High above Senegal aboard a New York-bound airliner, Margaret Bourke-White typed a letter to a friend. She had left Johannesburg only hours before, and as she wrote, her emotions exploded into a white-hot fury.
"I don’t know where to begin about South Africa," she said. "I’ll have to get further away and sort out my impressions. But it's left me very angry...." As she continued, her words began to tumble over each other in their rush toward the page.
...the complete assumption of white superiority and the total focusing of a whole country around the scheme of keeping cheap black labor cheap, and segregated, and uneducated, and without freedom of movement, and watched, and hunted, and denied opportunity. And all thru such a mist of fulsome phrases, whether it’s the vote, whether it’s a clean house, whether it’s a chance to go to school -- the patronizing cover-all phrase ‘he’s not developed enough for it.’
Margaret Bourke-White/Time Inc.: Algeria, February 1943. (Self-portrait.)
A day later -- 15 April 1950 -- she was more reflective, but still incensed by the injustice she had seen during her five months in southern Africa. Writing now from somewhere “Between Lisbon and the Azores,” she directed her anger at white South Africans. By the end of her assignment for Life magazine, she wrote
...it was hard for me to be even polite to people any more. In the beginning I had to be, for it was a very hard and diplomatic job I had to do....
The woman that Life had sent to South Africa was one of most famous photographers in the world. Bourke-White's work as a photojournalist, especially in the United States during the Great Depression and in combat during World War II, had catapulted her to the top of her profession and into the public imagination. As her biographer, Vicki Goldberg, writes, her “name, face, and photographs were known to millions," Hollywood had based movies on her life, and women everywhere regarded her as their ideal. She was, Goldberg says, "a true American heroine, larger than life -- perhaps larger than Life.
My tattered and stained copy of the issue in which the Voortrekker Monument story appeared. It's much larger than it looks -- over 10 inches across and about 14 inches high, bigger than virtually any magazine today.
That last bit is something of an exaggeration. Life towered above any mere mortal. Perhaps the most popular magazine in American publishing history, it was nearing the peak of its reach and influence in 1950. It reached over 20 million people each week, the vast majority of whom were middle class and white.
The two lengthy photo-essays about South Africa that resulted from Bourke-White's trip were most Americans' visual introduction to apartheid, a system of racial oppression and exploitation that would soon become infamous around the world. The second and longer of the two, "South Africa and Its Problem," is a compelling analysis, as well as an explicit condemnation, of racial injustice at the dawn of the apartheid era. It's the subject of Part 2 in this series and will appear later this week. [Update: Part 2 is now online.]
Life, 16 January 1950, pp. 20-21. [Click on any image to see a larger version.]
But "South Africa and Its Problem" was the culmination of Bourke-White's research and photography in the country. "South Africa Enshrines Pioneer Heroes" was the beginning, and it could hardly have more different in tone and feel.
Bourke-White's photos of the dedication of the Voortrekker Monument and the text that accompanies them show no trace of the anger and insight that she expressed so forcefully only five months later. Although visually appealing, the essay is politically naive and leaves vital questions unasked.
Bourke-White had been in the South Africa for about two weeks when, on 16 December 1949, the gods of photography dropped the Voortrekker [Pioneer] Monument dedication into her lap. It was the sort of event photographers' dreams are made of: four days of pageants, concerts, and speeches in a dramatic setting; a crowd of 250,000 people in attendance, fully one-tenth of South Africa's white population; quaint nineteenth-century costumes; blue skies and fluffy clouds. It was the greatest peacetime spectacle that the country had ever seen.
Life, 16 January 1950, pp. 22-23.
It was also a highly charged political event, bringing together the most prominent winners and losers of the previous year's bitterly fought parliamentary elections. The ten years leading up to the 1948 elections had been, in Albert Grundlingh's words, "a period of feverish Afrikaner nationalism." Afrikaners (sometimes referred to as "Boers"), who descended primarily from settlers who arrived during the Dutch colonial period in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, made up roughly 60% of South Africa's white population. In the run-up to the election, the National Party capitalized on Afrikaners' historical grievances, most importantly a deeply rooted feeling of having been marginalized in their own land by the British imperialism and by English-speaking whites. (Yes, the irony here is painfully obvious.)
Its 1948 victory put the National Party in a position to impose on the dedication ceremonies its understanding of the meaning of the Voortrekker Monument and of Afrikaner history. To a large extent, it succeeded. In 1949, and at least until the party lost the 1994 elections to the African National Congress, the monument has been seen primarily as a symbol of triumphant Afrikaner nationalism.
Life, 16 January 1950, pp. 24-25.
It would be unfair, of course, to expect Bourke-White to have grasped the political subtleties that surrounded the monument's dedication. She had never been the country before, and she didn't speak Afrikaans, the language in which virtually all of the proceedings were conducted.
She was on much firmer ground, however, when it came to photojournalism. She knew how to make pictures that would grab the attention of Life's readers and how to tell them a whopping good story. Her 17 black and white photos, spread over seven uninterrupted pages, translated the Voortrekker Monument's dedication into an idiom that was both dramatic and readily accessible to her American readers. At the same time, however, the photos failed to achieve a critical distance from their subject and reproduced the heroic myths of colonial conquest and Afrikaner nationalism.
