The Indeterminate Structure of Things Now
Notes on Contemporary South African Photography


In 1998 David Goldblatt published South Africa: The Structure of Things Then, a series of black-and-white photographs depicting and reflecting the South African landscape, architecture and other formal elements of the built environment. At the time South Africa was barely four years into the formal end of apartheid, making the book less a view into the past, and more a part of reckoning with the shifting shape of the contemporary realities of place. With the sweeping views of mountainous vistas, arid, scraggy, rock-strewn expanses of the Karoo Desert, desolate farmsteads, ponderous and portentous postmodern-style Dutch Reform churches, war memorials and apartheid monuments, walls scrawled with anti-apartheid graffiti, desolate townships, squatter camps, etc, the images in the book inscribed pictures of a society whose stark racial contrasts were not only marked by the brutal politics of segregation, but were etched into the very rock and fabric of the structures of the entire country. It is difficult to reduce the searching, analytical photographs through which Goldblatt illumined the dark contours of his country’s politics of dispossession to an image, not least because each image is a fragment of a larger aggregate which exposes, in both the subtlety of evocation and directness of observation, the building materials that make up the sum out of which a system was constituted. South Africa looks much different –in the superficial sense of present architectural ethos –than it did during the austere and bleak years of apartheid. Yet the aftermath of apartheid in the 1990s remains bracketed by the social forces of that era. The fledgling post-apartheid transformation that continues to reshape the entire system of more than 300 years of white domination has yet to eradicate the stark distinction between black and white social lives.

Guy Tillim: Nomasanto's Room, Jeanwell House, Nugget Street

In the post-apartheid era new narratives have been deployed to address these distinctions; different accounts and modes of testimony have been employed to explore the legacy of apartheid. The most dominant of these is the protracted Truth and Reconciliation process. Artists, writers, social historians, civic groups, business lobbies, trades unions, legislators and churches have all in one form or another addressed the nature of the post-apartheid transition and its cultures. But there was something unique about Goldblatt’s book at the moment it appeared, which cast a kind of grey light on the half life of the apartheid topography still visible everywhere around the country. By referencing South Africa and its structures, he was more than setting the terms on which a view of the nation’s architectural archive could be inventoried, he was suggesting that South Africa as we know it, despite inhabiting one of the most breathtaking natural environments, was the most unnatural of places. He was proposing that the legacy of its structures was purposefully engineered, ideologically conjured into the state of unnatural stasis that had overtaken the built environment through attempts by both colonial and apartheid ideologues to use the architecture and the architectonics of civil engineering to construct a limit world, a boundary constituting the shear face of the separation between the white and black world, between superior Europe and inferior Africa.

Everything known to the world as South African was defined by the simple Manichaean scheme of the emblematic division wall, the cut line of irreconcilable apartness, separateness and radical difference. To segregate is to deny recognition. It is also to define and illuminate an existential insecurity that builds from the lack of a desire to recognise the sovereignty of the other. Logically then, the foundational issue which apartheid sought to inscribe and which Goldblatt’s photographs expose frame by frame was the European’s existential insecurity in the attempt to settle Africa. The Afrikaans usage of the compound Dutch terms apart (separate) and heid (hood) is a device engineered not merely to keep two neighbourhoods apart, to bifurcate the cultural worlds that link them, but to answer white anxiety and insecurity towards otherness. Examining the fabulist notion of apartness, the idea that the white and black worlds were fundamentally separate spheres of social, spiritual and civilisational existence, is at the core of Goldblatt’s search for the inscrutable meaning of his country’s social identity.

