Photo exhibition reflects apartheid inequalities

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Spending time in St George’s Cathedral in the city this week took Kate Ncisana back thirty years to a time when she took refuge in the church against apartheid injustice.

It was in March 1982 when Ncisana and 56 others protested with a 23-day fast against their eviction from an informal settlement in the city.

Their story is currently being retold with a photographic exhibition, ‘An African Story of the Mother City’, at the cathedral. The images of their eviction were collected from the archives of various photojournalists. These include former Argus newspaper photographer Mike Mackenzie as well as Guy Tillim, David Goldblatt and Paul Alberts.

Photo by Mike MacKenzie at the exhibition.

The black and white photographs take the viewer into the lives of informal settlement residents and the injustice they faced.

Women and their children particularly are exposed to police aggression in the images. One woman bathes her baby in a tub, surrounded by rubble, and behind her a bulldozer gathers zinc sheets that were previously homes.

Another woman is seen carrying a metal sheet on her head and a baby on her back. Various images speak of an intention to crush the human spirit. It is impossible to walk away from this exhibition unaffected, angered and bewildered by the nonsensical implementation of apartheid.

Ncisana has lived in Khayelitsha since police moved her there in 1982. She recalls the day when her shack was dismantled and she was thrown off the land where she had built her home.

“You leave your house standing in the morning when you go to work. You hear on the radio that your house is being broken down by police. It took me two hours to get from work to home and when I got there I found only the leg of my kitchen table,” says Ncisana.

“The police pushed us out of our homes. We didn’t know where to go. It was horrible.”

Ncisana and others who were evicted made their way to the cathedral to pray for help.

“We decided to go to the cathedral to pray and fast. When you pray for something you have to fast so that you have strength in your prayers,” says Ncisana.

The photo exhibition notes inform that the “group fasted for 23 days until (former National Party cabinet minister) Piet Koornhof agreed to negotiate on the faster’s terms”.

“The fasters represented a broader group of squatter residents who sought recognition as citizens of Cape Town. They sought the right to live and work in the city. Some of these citizens, like Kate, had in fact been born in Cape Town but was forced by Acts, such as the Breadwinner’s Clause, to live alone in the City without her family,” it continues.

Exhibition notes inform that the apartheid government’s Breadwinner’s Clause “allowed women, who were the heads of households, temporary permits to work in the city provided they took their children to live under the care of others in the rural areas or homelands”.

The former government also implemented laws that prevented black women from “obtaining permanent rights to live or work in the Western Cape and from legally bringing their families to live with them in the city”. Migrant workers were also not allowed to live in Cape Town permanently.

Ncisana and others fasted for the right to stay in Cape Town. After being forcibly removed and then fasting, Ncisana and others were granted the right to stay in the Western Cape.

“After all that fighting, we were then given permits to stay in Cape Town. We got our rights. Then the police took us to Khayelitsha where we got a place to put our shacks,” says Ncisana.

Ncisana walks visitors through the exhibition and shares her story with them.

“Lovey, I’m trying to introduce my struggle to the people. They don’t know our struggle,” says Ncisana.

“Our struggle is not known by this government. When they got to power they only looked at people who died and who went to jail. They don’t look at people who were on the ground. We were the people who faced bullets. We didn’t run away.”

Remembering resilience of past protests against apartheid injustice to inform present social struggles is at the heart of this exhibition.

“Lovey, I wish people can learn from our struggle. We were not violent when we struggled. We did it peacefully,” says Ncisana.

“If you want to be noticed you must be peaceful so that people can see clearly what you want. If you do something wrong, like smashing other people’s stuff, it will seem that you are not struggling for something good.”

Lynette Maart, project coordinator of the Crypt Memory and Witness Centre at the cathedral, says this exhibition speaks about the “need to celebrate ordinary people”.

“It gives other people courage in the present to do simple acts that will make change. Leaders can’t change society by themselves. We want to stimulate citizens to become change agents,” says Maart.

Maart is a co-curator of the exhibition says “it’s important that we look at these struggles for social cohesion”.

“The squatters sought sanctuary in the cathedral. Their fast was innovative. They put their bodies on the line. That’s all they had and they acted to defeat the system,” says Maart.

Sandra Prosalendis, co-curator of the exhibition, says “we need to hold up to the light stories that could have an influence on the decisions we make today”.

“When one walks through the exhibition one is struck with a sense of disbelief at the sheer wickedness of apartheid, we have forgotten how truly inhumane that past was and no matter the comparison with today’s housing, urbanisation and land issues we can never ,ever, say that people had it better back then,” says Prosalendis.

The exhibition also takes the shape of a book, ‘Behind and Beyond the Eiselen Line’ written by Josette Cole, which reflects the stories of 40 of the fasting protesters. This book was commissioned by the Crypt Memory and Witness Centre.


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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

One response to “Photo exhibition reflects apartheid inequalities”

  1. Rehad Rahim says :

    I am the last generation that stood in the front line as a student activist in Cape Town, South Africa during the late 80’s. I have no photos to show my kids of our struggle for liberation. I thank you for putting together this exhibition which as much as it saddens me also makes me happy to know that my kids and their kids will be free of oppression…..I hope! Rehad Rahim

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