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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