South Africa has been famously called "The World's Most Unequal Country", and it certainly looks that way from the air.
Ask anyone where the nearest "township" is and they will give you an answer; talk of slums, race, and poverty and no one will blink. Inequality is part of the society, as second nature to South Africans as any other topic, and dismissed just as quickly. Part of this is obviously a coping mechanism, part of it is ignorance, and part may be a willful denial of history. Most people are good people, and simply don't know what they can do to fix it - although this type of attitude has the same practical outcome as denialism, and is beginning to be actively and publicly shamed and challenged. Lastly, inequality in South Africa has overtly racial characteristics. Black and other non-white South Africans continue to suffer from much higher rates of every societal ill, have less social mobility, and have dramatically less income and wealth as their white counterparts. To obfuscate the point with irrelevant counter-narratives, misleading ad hominems, or critiques of government only shows how far the entrenched wealthy class, mainly white, need to go in order to 1) understand and then 2) fix the problem.
I know this because I have made South Africa my home since 2012. This project started in Cape Town in 2016 with my image of Lake Michelle and Masiphumele, and it continues with the support of friends and organizations, government and business. I'd like to specifically thank Code For Africa for their unwavering support in the continuation of the project, as well as the philosophy behind it. I hope you find the project as interesting, impactful, and painful as I have.
Unequal Scenes in Durban, Johannesburg, and Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.
There are many types of "inequalities". Most people tend to focus on economic inequality; specifically income and wealth inequality. Income, of course, is what you take home as payment for work (i.e., your labor). Wealth is what you own which makes you money even if you don't work (housing, investments, savings, machines, etc.) In some rich countries, both income and wealth inequality are rapidly increasing. The top percentage of people now own a vastly disproportional amount of wealth, and this figure continues to grow. In South Africa, where wealth inequality has always been radically skewed because of race-based political and economic policies, levels of inequality still remain the highest in the world.
This matters for several reasons: When societies become highly unequal, they become less efficient. Health outcomes, consumption, and investment all tend to suffer in highly unequal societies. Broadly speaking, this means that a society cannot thrive when it is unequal in comparison to a more equal version of itself. South Africa may be reducing absolute poverty, but without changing the relative dynamics of inequality within the economy, it will never be as prosperous, healthy, or safe as it could be.
There are also non-economic inequalities. These are inequalities of opportunity, inequalities of justice, and inequalities of health (and many others). Race, sex, ability, and nationality factor into our unequal world in ways that disproportionately enact negative agency. Vulnerable, disenfranchised populations are not destined to be marginalized - they exist within the structures of power which imprison them there.
I believe that a fairer, healthier, more equitable world can exist, and that photography has a role to play in compelling audiences to see issues. And I believe that by speaking up, writing and thinking clearly, and judging situations rationally artists can help others acknowledge the scope of these issues.
It's then up to us to act for change. Inequality is not inevitable, and what we have created, we can reverse. As academic AB Atkinson writes, “If we want to reduce inequality, and that is a big “if”, then there are steps that we can take. They are not necessarily easy and they have costs. But there are concrete measures that can be tried if we are serious.”
Kenny Tokwe and Shane Holland.
This collection of photographs is the result of a fascination with the idea of liminal space existing as a space of violence. It begins within the context of post-apartheid South Africa, where my home is, but this unequal aesthetic is found even the most “inclusive” societies.
These violent liminal spaces can be brick, electric fence, and concrete in a physical barrier, or they can be subtle in context and nuance. These buffer zones are not something that can be crossed, even if physically possible – they represent a forever line of dehumanization. Even if you escape into the architecture of the other side, you haven't won - at the best, you've cheated the rules. The small acts of defiance against this – the criss-crossed footpaths seen from above, the trails of refuse and garbage, the pickaxes and rubble signifying the hidden spoor of the courageous few – is a fragile response, and ultimately erasable.
Images of inequality from above: (from top left) Pietermaritzburg, Wolwerivier, Tembisa, Hout Bay, Kya Sands, and Masiphumelele.
The South African images were taken over a period of time in which much has changed and much has stayed the same in the country. Elections have brought to power a new President, student movements have ebbed and flowed, the economy and crime have trended in an inverse fashion. Far from watchful eyes, the informal areas of Khayelitsha and Masiphumelele, pictured below, have grown by hundreds, if not thousands, of new shacks.
Monwabisi Park in Khayelitsha (left), and Masiphumelele (right).
