Now about the mines. One thing that’s happened to me... from now on I just hate gold and diamonds.
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Note: It's a sad coincidence that I'm posting this piece on the day after over 30 striking platinum miners were killed and nearly 80 were wounded by police bullets in Marikana, South Africa. When I began my research on Margaret Bourke-White's 1949-1950 South African photos nearly a year ago, I was initially drawn to the subject by her powerful and sympathetic portrait of two gold miners. [See below.] She had come to understand the exploitation and degradation that defined their working lives. For her, the men embodied the strength and endurance of all black South Africans in face of odds that were overwhelmingly stacked against them.
It will take some time for conflicting accounts of this tragedy to be sorted out. It seems clear, however, that the root causes of the strike are low wages, dangerous working conditions, and abysmal housing. Just as important is the miners' sense of having been betrayed by their union and abandoned by their government. Eighteen years after the coming of democracy to South Africa, too little has changed in the lives of the country's miners.
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Life, 18 September 1950, pp. 110-111. [The magazine was much larger than it looks here -- approximately 14 inches high and (opened) 22 inches across.]
"Visually dazzling but surprisingly naive." In Part 1 of this brief series, that what I had to say about "South Africa Enshrines Pioneer Heroes", the first of two long photo-essays about South Africa that Margaret Bourke-White produced for Life magazine in 1950. In accounting for Bourke-White's unexpected naivete -- she was, after all, one of most highly regarded photojournalists of her generation -- I noted that she had been in the country for a very short time when she shot the story on the dedication of the Voortrekker Monument. She was also seduced, I thought, by the sheer spectacle of the occasion and the warmth of the people that she met.
She didn't stay seduced long. Letters that Bourke-White wrote several months later, immediately after leaving the South Africa, showed that her understanding of the country had deepened considerably since she photographed the ceremonies at the monument. In them she describes the injustices that blacks endured as well as the "hypocrisy and inhumanity" of whites. Writing to a friend, she said that she had managed to capture much of what she learned on film. “I have many photographs to cover all these things. I did... an enormous amount of maneuvering to get them, as the white SoAfr’s are terribly sensitive to criticism as well they might be. But I got awfully good stuff, I think."
Life, 18 September 1950, pp. 112-113. [Click on any image to see a larger version.]
Bourke-White's "awfully good stuff" was the raw material that ultimately produced "South Africa and Its Problem", which was published in Life in September 1950. It's an interpretation of South African society that put the exploitation and oppression of blacks at the heart of its analysis. It's also the work of an immensely sophisticated photojournalist at the top of her game. Appearing five months after Bourke-White returned to the United States, it was one of the longest photo-essays that Life ever published. Its 16 uninterrupted pages contained 35 photographs -- five in color, the rest in black and white. (By comparison, W. Eugene Smith's "Country Doctor," one of the most renowned of Life's photo-essays, was 12 pages long and contained 28 black and white photos.) The photos and the text speak forcefully about the exploitation, poverty, and indignities that blacks endured, about the wealth that they created but did not enjoy, and about the political and economic foundations of white supremacy.
But a glaring omission prevents it from being a fully convincing portrait of South African society. By choice rather than by chance, Bourke-White and her editors entirely omitted any reference to black political and labor activism and to the emerging culture of black modernity, in all its "vitality, novelty, and precariousness," as Paul Gready once put it. Instead, the photos and text depict Africans as an essentially pre-modern people, trapped between a collapsing "tribal" culture and a modern industrial society with which they could not fully cope. Change would be slow to come, the essay suggested, because blacks were incapable of helping themselves and because they had few allies among whites.
Life, 18 September 1950, p. 111.
The essay opens with an iconic image that demonstrates its strengths and foreshadows its weaknesses. [Above.] Dominating the first page, it's one of Bourke-White's favorite photos and one of her best known. It has an almost visceral presence that would have stopped Life's readers in their tracks. In Vicki Goldberg's words
It is pure Bourke-White. Shot close up from slightly below, the men become monuments crowding out of the frame. ...The lighting in richly sculptural, quietly dramatic, romantic. The two faces, noble and melancholy, are circled by the miners’ hats as if by metal halos; on some symbolic level these men represent the downtrodden who suffer but endure.
Like all portraits, the photo was a collaboration. Together the American woman and the two South African men imprinted multiple meanings so strongly on the photo that readers would have had to make a conscious decision to resist its representation of intelligence, dignity, strength, and masculine beauty. At the same time, however, the miners' averted eyes would have sent another sort of message, one that disempowers the miners. Goldberg captures this in her phrase "the downtrodden who suffer and endure." Bourke-White revealed the mens' strength and at the same time implied their weakness. The men were strong but passive. They were oppressed and exploited but would not fight back. Bourke-White intended the photo to be read, in the context of the essay, as a metaphor for the condition of black South Africans. As we shall see, she made a conscious decision to get it only half right.
