Faith and Fortitude in a Marginalised South African Township

Sarah Stacke’s depiction of Cape Town suburb, Manenberg, is a nuanced portrait of a place that is solely talked about as the most violent neighbourhood in South Africa.

© Sarah Stacke, from the series, Love from Manenberg

A suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, Manenberg was established during the late 1960’s by the apartheid government as an area for Coloured families. Manenberg has hit the front pages ever since, first as a nest of anti-apartheid movements, and more recently as the most violent neighbourhood in the whole country. “When the community was removed from their original neighbourhood, they were suddenly separated from their networks for education, job opportunity, and so on. Gangs somehow took hold of this social network”, photographer Sarah Stacke explains. “But there are a lot of wonderful people there”, she quickly adds, as if to protest against the usual one-sided narrative.

Her project aims to draw a more nuanced portrait of a place that treated her with tremendous candor since her first visit in 2011. After developing strong bonds with Naomi Lottering, whom she had met in the street, Stacke accompanied her home - a home where Naomi is always welcome, though she usually chooses to stay in the streets. There, Stacke discovered a family who love each other unconditionally despite their differences.

© Sarah Stacke, from the series, Love from Manenberg

“I am very interested in how people navigate relationships against the backdrop of Manenberg. This story shows that nobody is only one thing at a time.” There are photos of occupied coffins and of funerals, but they stand along with scenes of laughter and freedom. “It’s important to capture these milestones in people’s life, be them positive or negative events, because they are the daily ins and outs of the human condition.”

A photograph shows a romance book left upside down on a side table surrounded with heavily ornamented fabrics. On the cover, a couple embrace languorously under the fantasy title, “The Brazilian Millionaire’s Love-Child”. Though mundane, the scene acts as a symbol for a possible escape. Stacke’s photographs often draw on such a figurative form of storytelling. This is also the case with her image of two neighbours chatting over a solid concrete fence. “In Manenberg, which can be dangerous, people often remain behind the walls, physical or metaphorical, that protect them. The facial expression of one of them expresses the need for safety. In the meantime, it also illustrates that Manenberg is a small community where everybody knows everybody’s business. There are very few secrets in Manenberg!”

© Sarah Stacke, from the series, Love from Manenberg

Other things that spread fast in Manenberg are the results of US professional wrestling, which everyone follows closely; lyrics by Abdullah Ibrahim’s tunes; gossip at the tuck shop or the produce stand; and photos by Sarah Stacke, which she left by the hundreds on each trip and end up on mirror corners, on the walls, or inside books. “It’s been very meaningful to see my photos contribute to their own family albums in a way.”

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Sarah Stacke is an American photographer whose personal work develops intimate stories about people living in under-resourced and narrowly represented communities created by intersections of history, culture, and geography.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

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