Life, 16 January 1950, pp. 26-27.
When readers turned the story, they saw precisely the sort of dramatic, symbolic flourish that made Bourke-White famous. [Below.] A large image of two flag-bears mounted on white horses occupies the upper 2/3rds of the page. The strong graphic design places the horsemen in the center foreground, trotting directly at the viewer. Other horsemen in the middle ground and rolling hills in the distance draw the reader into the scene. The horse and rider is, of course, a well-established convention in western art, evoking valor and chivalry. These associations are underscored by the bold headline beneath the image -- "South African Enshrines Pioneer Heroes." Alternative readings of the photograph are certainly possible, but anyone making one would have had to fight through visual and literary rhetoric that powerfully asserts a single meaning -- heroism, sacrifice (implied by the word "enshrine"), and the legitimization of colonial conquest through analogy with the American pioneers who, in the language of the day, "conquered the West."
Margaret Bouke-White/Life: Carrying Flags of Boer War days, Modern Afrikaners Costumed as Pioneer Riders Arrive on Prancing Arabians at Voortrekker Pageant.
Readers would have turned the page to see a large central image spread over the next two pages. Its striking geometry, expressed in sharply contrasting black and white costumes of a choir's male and female members, draws the reader's eye. [Above, pp. 22-23.] The subject would have been familiar -- a folk pageant of some kind with dress from a earlier era. Most of the smaller photos that flank the central image would have prompted Life's readers to further identify with the event. In the upper right, carrying two women in sun bonnets and flanked by a man in a costume that looks as if it might have been worn in the American west, is an ox wagon that is reminiscent of the Conestoga wagons that took American pioneers across the prairies. A photo of black women bending over cooking pots, preparing a meal for whites, brings the question of race to the surface. [Below.] Readers would have been familiar with the racial hierarchy implicit in the scene. I wonder how many would have found it remarkable in any way. It might have simply reminded them of home.
Margaret Bourke-White/Life: The Only Natives Who Attended were Servants. These Bantu Women are Cooking a Heavy Dutch Dinner.
A night photo of a torchlight ceremony might have stuck a discordant note. It echoed Nazi rallies at Nuremberg, only five years after the end of World War II. The repugnant association, however, is softened by the fact that the torchbearers are girls, not soldiers, and by the caption's reassurance that "Voortrekker Girls" are merely the equivalent of American Girl Scouts. Finally, a photo showing young people gathered around a stand that is selling "American hamburgers" and Coca-Cola, according to its clearly legible sign, drives home the point that the people at the dedication ceremony are, in essence, just like "us," that is, just like Life's overwhelmingly white readers. [Below.]
Margaret Bourke-White/Life: Only Foreign Influence was Seen in American Hamburgers and Coca-Cola, which Young Boers Enjoy.
The third double-truck spread offers readers their first good view of the monument itself. It would have been a curiosity, looking nothing like the Roman temples American monuments and memorials tend to emulate. But the central photo is more about the sheer spectacle of the occasion than the squat obelisk on the hill. [Below.] 175,000 people are gathered on the monument's grounds in orderly rows, as if miming the civilizing discipline that they have imposed on an African landscape. As printed in the magazine, the image is enormous -- 14 inches across and 12 inches high, as large as a photo that was intended to hang on a wall. It's meant to amaze. The headline next to it sends a clear message. The monument (and, implicitly, white civilization in South Africa) "Is Built For 1,000 Years."
Margaret Bourke-White/Life: The Vast Throng Attending the Voortrekker Celebration is Shown Here on the Hillside Rising Up to the Monument. About 175,000 of the 250,000 South African Whites Who Hear Prime Minister Malan's Inauguration Speech are Visible, Some Sitting in an Amphitheater (foreground), While Others are Spread Over the Slope. The Broken Horizontal Line at the Right of the Monument's Base Forms Part of Its Design -- a Protective Circle of Voortrekker Covered Wagons (in Granite) Drawn Up for Defense Against Zulus.
The photos which close the essay take the reader inside the monument. The most important of the two occupies an entire page. [Below.] It's printed in dark, heavy tones, with a burst of light placed almost exactly in the middle. It's an image, the caption tells us, of "the tomb of a pioneer hero, Piet Retief." On the facing page, a smaller photo depicts a interior bas-relief and shows Retief at the moment that he lost his life to a Zulu soldier -- "a native,' according to Life -- who is seen treacherously attacking him from behind. [Second below.] (This image would have reminded American's of similar imagery depicting death at the hands of Native Americans wielding tomahawks.] The essay closes, then, with solemn images of savagery and sacrifice. Retief may have died, but white civilization triumphed, as the monument's very existence demonstrates.
Margaret Bourke-White/Life: From Balcony Beneath Dome of Monument Boers Watch Sun Pay First Annual Visit to the Tomb of a Pioneer Hero, Piet Retief.
