A South African township is an 'urban living area', which, up to the end of apartheid, were reserved for black Africans and Coloureds -a non-pejorative term in Africa meaning mixed ancestry- as well as working-class Indians. Townships, in other words, were built for the not white as holding stations and it's a chilling sight to see a town with style, structure and spires and, at a discreet distance, the low slung squalor of a township. My Brother Dave has good friends in Katlehong, a township near Jo'burg in Gauteng Province, which made this access possible. Spending time in the townships made me realise a few things about photography including how hard it actually is: well, photography that conveys emotion at any rate. I didn't get to grips with any situations - well, none that I had the confidence to photo anyway - that would warrant a reportage ticket and the images I came back with fall simply into the portrait cateorgory - with the one exception of 'I can vote'. That's not to say that I'm unhappy with this and, I hope, indeed, that they're honest portraits. If they are, I'm indebted to my brother and his friend Daniel for the introduction to township life and the safe passage respectively. Not to mention of course the natural honesty and welcome that I felt on meeting the individuals concerned.
Katlehong was established in 1945 and is one of the biggest townships after Soweto. There is serious overcrowding and small houses sub let tiny shacks in their dusty yards where one toilet may serve several families. There is huge unemployment, despite the fact that Katlehong is surrounded by industry and many people operate some sort of micro business in order to survive. And the irony is that Katlehong translates from Sesotho as 'Place of Prosperity' .
Katlehong and the neighbouring Thokoza and Vosloorus saw massive violence in the last years of apartheid in a bloody confusion wherein all three warring parties - the township Self-Defence Units, Inkatha and the Internal Stability Unit of the police - were perceived to have gone crazy. I heard horrific stories of bloody atrocities that had occurred within the homes of the people I was photographing. I think it's right to say that a cautious truce fell over Katlehong after the 1994 election with the township self defence units forming an alliance with the South African Police Service - the estwhile agents of oppression. Perhaps not surprisingly tho' people were still speaking darkly of the police - at least this was the case at the time of my last visit in 2006 - and I got the impression that unease if not hostility and screaming resentment existed within and between the old alliances.
The future of Katlehong is uncertain and the pace of change has been slow. This was a deep disappointment to many of the people I spoke to, who, after experiencing the eyes of the world watching them as apartheid was dismantled, had expected more from the ANC, and a faster pace of change to boot.
I only stayed 3 nights at Daniel and his then partner Florence's place but the experience was profound. I've never felt such pressure and heartfelt intensity as I did then. All those people: all those Monopoly sized houses, all that wasted potential and dwindling hope seemed to bear down on me like a physical force and when it was time to leave I felt relief similar to that felt on waking from a bad dream. Nothing to do with Daniel and Florence, obviously, they were charm itself and indeed I'm indebted to them for their welcome.
And on a lighter note I'd like to thank Daniel for introducing me to the phrase 'to organise'. When we were round and about in the township we'd generally gather a small party and if we'd stop for a beer or for food I'd usually 'organise' it. It's a great phrase without inference or implication. Could you organise the beers? Magic. No one's really having to ask or being made to feel they've got their hand out and indeed it's a compliment to your administrative skills. A great way to ask without having to ask and a small reminder, to me, of the genius and inventiveness of Katlehong.