Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Jabulani Dhlamini captures Soweto in lockdown

“We look at the statistics and the hospitals, focusing on the people who have contracted the illness, and we forget about how the situation impacts the community”
Feature, British Journal of Photography — June 2020

Photo: Jabulani Dhlamini

On the 44th anniversary of the 1976 Soweto Uprising — when several thousand Soweto students protested against the introduction of mandatory Afrikaans-language instruction in their township schools — we share Jabulani Dhlamini’s documentation of the former township during the lockdown. The peaceful protest developed into an uprising that claimed hundreds of lives and revealed the South African regime’s brutal killing of its own people. The atrocity, and the documentation of it, forced the world to face up to and address apartheid in South Africa.

Jabulani Dhlamini is drawn to peripheries. He avoids the epicentre of an event or situation and turns to its fringes: exploring impacts and effects that would otherwise remain unknown. In 2018, the Financial Times asked Dhlamini to document his life for 24 hours for The millennials series, an assignment that coincided with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s funeral on 14 April 2018. However, instead of recording the ceremony, Dhlamini honed in on informal, memorial street-gatherings across his hometown, Soweto. “I wanted to collect the noise of the event within me, to continue to listen to the atmosphere afterwards — post-funeral, but not post mourning,” wrote Dhlamini, who attended the actual funeral but did not photograph it. “When everyone is running towards a certain event, we lose some of the meaningful narratives,” he explains, reflecting on the commission while discussing his current and ongoing series — the everyday waiting.

The everyday waiting records South Africans across Soweto in lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic, and encapsulates Dhlamini’s reflective approach: “We look at the statistics and the hospitals, focusing on the people who have contracted the illness, and we forget about how the situation impacts the community.” Dhlamini turns his attention to these impacts: the physical and psychological toll on those confined to small spaces; consumed by fear and uncertainty. “I listen to their everyday worries and how they feel about the situation,” he says.

Meaningful exchanges are central to Dhlamini’s approach; the conversation comes first, and the photograph second: “It is the experience of the conversation that becomes more important than the image.” His wider practice is deeply collaborative and derives from his upbringing during the final years of apartheid, and his views on the country now — the work amplifies the experiences and voices of marginalised communities; Umama, for instance, focuses on the challenges faced by single mothers raising children in South African townships, while Recaptured interrogates the 1960 Sharpeville massacre through the memories of those affected by it.

“I always collaborate with the people I am photographing,” continues Dhlamini, “we have a conversation and that leads us to a certain image, to which we have both contributed.” The everyday waiting takes this approach: it is not purely documentary; the photographs record everyday moments, but there is something more — a level of intimacy and connection, which goes beyond straightforward reportage. In one frame, a woman, enveloped in a blanket, peers out, while, in another, a shaft of sunlight illuminates a man gazing out of the picture. The work provides a space for the experiences of those depicted: “It gives them an opportunity to speak their minds. Many of these people are confined to their homes and have very few people to talk to.”

The army deployed some 3,000 troops to help police enforce the lockdown across South Africa, and the heightened militarisation and police presence are resonant of the apartheid-era: “It is the first time since democracy that the townships have been militarised, now they are full of soldiers,” says Dhlamini, who the police stopped and forced to delete several photographs. “It reminded me of a history where people had to hide their cameras,” he continues. Lockdown has exposed the great inequality that continues to pervade the Black community; poverty, poor sanitation and education — “there are many problems that we have inherited from the apartheid era; now they are resurfacing again.”

Police brutality against South Africa’s citizens, particularly poor Black communities, remains rife; an ongoing reality brought to the fore during the pandemic. The Thomson Reuters Foundation has reported at least 10 Black people dying at the hands of law enforcement throughout lockdown; on 10 April, Collins Khosa was brutally beaten by members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD), after they accused him of possessing a glass-half-full of beer in his garden. “Even though the pandemic is creating new problems, it is also activating old ones,” re-iterates Dhlamini, referencing the ongoing racial inequality and discrimination that has endured across South Africa for the entirety of the post-apartheid era. The murder of George Floyd in the US on 25 May, and the global outrage that followed, also amplified these issues; in South Africa, thousands of citizens attended Black Lives Matter demonstrations, protesting against the ongoing issue of police brutality in their country and beyond it.

As with much of Dhlamini’s work, the series will ultimately act as an archive: a historical record of the moment. “Even though I am working now, I am archiving”, says Dhlamini, “we need to look at these images after and learn from them.” As Dhlamini’s mentor, the late David Goldblatt did before him — interrogating the wider context and implications of apartheid rather than just the direct violence — Dhlamini hones in on everyday moments: recording the effects of major events and powers on the individual existences of South Africans, so as to unravel and bear witness to the forces at play — now and for posterity.