Previously Significant Places

Graeme Williams

1989 - 2013

The project focuses on places that, during a pivotal period in South Africa’s history, assumed great significance. Between the late 1980s and 1994 the country was treading a delicate path between civil war and transformation. Political instability and violence were the order of the day.

As a photographer working for Reuters, Associated Press and various European and American newspapers, I covered many aspects of the transformation process. There were highly dramatic moments such as the release of Nelson Mandela and the murder of ANC leader, Chris Hani, but there were also many subtle moments that reflected the lives of ordinary South Africans, living through this tumultuous period.

Now, some twenty years later, the country is struggling to rebuild a damaged society and to secure its fledgling democracy. My perspective and associations with the events that occurred in the early nineties have also shifted. By returning to the locations where I photographed these previously significant moments, I am exploring the level of the country’s transformation or lack thereof, as well as my own response to these spaces.

On a broader level, the essay also explores a more general human response, which is not specific to South Africa. The emotional and intellectual projections that each individual places on significant moments in time are subjective and therefore not fixed. These projections are different for each individual and they are also subject to change over time.

I have combined recent images with historical images in a dyptech format in an attempt to create a visual puzzle that both links and disconnects the images. The earlier images were made with a news focus in mind, so the basic facts pertaining to the moment dominate. The locations now lack the intensity that the earlier events provided and therefore a different, more contemplative approach is required.

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  • Durban. South beach.
    Above: 1991. Following an AWB march through the streets of Durban, a group of right-wingers still dressed in their AWB uniforms enjoy a dip in the sea, seemingly unaware of their fellow black bathers.
    Right: 2012. Snethemba Mathonsi makes her way to a public shower after a swim.

  • Phola Park. This informal settlement in the early nineties was an easy target for attack by hostel dwellers, due to the high density of shacks and the absence of established community structures.
    Above: 1990. Residents of the informal settlement gather with weapons as they prepare to march on the nearby hostel. The ANC-supporting settlement had been attacked the previous night by Inkatha members from the hostel.
    Right: 2012. State-built RDP houses have replaced the haphazard shack settlement.

  • Katlehong. The Crossroads shack settlement was an easy target for attacks by Inkatha members living in the nearby hostel.
    Above: 1990. One of four men shot and slashed by pangas, during an attack by Inkatha supporters on the ANC-supporting residents of the Crossroads shack settlement. The Inkatha supporters live in a nearby hostel.
    Right: 2012. The remains of the demolished hostel.

  • Durban. North beach.
    Above: 1989. All races are allowed to swim together for the first time in Durban as the race laws are finally lifted.
    Right: 2012. Young girls from a nearby township look down at a sand sculpture depicting a suntbathing woman.

  • Thokoza. The Sam Ntuli Sports Stadium.
    Above: 1991. Youths taunt the police during an ANC political rally at the Sam Ntuli Sports Stadium.
    Right: 2012. A mural at the Thokoza Memorial, that was built alongside the stadium. The memorial houses a plaque naming the 688 people who died in Thokoza during the violence of the early 1990s.

  • Kagiso.
    Above: 1990. A policeman prepares to fire teargas into a crowd of ANC supporters as they demonstrate against the police presence and the frequent attacks by Inkatha supporters
    living in the nearby hostels.
    Right: I started chatting with a woman as she was walking with her grandchild. She agreed to let me take a picture of her slip-slops, but afterwards said, ‘You must go home now, otherwise these ‘tsotsies’ (gangsters) are going to get you.’

  • Pretoria. The Voortrekker monument.
    Above: 1993. As part of the Day of the Vow celebrations, women and children re-enact the Voortrekkers’ victory cover the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River. A large crowd amassed below the Voortrekker monument to commemorate the occasion.
    Right: 2012. Two exhibits at the Voortrekker monument.

  • Katlehong. The tavern photographed in the original image has been renovated into a modern, mini-shopping centre.
    Above: 1994. Members of the National Peacekeeping Force stand guard over the bodies of three young men who were shot dead outside a tavern.
    Right: 2012. Manicurist, Nombuso Ntuli, waits for customers at the Chosen Beauty Salon. She is a tenant at the mini-shopping centre, but has no knowledge of what had occurred at this site 18 years earlier.

  • Durban. Currie’s Fountain Sports stadium.
    Above: 1990. Adelaide Tambo, wife of ANC President, Oliver Tambo, greets the crowd
    at an ANC Women’s League rally.
    Right: 2012. Nolwazi Buthelezi waits for transport outside the stadium after attending lectures at the nearby Durban University of Technology. Most higher learning institutions were reserved for mainly white students during the apartheid era.

  • Mmabatho, Mafeking.
    Above: 1994. Linny Moeng is taken to hospital after being shot by a right-wing supporter using a hunting rifle. She died later in the afternoon. Right-wing groups had attempted to stage a coup in the South African homeland in order to resist the process of political change in the country. I was seen photographing the middle-aged gunman and was attacked by three young right-wingers. My camera’s and film were taken and at one point during the attack a shot gun was forced to my mouth. Luckily an older person walked passed and said in Afrikaans, ‘Don’t shoot them, just beat them up.’
    Right: 2012. Rose Sebolecwe stands in the house formerly occupied by Linny Moeng. Rose was a friend and neighbour of Linny and now lives in her house.

  • Kempton Park. The Emperors Palace Casino and Chariots Entertainment World complex was built on the site where the CODESA (Convention for a Democratic South Africa) negotiations were held.
    Above: 1991. Nelson Mandela speaks at the CODESA negotiations.
    Right: 2012. A statue of Augustus Caesar riding a chariot greets visitors at the entrance to the Emperors Palace Casino and Chariots Entertainment World.

  • Welkom.
    A large percentage of AWB members were recruited from the poorer sections of small town, urban, white communites. In the post apartheid era, the same areas became the first to be racially integrated due to the affordable property prices. These images were made in the same suburb of Welkom.
    Above: 1990. AWB members line the route of a right-wing march through the suburbs of the conservative, mining town.
    Right: 2012. Lenka Lenka is the owner of a home in a previously whites-only
    suburb. When I showed him the old photograph he said, ‘Those guys are very quiet now. Some of my neighbours are white and we get along fine.’

  • Mmabatho, Mafeking.
    Above: 1994. Three members of the right-wing group, the AWB, lie next to their vehicle after being shot dead by a Bophuthatswana soldier. Right-wing groups had attempted to stage a coup in the South African homeland in order to resist the process of political change in the country.
    Right: 2012. Pedestrians walk passed the location of the shooting as they return from a shopping trip in town.