South Africa

Pimville, Soweto

3976811035_b50ec5dc0c_o2(From the upcoming 4xAfrica show at Rayko SF. Click on the image for a larger version.)

Pimville, Soweto, South Africa, 2009.

As an outsider, it’s easy to get caught up in the fear of crime that permeates life in South Africa–especially around Johannesburg, which just a few years ago had a violent crime rate four times that of Colombia during its civil war. In the late 1990s, a gorilla called Max became one of Jo’burg’s hottest celebrities. One day a burglar named Isaac Mofokeng, on the run from the cops, took refuge in the gorilla cage at the Johannesburg Zoo. Resenting this intrusion, Max attacked Mofokeng, and Mofokeng shot him, which only made Max angrier. Mofokeng barely survived the mauling. The bullets barely hurt “Mad Max,” as he came to be called.

In the run-up to last year’s World Cup, papers around the world predicted that visitors to South Africa would be beaten and robbed in record numbers, that no one would return alive. It didn’t happen, mainly because while the crime is real, it’s only part of the story.

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City of Gold

457844090_229d4c3314_o2(From the upcoming 4xAfrica show at Rayko SF. Click on the image for a larger version.)

Johannesburg, South Africa, 2006.

Egoli–City of Gold–is Johannesburg’s African name, a sort of promised land for job seekers from rural South Africa, and indeed all of southern Africa. Few of these migrants get rich, of course. They fill the inner-city’s decaying apartment blocks and the ever-expanding shantytowns out on the veld, getting by however they can. But they keep coming. Here, at least, they have a chance.

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Urban Africa

Maputo, Mozambique

I’ve got close to 20 images in “4xAfrica,” an exhibition showing at Rayko photo gallery in San Francisco from January 27 – February 27. My photos span a decade of work, from Cairo to Cape Town. The opening is Thursday, January 27, from 6-8 pm, so if you’re in the Bay Area, please stop by and say hello.

The accompanying essay is below. For those who can’t make it to the gallery, I’ve put the photos into a set on Flickr. In the days to come, I’ll post a few of the photos, along with the mini-stories that go along with them.

457844090_229d4c3314_o1First we buy the meat, a pile of spicy red sausage, at a strip-mall butcher shop. Then we get the beer, lugging it past an armed guard at the door who zealously tears our receipt. Then the grilling commences, at a public fire-pit on the grassy verge separating the mall parking lot and the main road, which cuts through northern Soweto in a roar of honking minibuses. Hip hop and local house music blare from one of our cars. We eat and drink under the highveld sun.

As the beer flows, we talk about the world-beating incompetence of the national soccer team; about the perils of jealous neighbors paying witchdoctors to curse you; and about the merits of Facebook. A group of girls wanders by, and a few of the guys chat them up.

511089638_205e9fc2d0_o1My friend Tumi turns to me. “The first time you came here, were you expecting lions and tigers?” he jokes.

Mention Africa, and most people think of savannas and deserts, game parks and thatched-roof huts. It is a dizzyingly varied place–with so many countries and cultures, how could it fail to be?–and resists easy generalization. Like the rest of the world, however, Africa is rapidly urbanizing: by 2015, close to half of the continent’s population will live in cities.

3976819575_5884ed3733_o2Take Soweto, the largest of South Africa’s black townships, 20 miles south of Johannesburg and home to some 4 million people. It is a geography of extremes. Some neighborhoods are filled with tin-roofed squatter shacks, where people get their water from communal standpipes and filch electricity from the main grid. But it is also a place of crisp, modern housing complexes bristling with satellite dishes and monolithic new fieldstone-and-glass shopping malls. There are banks, luxury shops, and cafes where young professionals peck away on Macbooks.

3976811035_b50ec5dc0c_o1Indeed, what used to be an undifferentiated grey mass on apartheid-era maps, a warehouse to store Johannesburg’s black labor between working hours, has become a city in its own right. And Soweto is now part of a nearly unbroken strip of office towers, low-rise suburbs, and shantytowns stretching from southern Johannesburg to Pretoria, 30 miles away. Maybe 9 million people live here now, and more arrive every day in search of opportunities the countryside can’t provide. They call it Egoli, or City of Gold.

Places like Soweto are increasingly the story of how Africans live, from Mali’s low-slung cities, which unfurl across the land in dusty folds of cement and rebar, to Zambia’s Copperbelt, an archipelago of sleepy, seedy mining towns running along the Congo border, studded by precious minerals and checkpoints.