Guy Tillim: Yonela Kwaza, Graftton Road, Yeoville

South Africa: The Structure of Things Then draws from a collection of photographic images of the most intense, piercing, analytical examinations of the legacy of colonial and apartheid spatial practices, as they are literally carved into the limed and mortared structures of the nation’s architecture. This architecture was as much about unbuilding as it was about building, literally using the law to expropriate and destroy countless neighbourhoods deemed ‘black spots’ in the mapping scheme of segregationist policies. Set against land and sky are the various structures: towering, edifying, postmodern Dutch Reform churches, Hindu temples, Jewish synagogues, Muslim mosques, make-shift temporary altars of the African Pentecostal Church of Zion, cemeteries, the karamat (tomb) of a Muslim leader exiled to Robben Island in the eighteenth century. Many of these structures sit restlessly on rutted landscapes littered with broken memories of past dwellings and settlements. The ugliness of some of the built forms becomes even more clear in the squat, cramped, miserable township architecture; or the informal settlements of the dispossessed cobbled together with nothing more than sheets of plastic, scraps of corrugated metal and rough planks pounded into loamy soil; or the thatched¬roof rondavels set in scraggy bushveld that designate a Zulu village or Xhosa homestead. This overview is extended to impressions of purpose-built white suburban housing and cultivated lawns that are unnaturally manicured; a detail of a carved, whitewashed stairway -perhaps the handiwork of slaves in the Cape- that forms part of an exclusive estate; the skylines of the modern city industriously filled with skyscrapers suggesting the utopian realisation of a modernist fantasy. In addition are sheep farms in an unforgiving desert environment where white farmers eek out a living, and desolate roads traversed by bands of semi-nomadic Khoi; houses destroyed under the Group Areas Act and such other places where the brutal practice of segregation was manifested through violent expulsions and seizures of property. Of these, the most exemplary reveal two photographic takes, spanning ten years -1976 and 1986- of a former Islamic butchery in Johannesburg and the razed District Six neighbourhood in Cape Town. But the most pronounced and compelling of the structures is the surfeit of colonial and apartheid monuments: from the impressive towers of the Voortrekker Monument on the outskirts of Pretoria, to gigantic sculptures, busts and other statuary commemorating important Afrikaners and British settlers. One depicts a gridlock of ox-drawn wagons and cannon representing a spot where the Boers defeated a Zulu army in the nineteenth century. The triumphalism of the monuments is both impressive and distortive. The sheer ubiquity of these forms can only begin to suggest the extent to which colonial and apartheid structures sought to invent a wholly new social memory for South Africa. Goldblatt describes the basis of his inquiry:

‘I am mainly concerned here with structures of public life. That most of the photographs relating to the lives of black people come from the private rather than the public domain reflects circumstances during the Era of Baasskap. It was in black homes that the struggle to retain values and traditions, to survive and transcend dispersion, dispossession, humiliation and brutality was mostly evidenced. The public structures of African polities were destroyed by the conquerors. Public structures in contemporary Black communities were generally put there by the state or by missionaries, or were those of which the state approved – any expressing ideas the state did not approve of were invariably attacked.’1

David Golblatt: Miriam Mazibuko watering the garden of her new RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme) house, Extension 8, Far East Alexandra Township. It has one room. For lack of space, her four children live with her parents-in-law. Johannesburg. 12 September 2006

Goldblatt’s seminal book can be used to frame the larger agenda that has been pervasive in the work of a number of South African artists, such as William Kentridge, Zwelethu Mthethwa, Jo Ractliffe, Santu Mofokeng and Guy Tillim, whose contemporary concerns about South African space and landscape owe a great deal to the legacy of his photographic output. Understanding Goldblatt’s current pictures and those of the two artists who I will be discussing later -Mofokeng and Tillim- requires examination of this singularly illuminating collection of images, because it is only through the deliberate scansion of the South African topography that the crop of recent work on landscape and architecture associated with, say, Mthethwa’s series on workers in sugarcane plantations in KwaZulu-Natal, Mofokeng’s haunting Chasing Shadows series, Tillim’s nervous Jo’burg series and Ractliffe’s foreboding Vlakplaas as scenes of historical incident can be productively described and analysed. However, though the marks of Goldblatt’s influence suffuse the work of these artists and photographers, his photographic vision differs from theirs in one significant way: for the most part, Goldblatt’s images tend to veer towards the eventless, a feeling that sometimes may suggest a state of inertia, as if the landscape and things and people in it are suddenly fixed and immobilised. The reason for this is his fundamental avoidance of incident. Like a geographer, the lines of his images are precise. Yet his principal interest in any subject matter is basically humanist not scientific.

