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: vam.ac.uk

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?