FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

A Picture of Things to Come?

by SUREN PILLAY

It’s hard to disown a photograph. As much as I try to do so, looking at the image that stares out to us this Monday morning. It is of weakness displaying itself in the false guise of strength. An image of African disunity, as South Africans attack foreign African refugees, on the eve of Africa Day celebrations.  In the picture,  the faintest outline of a human form is visible , engulfed in raging flames. A lone black policewoman attempts to salvage the victim. Behind the mirage, the policewoman’s  two black male  colleagues look on at the pyre. Its not clear if one of them is smiling. A man at the shop in Cape Town where I purchase my paper thinks so, as he shows the image to  white clientele in horror, as if to further underscore, without the need to even whisper, the barbarism unfolding in  the center. At this point I don’t know the fate of the figure in the fire. The caption, and the accompanying story is silent on what happened after. A  reporter recalls a panicked resident warning police that ‘Shangaans are being attacked’. She tells us that ‘one plump woman… could not contain her laughter…and regaled her audience with details of the event’. Will it be possible to make collective meaning of  this divisive event,  which brings laughter to some, and horror to others?

The still photograph has the capacity to arrest time like no other medium. We flip through our family albums, recalling the poignant moments of our lives. From the moment the camera took a portable form, it quickly allowed for the democratization of the image.  The photograph has become intimate with the ways we mark our private life, as families, in our rituals of birth, and celebrations of marriage, for example. Photography has also acted as a marker of our shared public History. But those moments which enter into History—the authorized, fought over, revised truth of our past which validates us as humanity, or nations,   can also simultaneously bring us to shame.  The image of Nelson Mandela , emerging from prison, fist clenched, Winnie at his side, marshals thread-barely holding order,  is perhaps one such photograph. It captures in full joy and tragedy the maxim of Walter Benjamin,  the German cultural critic, that ‘every document of barbarism is also a document of civilization’. Barbarism and colonialism, and the futile violence of its civilizing mission became transparent that day to many skeptical South Africans, as the ‘enemy’, Nelson Mandela,  took a few steps from prison, and blurred before their eyes into dignity, elegance and grace.

The ubiquity of the technology to capture still images has transformed the relationship between the spectacular and the banal. Its Trojan Horse power is that it  has  made the ‘scandal’ more possible. The US army banned images  of  weakness: the rows of coffins of soldiers’s bodies coming home from Iraq draped in the stars and stripes. In it’s hubris, it  forgot to control images of the way it gloats. AbuGhraib symbolized the gloating of an occupation at a loss. Otherwise panic stricken young footsoldiers now had control over the ‘enemy’ in an invisible prison regulated only by the determined will of an executive power at war with the world, convinced that any means was necessary. The private images of gloating  became scandalous, which in turn scandalized behaviour that appears to have been normal in the prison.

I have not seen an image arrest attention like this in a while. Not that we have not had pictures of dead bodies on our front pages. And of dead black bodies.  It seems however that a human being set alight and burning is another matter. The struggle for life, battling the presence of death being cheered on, is something we recoil from and cannot turn away from.  And we have precedents. The images of the necklacing of Maki Skosana in the Eastrand township of Duduza in July 1985, marked such an event. Skosana was accused of being an impimpi, a police spy, and set alight by a jeering crowd.  The accusation turned out to be a false one. The case of Maki Skosana happened to be captured by the media, and it became known as the ‘first necklacing case’. One of the photographers who captured these events, the late Kevin Carter, spoke  of how this was just one incident that was preceded by others. What made this the ‘first’ was its coming to view to the  South Africa that does not, and dares not go into a township. The apartheid South African government-controlled media made maximum use of the moment. A young, helpless black woman being set ablaze by a carnival of black people reinforced what the colonial mentality had long warned of: the barbarism of the native.

The meaning of this photograph, now ‘public’, and taken post-apartheid,  will be determined by us, those who are its witnesses. In the 1980’s, Bishop Tutu threw his body on to a man who was about to be necklaced, offering himself up in solidarity with this vulnerable person,  in disgust and compassion.  Kevin Carter, who took many such pictures amidst celebrating residents of the townships in the 1980’s,  eventually took his own life in despair. This image, of an ‘outsider’ being set alight, is now a part of our  History. Our family album. Its  scandal is out in the open for all to see: refugees, the most vulnerable people on this continent, being attacked, and killed by the poor of South Africa’s townships, who  too are counted as amongst the most vulnerable on this continent. Here we are not exceptional. Throughout colonized Africa, indigeneity has become a politicized matter. The colonial state distributed rewards and punishment along these lines, turning where you came from into a political matter.

