In 'the everyday waiting' photographer Jabulani Dhlamini sheds light on the situation in one of South Africa's poorest neighbourhoods.
South Africa is one of the world’s most unequal countries - and the inequalities have only grown starker during Covid-19. In 'the everyday waiting' photographer Jabulani Dhlamini sheds light on the situation in one of the country’s poorest neighbourhoods.
In a televised address on March 23, the President of South Africa – Cyril Ramaphosa – announced the start of a 21-day lockdown on the nation’s 59 million inhabitants to curb the spread of coronavirus.
Liquor and tobacco sales were banned, non-essential outings prohibited, a curfew was enforced and face masks became mandatory. Meanwhile, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) was deployed, ensuring that people obeyed the government measures and dishing out heavy penalties to those who didn’t.
Within the first week of the lockdown, three million South Africans had lost their jobs, contributing to a sharp rise in food insecurity and poverty. But one of the hardest-hit areas was Soweto, a sprawling township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, home to more than a million people – the majority Black Africans.
It’s in Soweto that photographer Jabulani Dhlamini lives and works. “As a documentary photographer I am compelled to look, observe and document what is happening around me,” he tells me. “My practice is always about looking at human conditions and how the past is affecting the future… so I felt it was important that I document this part of human history.”
During the lockdown, Dhlamini was driving his mother – an essential worker – to and from the pharmacy where she works. As the streets were largely empty, he’d find himself talking to people out the car window while he waited. Each conversation inevitably wound back to Covid-19, as people shared their fears and frustrations with him from the doorways of their homes. So it was that Dhlamini’s new project, the everyday waiting, was born, as a means to archive and visualise these conversations.
Soweto was once the epicentre of the famous 1976 uprising that bears its name against the racist apartheid regime. What began as a peaceful protest, was quickly succeeded by years of violence and repression. Today, conditions have not changed much. Families live crammed into informal shack settlements or single-room houses, which make social distancing during a pandemic near impossible. Many in Soweto lack access to basic facilities, including running water and electricity.
“Covid-19 has exposed South African social problems that are a legacy of the apartheid system,” says Dhlamini. “Not a lot has changed even after 25 years. For example, people still live in the same houses that were designed during the apartheid era under the Group Areas Act.
“Financial exclusion is making townships overpopulated, as people can’t afford to own houses in cities. So now, people are forced to live in hand-to-mouth situations as they earn way less than their counterparts from other races.”
Police brutality is also rife. While nothing new, the rate of violent incidents by police against civilians has reportedly more than doubled since the lockdown began. According to the Thomas Reuters Foundation, at least ten Black people were killed by police during lockdown in South Africa.
Dhlamini had his camera seized by police at one point while shooting the project. “All the townships were militarised and over-policed and that resulted in police brutality,” he says. “I had an encounter with the police and they made me delete images; that experience meant I had to tread carefully going forward.”
While Dhlamini photographed people from his car, there is a striking intimacy to his portraits, reflective of his sensitive approach towards the people he photographs. The conversations were the genesis of the project, therefore he’s chosen to present their quotes alongside the pictures.
“In this process of me collaborating with the people I’m working with, photographs become my contribution and the text is their contribution, so I have to tell their stories in their own way,” says the photographer.
It is estimated that around one in 10 of Johannesburg’s cases of COVID-19 are in Soweto, following a trend seen in Cape Town, where the poorest townships have been most affected. These inequalities – still glaringly present decades since the apartheid era – are what Dhalmini seeks to highlight in his work.
Like his late mentor David Goldblatt, who famously documented Soweto during apartheid, Dhlamini regards photography is a tool he hopes will bring visibility to social issues and ultimately trigger change.
“Shooting my surroundings at this time led me to understand that this pandemic is starkly highlighting entrenched social and economic problems,” he reflects. “After 25 years, what has changed in South Africa’s townships and rural areas? Not enough.”