the documentary mode. Yet, for his most recent series, The Edge of Town, shot in more than 100 South African towns over a four-year period, he turned to colour - almost as if doing so were a condition of his being able to identify "where the country is going".

Early in Portrait With Keys, Vladislavic recalls a black family moving in down the street from his home in the inner-city suburb of Kensington and commissioning a mural of a traditional Ndebele design. It strikes him that documenting the making of the mural "would have made a wonderful photographic essay", because the progress of the pattern along the wall was a "metaphor for the social transformation we were living through". That transformation has not finished yet, but the work of Williams, Mlangeni and others offers a valuable record of the struggles of the new South Africa.

“Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography" opens at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7, on 12 April and runs until 17 July. Details:

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Why Libya? Why now?

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In Russia, Stalin is back

New statues and memorabilia are appearing, as Russians overlook the terror to hark back to a perceived era of order and national safety.

It was during the Victory Day march to commemorate those who fought in the World War Two, the Great Patriotic War (as it is known in Russia) that I saw the face of Stalin. A young woman carried a crimson flag with the image of the Leader which appeared amidst the black and white photographs of grandparents remembered on the seventieth anniversary of the victory over the Nazi Germany. Just a few months later I was back in Moscow to face the fact that the fleeting image of Stalin, like a seed dropped into rich soil, has sprouted everywhere. At the busy Moscow Domodedovo airport you can now buy souvenir mugs and badges featuring a man with a moustache, coiffed hair and unsmiling eyes; men wearing Stalin T-shirts walk the streets of Moscow and just in time for the festive season 2016 calendars with the twelve photos of the ”Red Tsar” are spread across the counters of the book shops. Most shockingly, new statues of Stalin have appeared in Lipetsk, Penza and Shelanger, a village in a Russian republic Mari El. The monuments were commissioned and erected by the Russia’s Communist Party. Its leader, Gennadiy Zyuganov, promised new statues to be built in Irkutsk in Siberia and in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine. Charles de Gaulle, the former French president was right: “Stalin didn't walk away into the past, he dissolved into the future.”

According to a January 2015 survey by an independent, non-profit organisation, founded by a Russian sociologist Yuri Levada, 52 per cent of Russians think that Stalin played a “definitely positive” or ”mostly positive” role in Russia’s history. Stalin’s positive image today is cultivated mostly through his association with the Great Patriotic War. Throughout 2015 the Russian media have been obsessively commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis, with Stalin, the generalissimo, at its helm. Political psychologist Elena Shestopal, quoted by the Levada Centre, explains that the positive opinion of Stalin is a reflection of the society’s demand for order and national safety. In her view, Russians associate Stalin with the role of the father: strict, demanding and powerful.

Stalin’s resurrection is astounding not least because his role in history and his “personality cult” have been consistently condemned in Russia since 1956. Three years after Stalin’s death, the then General Secretary Khrushchev denounced it at the Communist Party conference. Stalin’s body was removed from the Red Square mausoleum; the monuments commemorating him were taken down and destroyed. During glasnost, the openness period initiated by Gorbachev, some state archives revealing the extent of Stalin’s purges and mass repressions were made public. My own grandfather, Aleksandr Bakunin, who devoted his entire life to the history of the Russia’s Communist Party and its accomplishments, set to work in his seventies to research the newly available materials and write a trilogy about the history of Soviet totalitarianism. In popular literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made stunning revelations about mass repressions and his personal experiences as a prisoner in a labour camp in his novel The Gulag Archipelago, first openly published in a Russian literary magazine in 1989. In Gorbachev’s days Nikolai Svanidze, a popular Russian TV host, historian and journalist – related to Stalin through his first wife, Ekaterina (Cato) Svanidze – declared that Stalin and Hitler were cut from the same cloth on national television. I do not believe that such a statement would be made by the Russian media today. 

An example of a “Red Tsar” calendar

With knowledge about collectivisation and famine of the 1930s, mass arrests and forced labour, the culture of terror and the totalitarian governance, it is difficult to understand the current sentiment in Russia which makes it acceptable to print Stalin’s image onto T-shirts and mugs. Russians, who approve of Stalin, credit him with turning around the backward agrarian economy with its mostly rural population into an economic and scientific powerhouse, responsible for sending the first man into space. It was allegedly Churchill who said that “Stalin inherited Russia with a wooden plough and left it in possession of atomic weapons”. These sympathisers hail rapid industrialisation and economic progress, forgetting its costs. Mayakovskiy put it well in his poem about the construction of Kuznetsk: “The lips are turning blue from the cold, but the lips recite in unison: ‘In four years this will be a garden city!’”

Stalinists are especially vocal in giving their hero credit for winning the war. By the end of 1930s, the Soviet Union had become the largest economy in Europe and in the 1940s it was the defence industry that carried the Soviet campaign against Hitler. Stalin united people and inspired them to fight the enemy both on the front line and in the factories, according to those who believe in Stalin as “the Leader”. “The European nations are being ungrateful”, they say. “Stalin saved them from the Nazis.” It is inconvenient to remember that it was Stalin who had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in August 1939 and had been falsely assured that Germany would not invade the Soviet Union. Stalin disregarded several reports from his own intelligence agents and defected German spies about the advancing of Hitler’s army in 1941. Millions of lives were lost as a result in the first months of the war. As for the gratitude, the Baltic and the eastern European nations are quite right to dispute the post-war reorganisation of Europe, implemented after the Yalta conference, when Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to divide their spheres of influence.

After the war, the USSR became the second most powerful nation in the world and a force to be reckoned with in geopolitics, economics and technology. Previously illiterate peasants, Soviet citizens enrolled in universities, became engineers and doctors, went to the theatre and cinema, read and became part of the Soviet miracle. There is a great deal of nostalgia among the older generation in Russia, who mourn the ”golden decades” of the Soviet Union and wish for Russia’s international status to climb again. “We lived better with Stalin than with anyone else who came to power after him. He looked after us. Today only oligarchs live well,” said a Russian woman in her late seventies. One Russian blogger writes that mass repressions were necessary to align the Soviet consciousness to the new ideology, to replace individualism with collective responsibility. He believes that the terror was necessary to maintain order. There is also rising support among the younger generation who see parallels between Putin and Stalin, the two rulers who favour autocracy and ubiquitous state control.

Already in his seventies, my grandfather wrote two books about the genesis and the evolution of the totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. His third book was meant to be about the fall of Stalinism. Despite several heart attacks and a stroke, he continued working. He died from the fatal heart attack, his book unfinished. Perhaps, it was meant to be. Section 86 of the German Criminal Code makes it illegal to display Nazi images and to hail Hitler in Germany. In Russia, Stalin has never been similarly condemned. The Russian government ostensibly does not object to the new statues of Stalin being erected just 60 years after they had been taken down. The nation that has forgotten its own history is terrifying.