Africa's exotic species -- giraffes, rhinoceros, mountain gorillas -- have always fascinated outsiders. And none has been more exotic and unexpected, more scandalous and titillating than South Africa's poor whites. After all, wasn't apartheid -- South Africa's particularly vicious system of white supremacy and black subjugation -- supposed to ensure that no white could possibly be poor?
On the other hand, the existence of poor whites has never surprised South Africans. It has, however, often worried and annoyed them.
These two reactions to white poverty -- fascination and worry -- came together for me recently in a wonderfully unexpected way. A few months ago, I wrote a about a fine photo essay by Reuters photographer Finbarr O'Reilly about Coronations Park, a poor white community near Johannesburg. Here's one of O'Reilly's photos -- poor white boys playing with a old tire.
Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters: Children play on a tire being used to block the entrance to a squatter camp for poor white South Africans at Coronation Park in Krugersdorp, March 6, 2010. (Click directly on either of these photos to see larger versions.)
One of the points that I made in my comments about O'Reilly's work was that poor whites have been a favorite subject for photographers for a very long time. O'Reilly responded to my comments, and that led to a friendly exchange of emails. In one of them, he mentioned South African photographer Constance Stuart Larrabee, who had done a series on poor whites in the late 1940s.
I'd known about Larrabee, but had never studied her work. What O'Reilly had to say about her intrigued me, and got me digging around in her online archive at the Smithsonian Institution. And what did I find? A photo of a poor white boy playing with an old tire.
Constance Stuart Larrabee. Children in Johannesburg (South Africa) slum streets. 1947-48.
According to the Smithsonian, Larrabee photo's was part of a series about a social welfare system that "had been established for poor white South Africans in the Johannesburg area after the end of the Second World War." It reflects official concern about poor whites -- the sense that they urgently needed to be lifted out of poverty, not so much for their own sake, but because their very existence poked holes in the edifice of white supremacy. (Larrabee's photos have gotten under my skin. I'm currently writing an article about the social welfare series.)
This set of convergences really isn't surprising. Both O'Reilly and Larrabee were doing the same thing -- documenting the lives of poor whites. (White supremacy is dead in South Africa -- politically, at least, but poor whites continue to fascinate. They remain anomalous in a country where poverty is overwhelmingly black.) And, in the age of Google, it wasn't hard for O'Reilly to discover that someone was writing about him. We know, as well, that poor children will make toys out of whatever is at hand, and old tires are rarely in short supply.
So, the convergence is no surprise, but it's still wonderful to see. The photos are beautifully evocative, and they remind us that what seems new is often very old.
PS, 20 November 2010: Larrabee was one of the first photographers to examine the lives of South Africa's poor whites. (She was almost certainly the first professional photographer to do so.) I talk about her pioneering work, here.
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I should have mentioned this in my earlier posts... Anyone interested in the history of poor whites in South Africa might want to look at White But Poor: Essays on the History of Poor Whites in Southern Africa, 1880-1940, edited by Robert Morrell and published in 1992 by the University of South Africa.