The recent turn towards colour, after 40 years of avoiding it in his personal work2, may seem to detract from the dry, eventlessness of the early black and whites, but the images are not incompatible, they merely reflect the changed conditions both in the country and in the medium of photography. Until the late 1990s Goldblatt had avoided colour except for magazine assignments because he felt it was too sweet, too mechanical, and lacked the sharpness and modulation of black-and-white images. He also preferred the latter because he produced and processed his own prints in such a way so as to come as close as possible to the prevailing conditions under which a given image was made. The shift to colour occurred as changes in photographic technology entered the South African market. At this time the making of colour photographs allowed him to find a printer with whom he could work, but also permitted him to retain control of the decision-making process on how the colour spectrum fits into each image. This ability to mediate the experience of his messages convinced him that there was something worthwhile to explore through the medium. While the colour work may seem more relaxed, the photographs, like his black and whites, still appear compressed within a clear and controlled intellectual logic. They may have a certain warmth and less austerity, but they remain emotionally fugitive.

There is a quality of melancholy that can be described as an aura of silence that pervades Goldblatt’s highly reflexive images. The titles of the pictures continue his methodology, tending to incorporate lengthy captions that not only set explanatory contexts for each image, but also define the eerie sense of emotional devastation deeply imbricated in the prevailing conditions of each site. In the group of images shown here, the way colour is literally drained from them serves as a kind of surrogate for some of the crises that mark the settings. These are images of bleak moments, reflecting times of mourning, loss, the Aids pandemic, the deferment of the promise of the post-apartheid sunshine. Here, instead, the sunshine that falls on the landscape seems to illuminate scenes of catastrophe. One such scene can be found in the diagonal composition of a grouping of brownish boulders arranged against a bare rock peak and clear blue sky, with a memorial outlined in a white drawn shape on the largest of them. The photograph, BHJ in the time of AIDS, Richtersveld National Park, Northern Cape. 25 December 2003, is Goldblatt’s method of addressing the state of post¬apartheid landscape not as an Edenic endless open space, but as spaces blighted by the presence of human suffering. The image of a blooming green field littered with the remains of pit toilets and a cluster of children playing beneath a canopyless tree shows us the merging of apartheid and post¬apartheid landscapes. The lengthy caption provides the contrast between the scene and the events that preceded it: Remains of long-drop lavatories built for the ‘closer settlement camp’ of Frankfort, Eastern Cape. The 5,000 members of the black farming community of Mgwali were to have been forcibly moved and resettled here after their land was declared a ‘black spot’ by the apartheid government in 1983. However, the people of Mgwali resisted strongly and in 1986 the removal scheme was dropped. The lavatories were gradually stripped of their usable building materials by people in the area and all that is left now are concrete bases over some 1,500 anatomically shaped holes in the veld. 22 February 2006.

Entrance to Lategan’s Truck Inn, Laingsburg, Western Cape. 14 November 2004 or the pitted site shown in Remains of households in a children’s game called onopopi, and the shells of incomplete houses in a housing scheme that stalled, Kwezinaledi, Lady Grey, Eastern Cape. 5 August 2006The Structures of Things Then remain: the images do not represent statements of the given -an approach that most describes the documentary- rather in the counter¬documentary mode which Goldblatt favours, his photographs are more emblematic of states of things, a process of accretion that builds towards a more encompassing meaning than the reduction of a picture into an autonomous iconic image. focus our attention on the starkness of contemporary spatial practices. The other landscape images carry the same charge, a feeling of harshness that resolutely avoids the sentimental. These are views of unforgiving judgment, images of doubt and circumspection. The later photographs reveal the extent to which Goldblatt has assumed a rather surprising, intimate mode of working rather than the detachment of his previous analytical approach. They are neither ambiguous nor are their social reflections ambivalent. But at the same time traces of his earlier approach in