Strictly speaking Bourke-White and her editors weren't quite right about the final photo. The dark structure on which the sun's rays shine isn't a tomb. It's a cenotaph, a tomb-like memorial to someone who's buried elsewhere. But they did recognize that the cenotaph was the monument's centerpiece, the symbolic final resting place of Retief and the other Voortrekkers who were killed at Zulu King Dingane's command. The fact that a shaft of sunlight struck the cenotaph so precisely was no accident. As Life's text informed readers, the effect was the result of the architect's "half-mystical, half-mechanical scheme" to glorify "the pioneer Boers." A lens in the monument's roof "is so placed that the sun's rays are shafted deep into the monument at 12 noon on Dec. 16," the day that Retief's death had been vindicated by the Voortrekker's victory over the Zulu in 1838.
Margaret Bourke-White/Life: Bas-Relief Shows a Native Killing Piet Retief.
The article's text (which Bourke-White had a hand in shaping) followed the visual rhetoric, largely adhering to an Afrikaner nationalist interpretation of the ceremonies, on the one hand, and Americanizing them, on the other. Participants, Life told its readers, came "from the far corners of the Union... in American-made cars" and "gathered with pride and with prayers for the white Christian civilization their forefathers brought to the dark continent."
When explaining the history of the Afrikaner people and the significance of the monument, Life reverted to the an Afrikaner nationalist narrative. Afrikaners, it wrote, had been "[e]xploited... by the Dutch East India Company and deprived of governing rights and slaves after the British occupied South Africa...." They then trekked "off into the rolling veld in 1835 to live as independent farmers." The magazine explained the events that the monument memorialized by saying that Zulu King Dingane "lured" Retief and his band of "happy, unarmed Boers into his kraal, entertained them with a war dance, then suddenly cried, 'Slay the wizards!' Retief and 70 men were murdered and left to the vultures. On Dec. 16, 1838 Trekker Andreis [sic] Pretorius formed 56 wagons into a defensive laager, asked God's aid... and in a few hours annihilated some 3,000 [Zulu] with hardly a Boer casualty. Thereafter... Dec. 16 became Dingaan's [Dingane's] Day, a Boer Sabbath, in memory of dark treachery met with rich vengeance."
The reasons behind Bourke-White's blindness to the darker meanings of the Voortrekker Monument and the dedication ceremonies are likely to remain obscure. No diaries from the period or letters that she wrote while in South Africa seem to have survived. The chapter devoted to South Africa in her autobiography doesn't mention the monument at all. The simplest explanation may be the best -- she was new to the country and saw more than she understood. And what she would have seen at the dedication was, according to South African journalist Piet Cillie, "Afrikaners... at their most attractive." Writing at the time, Cillie, who Hermann Giliomee notes would later be known for his cynicism, declared that the ceremonies took English-speaking journalists by surprise: "They did not realize that young Afrikaners could sing so well, that Afrikaner women could dress so well, that Afrikaners could perform such folk dances, and that Afrikaner history could be presented so irresistibly...." Bourke-White may have been seduced by the occasion.
But, as we'll see in Part 2, she didn't stay seduced for long.
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I'm always interested in hearing what you think. Please leave a comment.
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PS I suppose that I should mention that I've only been to the Voortrekker Monument once, despite having lived in South Africa for a couple of years and going back many times over the last couple of decades. I went to see it on my very first trip, in 1989. When I visited it, I'd been in the country even less time that Bourke-White had been when she went. In my case, it was two or three days.
I was staying with friends in Johannesburg, and rented a Toyota Corolla to drive up to Pretoria. I remember listening to Dire Straits on the radio along the way and thinking it was strange to hear such familiar music in Africa.
I felt uncomfortable from the moment that I entered the monument's grounds. Remember, this was 1989 -- early 1989. Within a little more than a year, Nelson Mandela would be released from prison and the rocky, four-year transition to democracy would begin in earnest. But almost nobody would have believed that in January of 1989.
It was a grim time in South African history. Tens of thousands of activists were imprisoned -- detained was the term -- often without charges and without access to lawyers or their families. Many were being beaten and tortured. The army and police were occupying African, Coloured, and Indian townships, fighting running battles with the youth and killing and maiming many. Security forces were operating death squads. Activists disappeared into the night, never to be seen again. Nonviolent protests were met with force. Media censorship was the order of the day. (So was media courage, among journalists of all colors.)
In the days and weeks before I left the US for South Africa, I was frankly scared. Of precisely what, I wasn't sure. But I was scared.
Over time, I got over my fright and learned to negotiate my way through South African society. In fact, I came to love it. But that was later. When I went to the Voortrekker Monument, I was still an anxious mess.
As it turned out, the monument's staff (all of whom were Afrikaners) and the few tourists who were around were perfectly polite. (In part, I suppose, because it was so obvious that I was a Yank. A black one, but a Yank nonetheless.) Some went out of their way to try to make me feel welcome. One staff member, in particular, couldn't stop apologizing for the fact that they'd run out of English-language brochures.
But I couldn't relax. I walked around a bit, spent a few minutes on the inside, made a few bad pictures, and left. I need to go back.
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This post draws from a longer article on Margaret Bourke-White's South African photos that I'll publish in Kronos, a South African historical journal, in the fall.