Between Dogs and Wolves – Growing up with South Africa
I was born, as were my parents, in South Africa and lived there most of my life. When Hector Peterson was killed in the Soweto uprising in 1976, I was ten years old. Living in a middle-class suburb, I didn’t have much political
understanding of what was really going on in our country. The townships, and the lives of the people there, seemed far removed. Yet, in the suburbs, as for many white children in South Africa at the time, there was always one black person with whom a close and special bond developed. For me it was with Betty Makhabela, who was like a surrogate mother. She had worked for my mother since I was 4 years old. I knew little about her life, she knew almost everything about mine.
Whilst growing up I had always felt like an outsider – rebelled at school and at home, chose boyfriends from the other side of the tracks – it seemed that I never followed the rhythm of how my life was supposed to be.
I had gone on to study marketing management and was set for a life writing media strategies for brands that meant nothing to me. It was only by chance and great fortune that I found photography.
With its discovery I found a vehicle to explore my country and the people I knew so little about.
I was selected as a trainee at The Star newspaper. This was in September 1993, during the run-up to the first democratic elections in 1994 – an important and historic time –intense, exciting, volatile, and traumatic. It pulled me deep into things I had been protected from throughout my youth. The coming of democracy brought jubilation but I was also to experience several deaths during that period.
Ken Oosterbroek, former chief photographer at The Star and the man who gave me my first break, was killed, as was Abdul Shariff. Kevin Carter and Gary Bernard were to follow. Both took their own lives. All were colleagues of mine.
In 1995 I met David Jakobie, a 19-year-old living in Vredepark, Johannesburg –
a predominantly conservative white lower-class Afrikaans area with strong ties at the time to the National Party and the extreme right, the AWB. The old regime had often looked after people in this community with jobs and housing, but now in the new democracy, this protection was becoming a thing of the past. David was outspoken, living life on the edge. Many of the people I met through him had little to do. They smoked mandrax and crack cocaine, and involved themselves in crime; some made a fast buck by giving blow-jobs for R5 in Braamfontein, an area frequented by rent boys.
David’s philosophy was ‘why worry about tomorrow. I live for now. If I die I die. I enjoy life whilstI can. A coward dies a thousand deaths. A soldier dies only once.’ My time with David drew to a close when a friend of his family –
a man who had been charged for murder and armed robbery – was released from jail. He believed that since David allowed me to take photographs of his life, then I should help him, the friend, to move some goods from one house to another. Over the years I would still occasionally visit David and his family. On one such visit I was told that the man who had wanted me to help ‘move some goods’ had been shot dead whilst trying to rob a house.
David was obsessed with the Fast Guns, a notorious gang living in Westbury, an economically deprived ‘coloured township’ west of Johannesburg. That is where I went next.
At the time (1996) there were numerous articles in the press about the death of young gangsters in the area. I wanted to explore this world, but not in a superficial or sensationalist way. Who were they? What brought them to this? It was a closed community which detested the media for its inaccurate reporting of their situation, which they felt always depicted them as the ‘other’. It took time to win their confidence.
Rosie, one of the Fast Gun members, said to me when we first met: ‘Where’s your bullet-proof vest and your gun… A small white girl coming into our area unprotected…’ The community felt despondent about the new government. With a black ruling party they felt they would be last in line for any opportunities and would be treated as black people had been in the past.
Putting personal prejudice aside, I worked closely with the gang members. I included them by giving them pictures to show what I was doing and took account of their views when making the final edit.
We all have two sides, one dark and the other light. At times it was confusing. An individual who has murdered and raped can still have wit and charm, and despite knowing what they had done I could find myself becoming fond of them. A photographer can move in and out of people’s lives with relative ease, but many people are trapped in their own lives with little opportunity to improve or change their situation.
The other photographs in the book were mainly taken in Johannesburg and the Northern Cape. They evoke many powerful memories for me. A three-year-old with a huge grin on his face, jumping into my car as I was leaving
Orlando Children’s Home for abandoned and abused children. He thought I was taking him home and burst into tears when I explained this wasn’t possible. The screams of a child at Cotlands Baby Sanctuary for HIV/AIDS- children, as she was being moved to the hospice ward. Even at such a young age it was as if she knew her destiny.
The great sounds filtering through the Gauteng Music Academy. The boys I found in the sweltering heat who had made a makeshift high jump. The songs that children sang to me in the different communities I visited, and me having to duck into the next room to wipe my tears away.
Why was I crying? They were in this terrible situation and they were laughing, dancing and singing…
After showing a friend of mine an early layout of the work, he turned to look at his daughter playing behind us and said: ‘My two-year-old daughter is in an unbelievably privileged situation in South Africa. To be able to grow up without having to encounter situations like these. Few kids here are that lucky…’
This work isn’t an attempt to show where South Africa is heading, nor does it pretend to show the full picture of the country. It is a partial view. It is more a journey I needed to take, a ten-year journey that began for me in 1994 with the first democratic elections in South Africa.
Whether rich or poor, we all come with our own baggage, our own internal struggle. As children we accept what is put before us – we are innocent and have little choice.
The legacy of South Africa’s past and poverty created an abnormality in our society. Choosing to photograph what I did will not change anything, but it did show me that for many, even in the harsh landscape of life, the human spirit is very powerful, with great courage and strength, and the will to keep on trying to move forward and make a better life.
Jodi Bieber´s website you´ll find here.