In reflecting on these new colour images, I am still intrigued by why Goldblatt subtitled his book The Structure of Things Then, given his predilection towards keeping his photographic options open. Was the title a way to mark a closure, which may betray an aspect of the euphoria that swept through the country after the official end of the brutal institutions of apartheid? This way of placing in remand, in the past tense (The Structure of Things Then), seems to me antithetical to the kind of frank, naked scepticism that otherwise ruled much of his dry, direct and luminous colour photographs. He is usually given in his photographs to a kind of ascetic but modulated formal description, a mode of working that produces images that tend to seem detached and isolated. Despite the appearance of detachment, he is anything but distanced from his subjects, as these new works clearly show. These photographs have an emotional clarity, and a formidable sense of intellectual forethought, different from the complicated moral narrative that gave J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace -a novel set in the tension between farm and city, the country and the urban- its creepy, enervating sense of brutal realism.

Goldblatt is notorious for studying a subject for years before making up his mind on whether it merits photographic scrutiny. The photographs are never ahistorical. The consistent quality of all his work is its historicity. In every image, he begins with a single challenge: how does one produce an image that allows both photographer and viewer to think historically about a given subject? Despite the fatigue of post¬apartheid chronicles, Goldblatt’s photographic choices are never overarching, generalising, or moralising. He pinpoints and isolates inchoate moments, dissociating the critical gaze from the dependency on the apartheid past. While his photographic vision always apprehends a constantly shifting, evolving landscape, it nevertheless seeks to remind the viewer that even when constructed in the present tense, that landscape has memory. Shacks and the Helen Joseph Women’s Hostel, which was built during apartheid to house female workers, Alexandra Township, Johannesburg. 11 September 2006 is one such image in which the new situation refers back to an earlier situation depicted in The Structure of Things Then of the same hostel without the surrounding shacks. The mode of ceaseless return is not a photographic habit, but instead a method of comparative analysis. Thus, he writes that his work is the apprehension of the South African topography as a kind of magma ‘congealed in the particulars of innumerable structures and not a few ruins… our land is evidence of much of this. Like geological accretions in the cooling crust of the earth, they tell of the long era out of which we have come.’3 This current work poses similar challenges, and thus demands always fresh perspectives in reckoning with the South African environment as an entirely unique specimen of the historical failure of moral imagination.


A city such as Johannesburg exemplifies the brutal asymmetry of the social condition of urban architecture. Its urban environment is marked by sharp contrasts: in the outlying northern suburbs, for example, pleasure palaces are hidden from view by high, electrified fences, a device employed less for privacy than for security. Johannesburg is a microcosm of South Africa as a fortress society. Though apartheid is officially over, social segregation is just as deeply resilient. This is revealed in Johannesburg as a city framed by palpable fear of violence. In the northern suburbs, some streets feel like the Green Zone in Baghdad, with checkpoints ringing neighbourhoods and public roads while private armies and uniformed guards are posted everywhere. In Johannesburg, the universal issue that bedevils everyday life centres around issues of safety and security. This feeling of insecurity has spurred its own lexicon of architectural and spatial distortions that have become naturalised within the iconography and structures of urban design, transforming the spatial context of the city into one under siege, what Mike Davis describes as an ecology of fear with regards to Los Angeles.