Underneath the iconic image, competing headlines introduced further complications. The larger of the two announced, ambiguously, the essay's title and subject: "South Africa and Its Problem." Below it, a sub-headline identified South Africa as "a black land" that is subject to "white rule" which, implicitly, deprives blacks of "human liberty." By positioning blacks as the county's legitimate owners and whites as interlopers, the headlines might have implied that the problem is "white rule." The size and strength of Bourke-White's photograph, hovering directly over the title, suggested an alternative reading: the men themselves and, by extension, the people that they represent are the problem. On the same page, the text made it explicit. The article, Life told its readers, is the result of Bourke-White's exploration of "South Africa's great issue and dilemma, the black problem."
Life, 18 September 1950, pp. 114-115.
The essay was interrupted by four pages of color photographs that seemed to have little to do with the gritty black and white photography and hard-edged political and economic analysis that came before and after. Within these pages, the essay's narrative of racial oppression and labor exploitation disappeared. Instead, the photos offered readers a glimpse of what at first seemed to be an authentic Africa, untouched by white civilization. Unlike the black and white photos, where African women were the principal subjects in only one image, women dominated these pages.
Life, 18 September 1950, pp. 116-117.
The images descend from the genre of "native types" that had originally been produced to serve the agendas colonial administrations and western ethnographers by cataloging evidence of ethnic particularities or racial inferiority. They soon entered the realms of commercialism, art, and photojournalism. Circulating as collectible postcards, as well as in books, magazines, and newspapers, native types allowed Europeans to marvel at their new colonial subjects.
Life, 18 September 1950, pp. 118-119.
The distinction between "native" and non-native was an essential organizing principle in colonial societies, separating those who were a part of the political community from those who were not. At heart, the divide was a racial one, but it had a cultural component as well. It suggested that natives were outside of history, as the West conceptualized it. Most importantly, they did not progress. They were trapped not so much in the past as in an unchanging tribal present. One could imagine an anthropology of native peoples, but not a history. Natives were exotic and colorful, and as workers they were certainly useful, they could never be truly at home in the modern world. It was an argument for segregation and for the denial of political rights.
Life, 18 September 1950, pp. 120-121.
Life's text and many of Bourke-White's photos depicted African men as natives, even when they were simultaneously workers. (In the essay, but by no means in South Africa society, to be an African worker was to be a man.) Gold miners, for instance, are seen laboring underground, on the one hand, and performing "a violent tribal dance" above ground, on the other. A photo of mining recruits identifies them as "tribesmen" and shows, in an office setting, them wearing blankets rather than western clothing. Another shows one of the "Amalaita Fights," which, according to the caption, were held under police supervision every Sunday afternoon in Pretoria for "recreation-starved Natives."
Life, 18 September 1950, pp. 122-23.
In Bourke-White's photos, there are few signs that blacks are truly of, rather than simply in, the modern world. In one photo, neatly dressed African men wearing sport coats and fedoras press into a pass office. They wouldn't have looked out of place in Detroit, and they hint at the existence of a black urban culture. But it's only a hint. In most of her photos, Bourke-White represents Africans as natives who are in the modern world, but not of it, even if they supply the labor.
Life, 18 September 1950, pp. 124-125. [Remember, you can click on any image to see a larger version.]
The final large photograph in the essay does offer Africans a role besides worker and native -- helpless victim. In it, Bourke-White has photographed a three-year-old in a squatter camp on the outskirts of Johannesburg. She is monumental. Photographed from a very low camera position, at approximately the level her knees, the three-quarter-page image makes her seem to tower over the reader, if not over her environment. Seen through a wire fence, she is a helpless giant, alone and isolated from family and community. A blemish on her left lower eyelid looks like a tear. She is an innocent, a pure victim, and she cannot help herself. It's the last image of a black person in the essay.
Bourke-White's photos repeatedly underscore the distinction between the poverty and impotence of the black community and the wealth and power of the whites. The second double-truck contains a group portrait of the National Party cabinet that emphasizes the men's status and self-confidence. A photo of interior minister T.E. Donges shows him playing cricket in the luxurious surroundings of Cape Town's Newlands Cricket Grounds. Margaret Ballinger, who represented Africans in Parliament because, by law, they could not represent themselves, is seen talking to some of her "constituents." (Ironically, most of her supposed constituents seem actually to be Coloured stevedores.) Policemen appear in three photos, conducting raid on illegal beer brewing, escorting prison laborers to work, and watching over the "Amalaita" fights.
Life, 18 September 1950, pp. 126-127.
A passage from Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country brings the essay's text to a close. It's one of the most despairing moments in the novel. Speaking from the perspective of an ordinary white South African, Paton can see no way out of the South African dilemma:
...we fear not only the loss of our possessions, but the loss of our superiority and the loss of our whiteness. ...We do not know, we do not know. We shall live from day to day, and put more locks on the doors.... ...And out lives will shrink, but they shall be the lives of superior beings....
Below this passage is a tiny photograph, the last image in the essay and by far the smallest. A large ornamental plinth, located outside the Johannesburg city hall, takes up much of the frame. On it, somebody has scrawled a slogan in chalk: "God is Black." [Below.] Life explains the scene by saying that the words were written by "a resentful Native." It's a plausible explanation, I suppose, but others would hold up equally well. Was it an bitter native? Or an ironic one? A native-provocateur or a native surrealist? There was, and is, no way to know. The photo is an enigmatic outlier in an essay that elsewhere telegraphs its messages.