457886411_30ca203d12_o1My friends come from these places. Zé was working for a rental car company in Maputo, Mozambique, when I met him, and living in a decrepit Chinese-built skyscraper in the capital. The elevator hadn’t worked for years, so he trudged up and down the 14 floors to his apartment in the subtropical heat. Dale, a 32-year-old political organizer and jack-of-all trades, grew up in Lusaka, Zambia, part of the first generation of Zambians to be born in cities in large numbers. He sometimes goes out to his father’s small wildcat mine “in the bush,” as he calls it, and I get the sense that it’s almost as much an adventure for him as it would be for me.

457878679_0b79fab431_o1Urbanization, of course, brings with it a loss of tradition. Many of us have seen the news reports about Masai warriors working as night watchmen in Nairobi. But some of the old ways endure. There’s an African concept called ubuntu, meaning that one’s identity is bound to that of the family and the neighborhood. More or less, ubuntu enjoins people to look out for one another. In South Africa, it staved off the collapse of black society under apartheid. What the concept means nowadays for my friends is responsibility. These guys hold up the sky for everyone around them. Thami, a 30-year-old activist in Soweto, supports his son, his girlfriend, his mother, and her two teenage daughters by another father. Plus, because he has a job, every corner kid hits him up for cash. They call him a “cheeseboy,” and sometimes threaten him if he doesn’t cough up beer money.

457869073_d1487c4f98_o1Years ago, Thami’s elders marched in the streets, firebombed buildings, and at great cost won political freedom. Unlike their fathers and grandfathers, whose lives were largely defined by the anti-apartheid struggle, guys like Thami face different challenges. Unemployment in Soweto is estimated at 40 percent, so everybody has to hustle. Most everyone is an entrepreneur of some sort: door-to-door salesman, restaurateur, even car thief.

457869077_cd466fbf6e_o1Back at the barbecue, the bottles are piling up. Thami proposes a toast of sorts. “Sometimes when it gets too hard I think of how far I’ve come,” he says. “Just staying alive until now is something to celebrate.” He raises his beer.

The sun turns red, dropping behind the mall and, beyond it, the manmade mountains separating Soweto from Johannesburg. These hills, flat-topped heaps of castoff dirt and rock, are the byproduct of the gold mines that made Jo’burg the richest city on the continent. In the waning light, even these mine dumps look like bars of gold.

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Litquake

lq_2010_180x150I’ll be reading some of my stuff at Litquake Saturday night, at one of the stops on the (apparently notorious) Lit Crawl. The event is called Where Travel Can Take You, sponsored by Afar magazine–they published my South Africa piece earlier this year–and it’s at The Marsh Cafe, on Valencia. Details here. So if you’re in SF, stop by and say hello.

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Goal!

The World Cup has finally begun (read my new South Africa piece here, starting at pg. 71), and in honor of the globe’s most popular game, I’ve compiled a quick portfolio of soccer-related photos from Africa and the Middle East. You can see most of these images, in larger form, on Flickr.

Pimville, Soweto, South Africa, 2009.

Pimville, Soweto, South Africa, 2009.

Midan Hussein, Cairo, Egypt, 2000. I took this photo of an impromptu midnight game during Ramadan.

Midan Hussein, Cairo, Egypt, 2000. I took this photo of an impromptu midnight game during Ramadan.

Maputo, Mozambique, 2002.

Maputo, Mozambique, 2002.

Colesberg, Northern Cape, South Africa, 2002. Note the color differential between players and coaches. It's the same with many of Africa's national teams today.

Colesberg, Northern Cape, South Africa, 2002. Note the color differential between players and coaches. It's the same with many of Africa's national teams today.

Gaza City, Gaza, 2001. I took this photograph in Beach Refugee camp, close to the Mediterranean but locked away from the world. Things were bad then, during the second Intifada. Things are worse now.

Gaza City, Gaza, 2001. I took this photograph in Beach Refugee camp, close to the Mediterranean but locked away from the world. Things were bad then, during the second Intifada. Things are worse now.

Atar, Mauritania, 2007. Mauritania is an insular place, and most people don't go out of their way to make you feel welcome. These kids were the exception.

Atar, Mauritania, 2007. Mauritania is an insular place, and most people don't go out of their way to make you feel welcome. These kids were the exception.

Soccer field, Jabulani, Soweto, South Africa, 2006.

Soccer field, Jabulani, Soweto, South Africa, 2006.

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The New Face of South Africa

3976818191_017d7d3d79_o1The May/June issue of Afar magazine is out, and it’s running my feature on South Africa’s “Born-Frees,” the first generation to come of age after apartheid’s end. [Turn to page 71.] I tell the story through the life of my friend Thami Nkosi, a 29-year-old Soweto activist and inveterate shit-stirrer, and the group of guys he grew up with.

In many ways, Born-Frees like Thami represent South Africa’s future, and their lives tell us a lot about the country today, and the ways in which both Soweto and South Africa have changed since 1994′s “democratic miracle.” So many things have improved–there’s a large and growing middle class, for instance, and Soweto is booming, bristling with new condos and malls and parks. But it is an unfinished revolution. Decades ago, the older generation marched in the streets, firebombed buildings, and at great cost won political freedom. Unlike their fathers and grandfathers, whose lives were largely defined by the anti-apartheid struggle, the Born Frees have always been able to vote for whomever they like and say what they please. Political freedom, however, hasn’t fully translated to economic freedom. In essence, the Born-Frees’ struggle boils down to a single question, repeated daily in a variety of ways: How to make it in today’s South Africa?

A sample from the piece:

At a friend’s house in Dobsonville, we hunker down for a barbecue, or braai, as South Africans call it, with beer, sausage, and big communal handfuls of pap, a grits-like staple. Thami holds forth under a tent in the driveway, energetically opining on the media, American rappers, and South Africa’s woeful political order. “I see these Jaguars with Jacob Zuma stickers, and I wonder what that means,” he says. “There’s so much crap happening in this country.”

That evening, we drive up to a walled compound at the top of a hill. Sifiso lives in a small apartment here with his fiancée and daughter. The security guard opens the gate, and we park beside a line of late-model cars, all buffed to a high sheen. Young, turned-out Sowetans mingle while a DJ spins local house music; a friend points out the son of Aggrey Klaaste, a famous black journalist from the struggle years. Looking around the party, it’s easy to feel good about the future. “Soweto is coming up,” Sifiso says.

The magazine’s on newsstands now, and I’ve just found a low-res web version [Turn to page 71.]. Check it out.

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Newtown, Johannesburg

457876512_fdeb9ec37c_oThe new issue of the travel magazine Afar has a small piece of mine on Newtown, Jozi’s cultural hub. [Turn to page 18.] I’ve spent a lot of time in this former industrial neighborhood on my visits to Jo’burg, and I’ve seen it change. Back in 2002, my fixer and I almost got jumped while shooting in a shady bar near the old taxi depot cum trash-pit that once dominated Newtown’s landscape. The red-eyed drunks in the bar allowed me to take a few shots then thought better of it. Switching from English to tsotsitaal, they asked my fixer why he was protecting me. That was when we decided it was time to go.

That bar is gone now, replaced by a mixed-use condo project. It’s all part of a huge redevelopment push by the city fathers, aided by a welter of security cameras and an unwillingness to let all of downtown Johannesburg go to hell (indeed, similar efforts are underway in other parts of the city). But Newtown, with its mix of museums, restaurants, and nightspots, is the farthest along.

457876524_5e4e74d1c5_oMy last visit coincided with a music festival, where I ran into the venerable Pops Mohamed, a South African world-music icon who nevertheless rides the bus all over town. As the sun set over the city, we talked about Indian food, and the best bars in the inner suburbs. It was a decidedly unglamorous conversation to have with a pop star, but that’s the kind of place Newtown is: buzzy, but down-to-earth.

Afar‘s content isn’t online but you can find it, as they say, at better newsstands everywhere. (Update, 4.11.10: I’ve just discovered an online cache, and edited this post accordingly.)

(You can see more of my South African photography here.)

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Soweto

rsa09_2262_2_sm

I shot these photos last month while reporting a story on the ways in which Soweto–and, more generally, South Africa–has changed since the end of apartheid. The piece will come later, but for now there are photos.

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Zimbabweans in Jozi

Last week, Mother Jones ran an old photo of mine, one I made in 2002 of a Zimbabwean immigrant (or economic refugee, if you prefer) in his apartment in downtown Johannesburg.

As their nation slipped into chaos under the rule of longtime dictator Robert Mugabe, millions of Zimbabweans flooded into neighboring South Africa in search of work. Many ended up in Johannesburg, Southern Africa’s de facto capital, scratching out a living on the streets and sharing rooms in decaying apartment blocks in the city’s rundown core.

I made this photo in 2002, and things have only gone downhill since then, the years marked by spiraling inflation, stolen elections, and state-sponsored thuggery against the democratic opposition. Even if current power-sharing negotiations manage to loosen Mugabe’s grip on the country, Zimbabwe will need to be rebuilt, more or less, from the ground up.

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