In his reflections on violence after colonial rule, written in 1963,  Frantz Fanon observed with prescient foreboding clarity: “The colonized man will first manifest this aggressiveness which has been deposited in his bones against his own people… the colonized man is an envious man’.  Without a meaningful decolonization of the society which benefits all,  Fanon warned, this envy  in the post-independence period turns on outsiders:  ‘From nationalism, we have passed to chauvinism, and finally to racism. These foreigners are called on to leave, their shops are burned, their street stalls wrecked…We observe a permanent seesaw between African unity, which fades quicker and quicker into the mists of oblivion…’.

On the eve of Africa Day, the challenge of decolonization, it seems, remains.

SUREN PILLAY lives in South Africa and can be reached at: SPillay@hsrc.ac.za

 

 

 

 

 

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

March 30, 2017
William R. Polk
What Must be Done in the Time of Trump
Howard Lisnoff
Enough of Russia! There’s an Epidemic of Despair in the US
Ralph Nader
Crash of Trumpcare Opens Door to Full Medicare for All
Carol Polsgrove
Gorsuch and the Power of the Executive: Behind the Congressional Stage, a Legal Drama Unfolds
Michael J. Sainato
Fox News Should Finally Dump Bill O’Reilly
Kenneth Surin
Former NC Governor Pat McCory’s Job Search Not Going Well
Binoy Kampmark
The Price of Liberation: Slaughtering Civilians in Mosul
Bruce Lesnick
Good Morning America!
William Binney and Ray McGovern
The Surveillance State Behind Russia-gate: Will Trump Take on the Spooks?
Jill Richardson
Gutting Climate Protections Won’t Bring Back Coal Jobs
Robert Pillsbury
Maybe It’s Time for Russia to Send Us a Wake-Up Call
Prudence Crowther
Swamp Rats Sue Trump
March 29, 2017
Jeffrey Sommers
Donald Trump and Steve Bannon: Real Threats More Serious Than Fake News Trafficked by Media
David Kowalski
Does Washington Want to Start a New War in the Balkans?
Patrick Cockburn
Bloodbath in West Mosul: Civilians Being Shot by Both ISIS and Iraqi Troops
Ron Forthofer
War and Propaganda
Matthew Stevenson
Letter From Phnom Penh
James Bovard
Peanuts Prove Congress is Incorrigible
Thomas Knapp
Presidential Golf Breaks: Good For America
Binoy Kampmark
Disaster as Joy: Cyclone Debbie Strikes
Peter Tatchell
Human Rights are Animal Rights!
George Wuerthner
Livestock Grazing vs. the Sage Grouse
Jesse Jackson
Trump Should Form a Bipartisan Coalition to Get Real Reforms
Thomas Mountain
Rwanda Indicts French Generals for 1994 Genocide
Clancy Sigal
President of Pain
Andrew Stewart
President Gina Raimondo?
Lawrence Wittner
Can Our Social Institutions Catch Up with Advances in Science and Technology?
March 28, 2017
Mike Whitney
Ending Syria’s Nightmare will Take Pressure From Below 
Mark Kernan
Memory Against Forgetting: the Resonance of Bloody Sunday
John McMurtry
Fake News: the Unravelling of US Empire From Within
Ron Jacobs
Mad Dog, Meet Eris, Queen of Strife
Michael J. Sainato
State Dept. Condemns Attacks on Russian Peaceful Protests, Ignores Those in America
Ted Rall
Five Things the Democrats Could Do to Save Their Party (But Probably Won’t)
Linn Washington Jr.
Judge Neil Gorsuch’s Hiring Practices: Privilege or Prejudice?
Philippe Marlière
Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Presidential Hopeful, is Good News for the French Left
Norman Pollack
Political Cannibalism: Eating America’s Vitals
Bruce Mastron
Obamacare? Trumpcare? Why Not Cubacare?
David Macaray
Hollywood Screen and TV Writers Call for Strike Vote
Christian Sorensen
We’ve Let Capitalism Kill the Planet
Rodolfo Acuna
What We Don’t Want to Know
Binoy Kampmark
The Futility of the Electronics Ban
Andrew Moss
Why ICE Raids Imperil Us All
March 27, 2017
Robert Hunziker
A Record-Setting Climate Going Bonkers
Frank Stricker
Why $15 an Hour Should be the Absolute Minimum Minimum Wage
Melvin Goodman
The Disappearance of Bipartisanship on the Intelligence Committees
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail