These Moving Photos Show Life in Apartheid-Era South Africa

Authors:
Daniele Selby and Olivia Kestin

Photo by Paul Weinberg


Why Global Citizens Should Care
The late David Goldblatt was an iconic South African photographer whose work documents the impact of apartheid rule on people of all ethnicities in the country. These powerful photographs capture life under a system that legally enshrined racial inequality and discrimination. All people deserve to be treated as equals with dignity. You can take action here to help reduce inequality and end extreme poverty.

Celebrated South African photographer David Goldblatt took up photography in 1948, the same year the all-white National Party came into power and apartheid began in his country. 

Though Goldblatt, pictured above, was just 18 at the time, documenting the impact of apartheid — the government-implemented system of racial segregation in South Africa — would become his life-long mission.

Over his decades-long career, the acclaimed photographer, who died last month at age 87, built a powerful legacy and body of work showing everyday life in his homeland through the apartheid years and after. A selection of his images will be on display at the Goodman Gallery’s upcoming exhibition “On Common Ground: David Goldblatt & Peter Magubane” in Johannesburg, South Africa. Goodman Gallery also shared a selection of images, below, with Global Citizen.

2_12156.jpgLulu Gebashe and Solomon Mlutshana, who both worked in a record shop in the city, Mofolo Park, September 1972.
Image: Photograph by David Goldblatt

Goldblatt was born in Randfontein, a mining town west of Johannesburg, to a Jewish family that fled from Lithuania to South Africa in the 1890s. Today he is considered an icon of photography and a national treasure in the country.

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As a young man, Goldblatt set out to be “a missionary with a camera, because there was no attempt internationally to tell the world what was beginning to happen” a spokesperson for Goodman Gallery told Global Citizen. But over his many years of work, his ambition changed.

“I would say I am a self-appointed observer and critic of the society into which I was born, with a tendency to giving recognition to what is overlooked or unseen,” he once told his friend and fellow documentary photographer Paul Weinberg. Weinberg is also the curator of the retrospective “On Common Ground” exhibition.

Goldblatt turned away from trying to photograph major moments and instead looked to document normal life under a not-so-normal system. Many of his images show the relationship between white and black South Africans. His work often captured the dynamic between those who owned the land and those who worked it.

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“In the early 1960s, I became very interested in photographing the people of the Plots, Afrikaners who lived on smallholdings around Randfontein ... I would drive around, knock on a door and ask if I could take photographs of whatever life was taking place,” he told the Guardian in 2017 of his collection of photos “Some Afrikaners.” 

Some Afrikaners

Some Afrikaners
A farmer’s son with his nursemaid, Heimweeberg, Nietverdiend, Western Transvaal.
Photograph by David Goldblatt

Some Afrikaners

Some Afrikaners
Two men building a dam on the farm Drogedal, or Droedal, in the Marico Bushveld, near Nietverdiend, Transvaal, 1964.
Photograph by David Goldblatt

Some Afrikaners

Some Afrikaners
Picnic at Hartebeespoort Dam on New Year's Day, Transvaal.
Photograph by David Goldblatt

Some Afrikaners

Some Afrikaners
Flip du Toit on the step of his farm workshop at Abjaterskop.
Photograph by David Goldblatt

Some Afrikaners

Some Afrikaners
Johannes van der Linde, farmer and major in the local army reserve, with his head laborer Ou Sam, near Bloemfontein, Free State. 1965.
Photograph by David Goldblatt

“Most of these places were harsh, in the landscape and in the standard of living – harsh, too, in terms of the relationships between the white owners and the black servants who lived on the plots,” he said. “Many [owners] were deeply racist. They had a profound fear of black people. At the same time, they had a relationship with them on their plots that was intimate and affectionate, generous to a degree that surpassed what I knew from my middle-class urban life.”

Much of Goldblatt’s work was shot in black-and-white, a conscious decision on his part to use his photography as a means of portraying the social and political climate during the decades of apartheid. 

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Under apartheid rules, South Africans were racially classified as “white,” “black,” “colored,” or “Indian.” Categorization into these groups was largely based on physical appearance though employment, socioeconomic status, and even eating and drinking habits were also used to determine a person’s race.

A white person could not marry or have sexual intercourse with a person of any other race during apartheid. And people of non-white races were forced to live in designated areas. Goldblatt documented the lives of Indian families in a suburb of Johannesburg, called Fietas by its residents, who faced forcible relocation.

2_30138.jpgMargaret Maroney: Sentenced to R100 or 50 days imprisonment suspended for 3 years for living in this flat in a White Group Area, Orion Court, Bree Street, Johannesburg, December. 1981.
Image: Photograph by David Goldblatt

Though Fietas was once home to black South Africans, “colored” people, and Indians, the government began moving black and “colored” people out of the area in the 1950s as part of the Group Areas Act. By the late ‘70s, all non-white people had been forced out of the area and Fietas was redeveloped as a community for low-income white people.

The Transported of Kwandeble

The Transported of Kwandeble
2:45am: The first bus of the day pulls in at Mathysloop on the Boekenhouthoek-Marabastad route from KwaNdebele to Pretoria, 1984.
Photograph by David Goldblatt

The Transported of Kwandeble

The Transported of Kwandeble
Going home: Marabastad-Waterval route, for most of the people in this bus, the cycle will start again tomorrow between 2 and 3 am.
Photograph by David Goldblatt

The Transported of Kwandeble

The Transported of Kwandeble
Boarding the first bus at Mathysloop. It should reach the terminal at Marabastad in Pretoria two and a half hours later at 5:15 am, 1983
Photograph by David Goldblatt

Goldblatt said “color seemed too sweet a medium to express the anger, disgust, and fear” that the rules of apartheid inspired. After apartheid ended in 1994, an optimistic Goldblatt returned to taking photos in color, signalling his hopefulness for the future of South African society, according to the Goodman Gallery.

But toward the end of his life, the award-winning photographer returned to the black-and-white medium.

Over the past decade, South Africa, under the leadership of Jacob Zuma, has been embroiled in a series of corruption and political scandals. And Goldblatt was “discouraged by what he saw as a return to certain anti-democratic values present in post-apartheid South Africa,” a spokesperson for the Goodman Gallery said.

Goldblatt didn’t think of himself as an artist, according to the Goodman Gallery. Instead, he saw his work as an attempt to engage with the consequences of actions and as an examination of South Africa’s values. And his powerful images invite viewers to reflect on those consequences and values even now, more than two decades after the apartheid ended.


2_06540.jpgWedding party, Orlando West, 1970.
Image: Photograph by David Goldblatt

2_13251.jpgChildren's class of the African Music and Drama Association, Orlando High School, Soweto, November 1972.
Image: Photograph by David Goldblatt

2_14220.jpgDrum majorette, Cup final, Orlando Stadium, Soweto, 1972.
Image: Photograph by David Goldblatt

2_7212.jpgGang on surface work, Rustenburg Platinum Mine, Rustenburg, 1971.
Image: Photograph by David Goldblatt


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