The obverse of this sense of fear, at a superficial glance, obtains in the image of the bustling downtown area which frames the old business district and the surrounding neighbourhood of modernist high rises between Braamfontein and Joubert Park. If the northern suburbs display in their architecture a fortress sensibility, downtown Johannesburg exhibits all the evidence of precariousness and vulnerability. The overcrowded streets are filled with hawkers and hucksters, with petty criminals and violent gangs, and choked with traffic, with minibuses and taxis. Hardly any whites can be found downtown anymore, except those in transit, barricaded in cars for fear of carjacking. The quality of domestic living conditions appears to have lapsed into an almost apocalyptic zone of urgency and desperation. Entire families often share a one-bedroom apartment, sometimes subdivided further to accommodate tenants. There is hardly any sense of privacy in these overcrowded buildings. Peopled by poor migrants from the rural areas and economic refugees from surrounding countries such as Mozambique, Congo and Zimbabwe, downtown Johannesburg is marked by its large deficits of social and economic amenities. In the heyday of apartheid, this part of the city was a bustling cosmopolitan hub of activities for white inhabitants. However, since the end of apartheid, after all the juridical constraints of segregation were outlawed, the area was marked by rapid decline in the early 1990s, and by the end of the decade whites had moved out, while poor black migrants without housing moved in. In the ensuing exodus, services normally found in these neighbourhoods began disappearing, as landlords abdicated their responsibility to tenants. The spiral of neglect and apathy accelerated into decay. Riddled with crime, and with an uncontrollable influx of new residents seeking work and shelter, the fine modernist post-war apartment architecture has all been overtaken by both civic neglect and absence of economic investment. This canyon of high rises is the epicentre and subject of Guy Tillim’s mesmerising Jo’Burg photographs. The series takes the approach of a photographer constantly on the move, darting between buildings and apartment complexes, between degraded domestic spaces that reveal the depths of privation: makeshift barbershops and illicit bars where one wall’s surface is papered over with a carpet of tabloid newspaper headlines declaiming on the city as the very landscape of hell and infamy.

In the grid of images brought together here, colour photographs full of chiaroscuro effects, the photographer seems to revel, in almost lurid delight, in recording the decrepitude and the primitive conditions of the miserable high-rise towers, many of them with blown out windows, burned out rooms, habitations filled with still-life compositions of garbage, mildewed walls, shattered crockery, or displaying apartments cordoned off with metal gates from which frightened tenants peer out as if from a prison cell. Shots of spaces between buildings either reveal vertiginous views as the camera descends down alleyways damp with putrefaction, or otherwise iconic shots of skyscrapers photographed from below in haunting, looming fashion. Even the traces of small-scale economic activity -a barbershop, a shebeen, for example- do not alleviate the sense of lurking danger, the misery one feels when glancing down long, deserted corridors, or watching young men sleeping on the roof of a building. The contrast is striking as the camera turns from details of dingy apartments to panoramic views of the city looking towards a skyline that gives an artificial impression of modern architecture. What the images actually show in intimate clarity is merely the mutation of the high rises into a planet of slums in the sky, a veritable architecture of entrapment and dystopia. However, what is generally lacking are views of what is on the ground, outside the apartments, the street, the very possibility that there is air somewhere beyond the frame.

David Golblatt: Shacks and the Helen Joseph Women’s Hostel, which was built during apartheid to house black female workers, Alexandra Township, Johannesburg. 11 September 2006

In viewing many of these images taken by Tillim over the course of a six-month sojourn in an apartment of one of the towers, one is tempted to reflect on the ethical nature of this type of documentary practice such as has been the hallmark of his roving photographic style over the past decade. Is it possible to read these images as a measure of Tillim’s immersive style, or merely as a product manifesting the sensationalistic frisson inherent in living dangerously, but only temporarily, in situations where the odds of social visibility are largely elusive for the inhabitants? Do these images exploit the subjects? Is the photographer taking ethnographic liberties with the state of the communities embedded in this context? Is the photographer, through his cosmopolitan access, exploiting the situation? In asking these questions, it is worth observing that one striking thing about even some of the portraits is that they tell us precious little about the inner lives of the individuals; instead, many come across as merely specimens in a larger social landscape. Questions such as these tend to be asked of images that make us uncomfortable, images that do not depict their subjects in faux heroic style, or employ manufactured empathy to paper over the photographer’s ambivalence. Tillim’s images do not appear to me to be motivated by attempts at exploitation, nor does he employ his access to stigmatise his subjects. This group of works falls into the tradition of the long arc of photographic inquiry detailed in Goldblatt’s book. The difference between them is that Tillim’s takes a more subjective, microcosmic view of things, while Goldblatt’s is fundamentally macroscopic. In this sense, it is necessary to examine the stated motivation of Tillim’s project as part of an unfolding narrative and documentary mode being used by South African photographers and artists to capture the current moment of urban transition.

Tillim in this project is not only interested in documenting the fascinating politics between tenants and landlords and their surrogates, he is concerned with the hidden mechanism behind the relationship between the city council and developers, and the looming future battle on the fate of the city. Jo’burg is therefore a study both of the aftermath of apartheid and the impending reversal of the post-apartheid hopes of displaced communities existing in the shadow of social amnesia. The outcome of the future arrangements between the tenants, developers, landlords and the city council does not favour those who have both resisted eviction and persevered to maintain a semblance of normalcy in these buildings. What Tillim shows us is literally the forces assembled together to remake the face of this African metropolis. Will it be a city that reverts back to old exclusions of the past as a ‘whites only’ enclave of luxury social amenities, or will the future Jo’burg finally fulfil its unrealised cosmopolitan appeal as a city of multicultural mixture? As Tillim writes in a short introduction to the project:

‘White residents fled Johannesburg’s inner-city in the 1990s. The removal of the Group Areas Act foreshadowed a flow into the city of black residents and owners of small businesses seeking opportunities and better lives. Former denizens looked back in self-righteous justification at a city that was given over to plunder and mayhem. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, backed up by eyewitness reports and statistics. Everyone had their horror stories… In between the needs of city council and the aspirations of developers anticipating the bloom of an African city lies the fate of Jo’burg residents. The outcome will decide whether or not Johannesburg becomes, again, a city of exclusion.’4


Santu Mofokeng began in the 1970s as a street photographer working on the sidewalks and corners of apartheid South Africa, specifically in the crowded neighbourhoods of black townships. His early images generated a mode of working that extended beyond the everyday clichés of deprivation and poverty commonly found in pictures of black South Africans by photojournalists. He wished to explore the normality of the everyday, because there were other stories and images on the streets of the townships which he believed worth capturing. Mofokeng was by no means denying the impossible situation of township existence. Rather, he was concerned with how to represent the humanity of the brutalised black community. However, to work as a street photographer under apartheid was to traverse the interstices and crevices of South Africa’s complicated moral geography, one whose lethality for black subjects all but contested the notion of the street as public space. Pass laws which prohibited travel by blacks beyond certain parts of the city and country were a de jure document that confined millions of subjects to spaces of literal incarceration, thus mitigating the extent of the black street photographer’s geographic coverage. In the mid-1960s, the black South African photographer Ernest Cole, in order to circumvent the draconian pass laws, invented a wholly new social and racial identity by changing his name and having himself racially reclassified as ‘coloured’. This gave him minimal rights and freedom of movement normally denied blacks, enabling him to work on the streets and sidewalks of downtown Johannesburg without being harassed or expelled. The result of Cole’s legal subterfuge became the celebrated book House of Bondage, a publication containing images that were literally located on the streets of the apartheid city.

The drastic measure taken by Cole is important to recall, not least because it illuminates the obstacles that lay in the path of a young street photographer such as Mofokeng, working under the exclusionary pass laws of apartheid. The same laws that limited the movements of blacks and blocked access to social amenities available only to whites, also restricted the range of what the street photographer could hope to document beyond the legal boundaries of his confinement. The street photographer under apartheid was thus a geographer of the margins, of the in-between and the fugitive. Against the edicts of the apartheid state, two important projects by Mofokeng, Train Church in 1986 and Chasing Shadows in the mid-1990s, underscore the critical stakes involved in making radical photographic work under the shadows of exile and confinement. Train churches were a phenomenon that developed at the height of the state of emergency imposed throughout South Africa in the 1980s. Millions of black workers travelled long distances between home and places of employment, and churches on the trains were both a response to constant harassment by the authorities and a way of occupying a zone impossible to police. As Bronwyn Law-Viljoen noted, the liminal spaces of the commuter churches ‘may also be seen as an attempt to appropriate the in-between of the journey to and from work, to recast the repetitive hardship of commuting’5, and thus transform these itinerant moments into powerful examples of sovereignty. Mofokeng’s Train Church is analogous to Goldblatt’s The Transported of Kwa Ndebele, a photographic project focused on the arduous commuting culture of black workers.

David Golblatt: Shoemaker on Raleigh Street, Yeoviulle, Johannesburg. 14 September 2006

The powerful restraint of Mofokeng’s approach to image-making, his refusal to photograph the sensational events of turmoil under the state of emergency, even after joining the photographic collective Afrapix, reveals both a political and photographic choice. Chasing Shadows is the most insistently non-documentary of his projects. Because he was literally chasing shadows -presences that are hard to capture photographically, but are seen to be revealed in the spirit of the subjects- the pursuit of the real is always thwarted by the acknowledgment that the image is never fixed, that the subject is in a state of perpetual transformation. Thus, the fugitive elements are constantly the signature elements of his pictorial analysis, an indirect, non-invasive way of signalling important markers on the landscape, streets and interiors of black South African subjectivity against the prohibitions of citizenship and belonging placed on Africans during the heyday of apartheid.

The shift from apartheid to post-apartheid culture requires negotiating anew spaces of interaction between the socially dispossessed and the politically empowered. Post-apartheid transition, as is clear in Goldblatt and Tillim’s works, continues to be bedevilled by all sorts problems -healthcare, crime, inequality, joblessness, poverty, homelessness- to which few answers have been adequate. In his recent series on billboards, Mofokeng takes a wry, ironic look at the media emblems -mostly images of billboard advertisements- that almost obviate the difficult trajectory of transition. In these photographs the line between euphoric consumerism and the dark shadow of the pestilence of Aids stalking the depths of black townships are juxtaposed, almost as if asking viewers to weigh the trade-off between the two zones. Mofokeng sees the billboards as sites of power and coercion, as a medium of communication between the state and black subjects. The billboard in his view cannot be dissociated from the township landscape as a tool of coercive indoctrination, a space both for the manufacture of desire and announcing the threatening presence of the law. In one image, Democracy is forever (2003), the billboard on the right towers over a street vendor pushing a cart of goods past the looming message of a glittering diamond proclaiming ‘Democracy is Forever’. The correlation between democracy and flashy diamonds is hardly clear, but as with the billboard on the left displaying Coca-Cola’s message that the beverage makes a meal real, the idea is to equate consumerism with freedom. However, Mofokeng tends to photograph the township denizens traversing the spaces where the billboards are fixed at intersections and on highways, from which they can be easily seen through commuter bus windows, in the shadow, as phantoms making only a fleeting appearance on the landscape before retiring back into anonymity.

The figures display their featurelessness, defined only by their hulking outline against the well-lit backdrop of the billboards. Some of the images are shot at night on high¬speed film from commuter minivans travelling between the city and townships. They capture the traces of other speeding cars against the dense, black background of the darkness that contrasts the bright orbs of street lights that illuminate the roads. The billboards carry various messages: from caution against unsafe sex, to the beckoning enticement of Robben Island as a tourist destination, to mobile phones as synonymous with freedom. To Mofokeng, the newly acquired black power may remain the political base for the foreseeable future, but just as obvious is what accompanies the prosperity of the post¬apartheid nation: the growth of black poverty and dispossession sitting cheek by jowl with spectacular forms of wealth and primitive accumulation. This observation is detailed in the way he has photographed the scenes, where the black figure is always receding, disappearing from view, cast into the deepest darkest shadows, almost into invisibility. The metaphor of invisibility lends a political charge to these images, confronting us not with products of desire, democracy and freedom, but with spectres that haunt the difficult journey between apartheid and post-apartheid cultures.


In preparation for this essay I wanted to reassess the foundational claims to locality and place in the work of Goldblatt, Mofokeng and Tillim through the specific discourse displayed by these two generations of South African photographers, whose common themes around the built environment and spatial practices overlap in telling ways. Yet they depart from each other in many others. If I began with what Goldblatt sought to inscribe in his book as marking the end of the 1990s in South Africa, we may need to ask the question of what he might have meant when he subtitled his book The Structures of Things Then. Does he mean that these structures belong only to the past, and can be read only as part of the twilight of a terrible inheritance? Why then? I can’t imagine that what he meant by that adverb was about putting the past in the past. Nor do I think he was framing the object of his photographic practice in purely historical terms, in which the architecture, monuments and other vestiges of the built environment are bracketed outside the purview of the contemporary moral imagination. Tillim and Mofokeng’s works open up new avenues for reconsidering the historical past and the contemporary present, not only in how the structures of the past remain resilient markers of identity in the politics of dwelling in the present, but how the residues of the past remain visibly inscribed in spatial practices.