Margaret Bourke-White/Life: A black protest is chalked on wall outside the Johannesburg city hall by resentful Native.
I prefer to think that the photo is an inside joke, signaling that Bourke-White and her editors knew things that they hid from their readers. There is little double that they understood that black South Africa had entered a period of tremendous political and cultural dynamism and that they withheld this knowledge from their readers. The evidence for this is in what Bourke-White wrote before and after leaving the country and, most importantly, in the photos that she made while she was there. For instance, her reading of the graffiti scrawled on the plinth was significantly different from the one suggested by the caption. In a note to her editors, written while she was in South Africa, she said that it was "[s]ymptomatic of the growing racial self-consciousness of the black folk of South Africa...."
Margaret Bourke-White/Life: Protesters carrying banner reading STOP POLICE TERROR listen to speaker during a Communist meeting. Johannesburg, South Africa, 1950. [Unpublished photo and caption.]
Bourke-White was well aware of the changing self-consciousness because of the time that she had spent with black activists and intellectuals. In a 1950 letter to a friend, she praised the courage and dedication of white, Coloured, and African labor organizers. In her autobiography, she described a visit to a shantytown where she saw "a Sunday mass meeting in which the people dared to carry banners with the slogan Stop Police Terror, and fiery speakers denounced police brutality."
Bourke-White not only saw that mass meeting, she photographed it. [Above.] The archive of Bourke-White's Life photographs contains two images that are probably from that meeting. One shows a group of men seated behind a speaker and in front of a banner that reads "Stop Police Terror." Pinned to their jackets are badges bearing the slogan "We Don't Want Passes." Another photo is a portrait of a protester, Phillip Mbhele, wearing the same badge. (Yes, she got his name.) The captions tell us that it was a "Communist meeting."
Margaret Bourke-White/Life: Native carpenter Phillip Mbhele wearing WE DON'T WANT PASSES tag, angrily speaking against the white Afrikaner's pass system which requires all Natives to carry one or more passes. Johannesburg, South Africa, 1950. [Unpublished photo and caption.]
Bourke-White met a variety of political and labor activists. She made a portrait of Yusuf Dadoo, the president of the Transvaal Indian Congress and a prominent member of the Communist Party of South Africa. [Below.] Directly in front of him, resting on a table, is a poster that has been turned to face the camera. Part of it is clearly legible. It advertises a "Celebration, Monday, May 1st, Freedom."
Margaret Bourke-White/Life: Union Of South Africa. Portrait of Union of South Africa's Dr. Joussef [sic] Mohamed Dadoo smoking a pipe as he sits w. poster for May 1st Freedom Day Celebration. Pretoria, South Africa, April 1950. [Unpublished photo and caption.]
Needless to say, if Bourke-White and Life had carried through on her insight that there was "a growing racial self-consciousness" among black South Africans and had included photos and accounts of black activism, "South Africa and Its Problem" would have been a radically different essay. Its assessment of labor exploitation and racial oppression would not have changed significantly, and it's depiction of the power and complacency of whites might have remained the same. But its conclusions about the possibility of change could not possibly have remained the same. Rather than Alan Paton's hopeless, the essay might have reflected black South Africa's optimism.
What explains the essay's silences about black activism? How do we account for its refusal to depict blacks as "the heroes of their own lives," (to use Linda Gordon's wonderful phrase)? It wasn't racism. Bourke-White had a well-earned reputation as a political progressive and as someone stood for racial justice. Life was generally more liberal on racial issues than most white Americans of the day, declaring as early as 1938 that racial prejudice was the "most glaring refutation of the American fetish that all men are created free and equal.”
The explanation has more to do with American politics than with the South African situation. Bourke-White and Life recoiled from black activism because it was so closely associated with communism. Most members of black political organizations such as the African National Congress, the African Political Organization, and the Indian congresses were not communists. But some of the most prominent were -- Yusuf Dadoo is an example. Most blacks who joined labor unions stayed away from the Communist Party. But many of the best and bravest union organizers (it was a dangerous job) were indeed members of the CPSA. While the CPSA and its successor, the SACP, have much to answer for in terms of their unswerving devotion to Stalinism (at least until the collapse of the Soviet Union), their commitment to racial justice in South Africa was beyond question.
It was the dawn of the Cold War, and America was in the grip of a wave of anti-communist hysteria. One didn't have to be a communist to get caught up in the witch-hunts. Bourke-White, who was never a communist but was always a woman of the left, was vulnerable to being red-baited. Even Life's owner, Henry Luce, a staunch and very vocal anti-communist, could find himself under fire for having once employed communist party members. In this context anything involving communists had become toxic to mainstream journalists and publications.
It may be that Bourke-White and her editors believed that they were doing black South Africans a favor by maintaining silence about black activism, given its close association with the communist party. It's possible that any connection with communism would have undermined Americans' sympathy for the plight of black South Africans. But by engaging in this act of self-censorship, they produced a powerful yet powerfully distorted vision of South Africa and its problem.
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Another version of this piece will appear in the South Africa historical journal Kronos later this year.