Update, 23 October 2010: I've just posted a longer look at the poor white phenomenon in South Africa, and, especially, at the way that they've been photographed. You can read "Poor Whites and Photography in South Africa, the Backstory," here.
Update, 25 June 2010: The New York Times is the latest media outlet to discover, as if for the first time, that there are (shockingly!) poor whites in South Africa. The paper's Lens Blog has just posted an interview with Reuters photographer Finbarr O’Reilly (see below) and a gallery of his photos from the Coronation Park, home to many impoverished white families. O'Reilly's comments are interesting, but he and the Times do leave the impression that poor whites are a recent phenomenon. In a comment that he just made about this entry, O'Reilly correctly points out that he did say, in the Times interview, that poor whites are not new, "but the numbers seem to be more apparent than they were in the past.”
We agree. Poor South African whites are nothing new. It's a long and fascinating story. Read on.
Update, 5 April 2010: The murder, last weekend, of Eugene Terre'Blanche, long-time leader of South Africa's Afrikaner Weerstandbewging [AWB=Afrikaner Resistance Movement], a small but violent neo-Nazi group, made headlines all over the world. It's also increased interest in the country's "poor whites."
It's worth making a couple of points about the AWB.
First, most of its members are not "poor whites." They tend to be lower middle class and solidly working class. Terre'Blanche himself was a relatively prosperous commercial farmer. (His murder was almost certainly not politically motivated. Police have arrested two suspects, both of whom are African workers on his farm, and say that killing came after Terre'Blanche and the men argued over unpaid wages.)
Second, the AWB was formed in the mid-1980s, a decade before majority rule came to South Africa, in response to the white minority government's tepid moves toward reform. Few blacks benefited from the reforms, but they were enough to frighten unskilled and semi-skilled white workers and farmers who relied on racial legislation for job security or control over their worker force. Some of these whites found strength and comfort in Terre'Blanche's mesmerizing rhetoric.
At its height, in the late 1980s, and early 1990s, the AWB claimed to have 15,000 members, a number which is probably much too high. The group's reputation for drunkenness and ill-discipline limited its appeal.
While the AWB was responsible for several murders and bombings, it had little impact on the movement toward democracy in South Africa.
* * *
Every few years, the media rediscovers South Africa's most exotic species -- "poor whites."
White people, after all, aren't supposed to be poor, especially not in Africa. The white South Africans of our imagination are privileged -- each and every one of them -- and spend most of their time braaing boerewors by the pool, while their maids do the dusting and gardeners trim the hedges. When we discover that's not always true, it comes as a real surprise. It shouldn't -- we've learned this lesson more than once -- but, in the western imagination, whiteness is so firmly associated with affluence (and blackness with poverty) that we have to relearn it time and again.
Children walk through a squatter camp for poor white South Africans at Coronation Park in Krugersdorp, March 6, 2010. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly
Last week, it was Reuter's turn to explore the lives and habitat the South African "poor white." The catalyst was a visit by President Jacob Zuma to a whites-only squatter camp, during which he pledged to ensure that its residents received their fair share of government services. Zuma first visited the camp in 2008, during his campaign for office, and said, at the time, that he was "shocked and surprised" by what he saw. (For him, too, whiteness and poverty were an unlikely combination.)
Reuter's photographer Finbarr O'Reilly made these photos in Coronation Park, a former holiday caravan [trailer] park west of Johannesburg, that has become a refuge for impoverished whites. (This is not the site of Zuma's visits.)
In a post on Reuter's excellent photographers' blog, "Hardship Deepens for South Africa's Poor Whites," O'Reilly writes that, while "most white South Africans still enjoy lives of privilege and relative wealth, the number of poor whites has risen steadily over the past 15 years." He explains this increase by mentioning both "affirmative action laws that promote employment for blacks" and "the fallout from the global financial crisis."
That's certainly true, as far as it goes, but it's worth pointing out that poor whites, in South Africa, are nothing new. They were part of the social landscape long before affirmative action and the recent economic meltdown. White society in South Africa has always been stratified by class, no matter how strenuously those who promoted white supremacy and those who denounced it insisted otherwise.