Given the history of strife in South Africa, a great deal of the nation’s art traffics in the examination of the pathos surrounding the immediate historical experience. Some critics would even claim that the artists wallow in it. Coetzee’s Disgrace for some was a form of antidote to that kind of ‘craven’ attitude. The novel was literally designed as a narrative whose ethical dimension was premised on stalking the South African landscape, with the patchy Western Cape farm as the brutal terrain on which its meaning is worked out. For some, Coetzee’s unforgiving, almost sadistic novel poured cold water on any idea that post-apartheid culture has produced a normal society. His treatment of the land after apartheid is surmounted by a lethal revanchism. It describes a scenario that could be interpreted as the end of the holiday surrounding Mandela’s Rainbow Nation. This is the direction Mofokeng’s billboard imagery points us towards. And the novel, likewise, is a view into how deep-seated social pathologies give rise to everyday brutality and depravity. Here, the moral environment is darkened by the coarse instincts of the victim’s revenge and the settler’s shameless attempt at survival. That this tale plays out between the city and farm is no accident, as is the case between black townships and white suburbia, the two modes being the opposite of each other in South Africa’s politics of settlement, dwelling and dispossession. Goldblatt’s and Mofokeng’s sense of this shift are less graphic than, say, Coetzee’s and Tillim’s. They are all social analysers, however. Unlike Coetzee, Goldblatt, Tillim and Mofokeng do not occupy a judgment seat when they peer into the landscape. Rather like archaeologists, they excavate the sedimented terrains of the South African landscape from urban to rural, between the pictorial and the documentary, to reveal the deeply embedded structures lying beneath, all the more to make us aware that their analyses are part of an inquiry into the moral imagination of space and its related ideological dependencies. It is in this sense that the formidable yet radical simplicity and directness of the images speaks.

Regarding the structure of things now, post-apartheid South Africa is today no less a contradiction than apartheid South Africa was then. Contemporary South Africa is ringed by congeries of prosperity and calamity. Spectacular economic growth has spurred monstrosities such as shown in the gaudy architecture in Goldblatt’s On Fifth Avenue, Sandton, Johannesburg. 26 December 2006, and in the shadow of this new architecture of prosperity lies On Freedom Square, Kliptown, Soweto, Johannesburg. 10 December 2003, a dusty patch of territory that bears no semblance to the opulence being celebrated on Fifth Avenue. Though a successful economy has enriched some, the workforce supporting the economy is in crisis, as is shown in the picture of a woman standing in front of her one-room government development housing against the backdrop of a sprawling cemetery. Goldblatt in his inimitable descriptive style uses the lengthy caption to distil the scene: Miriam Mazibuko watering the garden of her new RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme) house, Extension 8, Far East Alexandra Township. It has one room. For lack of space, her four children live with her parents¬in¬law. Johannesburg. 12 September 2006. Against this backdrop, the sharp, steely grey tonalities of Mofokeng’s black¬and¬white prints of highways lit up with flashy pronouncements have given way to a saturated, dusky series of digital colour prints by Tillim that reveal the desperate status of urban citizens and the looming struggle for a place in the democratic city that is just beyond the horizon. These changes and their various aporias expose the current state of spatial forms as predicated on the indeterminate structure of things now.

  • About

    Okwui Enwezor is Dean of Academic Afairs and Senior Vice President at the San Fransisco Art Institute. He is a prolific writer, critic and contributor to many exhibition catalogues, anthologies and journals as well as curator of numerous exhibitions in some of the most distinguished museums around the world.

    His essay 'The Indeterminate Structure of Things Now' appears in Bedeutung Magazine Issue 1/ Nature & Culture, available here for purchase.