Friends talk through the window of a one-room hut at a squatter camp for poor white South Africans at Coronation Park in Krugersdorp, March 6, 2010. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly
During the first two centuries of colonialism in southern Africa, the poor white settlers who attracted the most notice were the trekboers, semi-nomadic farmers who raised cattle and other livestock for the market. To many wealthier whites and European travelers, they were dirty, lazy, and racially degenerate, having adopted a mode of living that was indistinguishable from that of blacks. (It's a view that's had a very long shelf life, in both print and images.)
By the beginning of the twentieth century, poor whites were both an embarrassment and a threat, at least as far as their social superiors were concerned. The expansion of commercial farming in rapidly industrializing South Africa drove many whites off the land and into the cities, where they found work (or failed to find it) in mines, shops, and factories. Elites feared that they would combine with black workers to threaten capitalist development. A good deal of subsequent legislation was designed to make sure that would never happen, by offering whites access to jobs, education, housing, and political rights that were denied to blacks.
Family at lunch, 1962. David Goldblatt.
The policies of the segregationist governments, before World War II, and the apartheid government, after it, reduced white poverty, but didn't end it. Anomalies within a system of white supremacy, poor whites have been endlessly worried over, written about, and photographed, with various mixtures of curiosity, compassion, contempt, and concern.
No photographer has depicted poor white South Africans with more clarity and insight than David Goldblatt. His 1975 book, Some Afrikaners Photographed, while not specifically about poor whites, is nevertheless full of them. The photos, made during the decade of the '60s, are tough, where they need to be, and lyrical, where it suits. They refuse to condescend, and they rarely judge. When they celebrate, it's through moments of ordinary grace, as in the photo below. He understood that it was perfectly possible to be both a beneficiary of racial injustice and the victim of class exploitation.
Ella, daughter of Freek and Martjie Marais, in the children's bedroom, Gamkaskloof, Cape Province December, 1967. David Goldblatt.
By embracing complexity and respecting his subjects, Goldblatt found ways to get around and beyond conventional image-making.
If there's a man-bites-dog quality to most reporting about poor whites -- and there is -- the same can be said about reporting on rich blacks, especially, again, in Africa. Rich blacks fascinate us (western viewers and western media) for the same reason that "poor whites" do. They contradict our expectations of the way the world is "supposed" to be.
Durban, South Africa. July races, 2005. Martin Parr/Magnum.
Slate, the online magazine, recently published this photo from Martin Parr's series Luxury. In introducing the series, the magazine said that "Traditionally, the portrayal of poverty has been the domain of the 'concerned' photographer, but Martin Parr has photographed wealth in the same spirit, believing that when people of the emerging upper-middle classes around the world demand and receive the luxury goods that are taken for granted in the West, the pressure on the world’s resources will be considerable."
It's not entirely clear what Slate's editors mean by "in the same spirit." The spirit of exoticism and wonder with which poverty, particularly African poverty, has been approached? A spirit that sees "emerging upper-middle classes" as being as threatening as the poor, but in a different way (threatening to deprive us of the resources we need to sustain the western way of life)? Who knows? It's a statement that's illuminating partly because of its incoherence.
None of this, of course, is what Parr, elusive trickster and satirist that he is, would have had in mind. But, like all photographers, he has little control over how people interpret his work.
Charles Kapié with his partner in the street close to their office. At 30 years old he has created and runs a consulting firm in agronomy and a cyber café. He used to be a civil servant and he invested his "rappel" (first year of salary paid at once) in his activity and resigned after one year. He was paid $400/month. He situate himself in the middle of the Middle Classes. Joan Bardeletti.
Like Goldblatt's photos of impoverished whites, Joan Bardeletti's series Middle Classes in Africa is an antidote to the sort of nonsense that I've been talking about. Bardeletti says that he wants to present "a new but realistic vision of Africa to the public of developed countries." He hopes that his photos will lead people to question their preconceived ideas about Africa, "rather than inspire... pity about the continent."
This is some of the most original and challenging photography to come out of Africa in a very long time. You can see more of it, here.