The discussion around what to do with informal settlements is complicated. While they represent in a clear way the divisions that exist in the country, their proximity to wealthy neighborhoods in some ways is an actual break from spatial apartheid. Many "townships" were far from white areas; separated by large expanses of open field, buffer strips, and other obstacles so that European eyes did not have to observe the conditions of the "black spots".
Newer informal settlements, which were never technically "townships", emerged post-1994. Black South Africans could now move freely, and seized on open land as locations for new communities, communities which in many instances were better located to roads, jobs, and services than "townships" on the urban periphery. Today, residents, landowners, activists, academics, and governments are navigating an extremely tricky path to working out the "best" solution.
The area of Kya Sands, pictured below, is one of these informal areas which began its life post-1994 and has been fighting to upgrade "in-situ" ever since. Recently, the City of Johannesburg filed an application to upgrade the location in-situ - meaning that the best case, in this case, is that the divisions between the rich and poor remain looking as they do now. Marie Huchzermeyer, Professor at the School for Architecture and Planning at Wits University, writes, "the settlement will remain looking as it does for quite some time, but some very important aspects will change. These will not be visible to the drone, or even the photographer on the ground...and that is the careful planning to secure this foothold on a permanent basis. Infrastructure will follow, and only as a very last stage will support be provided for households to improve their housing structures."
Attempts to move Makause, the community photographed for the Time Magazine cover (pictured below), have also so far been rebuffed. Several key infrastructure upgrades have benefitted both Primrose and Makause, including the swimming pool and public clinic (the large building alongside the road). Is this more unjust than removing them to distant relocation sites?
Many people, including residents of the City of Cape Town's relocation site called Wolwerivier (pictured below) languish in poorly serviced settlements, far from jobs or other economic activity in the dusty periphery. This means that while they are not "side by side" in unequal scenes, they represent the hidden, and arguably more pernicious majority of impoverished South Africans, for whom the verdant peaks of Table Mountain represent an ethereal Shangri-La, glittering mirage-like on the horizon.
The Klein Jukskei river and its tributaries split this scene, north of Johannesburg, between the informal settlement of Msawawa and the Cedar Creek Estates (pictured above). This undergirds a debate as old as South Africa itself but still contemporary - who owns the land? And who has the right to live there? Msawawa began in 1995 with informal renting of a farmhouse on a private smallholding, and has since grown to over 2000 households. Once development of the surrounding areas began to occur, residents were expected to leave, but refused. Government policy is to eradicate informal settlements in the Province, and development began on the neighboring community of Cosmo Park, which was supposed to house all of the residents of Msawawa. However challenges to that development, including limited housing for many informal communities which were to be moved there, means that Msawawa continues to exist.
Currently, the encroachment of gated estates which has begun to encircle Msawawa has increased, with new plots added monthly across the river and a large new estate breaking ground immediately adjacent (with a tall concrete wall to separate the two). Promotional literature for Cedar Creek Estate conveniently adds a “sun flare” to block the view of the shacks across the river, and no doubt residents find the occasional shack fire and open toilets distressing. Undeniably though, Msawawa predates those Estates and legal mechanisms to incentivize residents to move are complex and understandably constrained by resources and requirements to secure adequate alternatives. Can informal settlements exist in the urban environment, and if so, how, and where? These questions, and the tensions they raise between private landlords and the responsibilities of the state, manifest visually in these fractured urban morphologies.
Shane Holland (pictured below) has been living on property which has been in his family for over 70 years. He remembers when the area was all farmland, and cows, pigs, and ducks use to roam freely, in an area called Browns Farms, about a 20 minute drive from Cape Town. As time went on, the city grew, the Cape Flats became peri-urban instead of rural, and railroads and highways soon appeared next to his property. As apartheid crumbled, around 1992 he remembers, people built homes on the farmland next to his in a haphazard fashion, which soon became known as Sweet Home. Today, Sweet Home is an interesting mix of social grant housing, home lending programs, and a large informal settlement of shacks.
“…I’m a bit more privileged…because I found myself in a situation where I can make a living for myself. I found that because of this piece of land that I’ve got I can give my family a settlement and they don’t have to really struggle to get a house. …But then again you get guys that come out of shacks like this…and this is to me very important…what you make out of yourself. You can also go stay in Constantia (a rich area), wherever you want to go and stay but it determines whether you want to lift yourself up, you want to educate yourself, and you want to make something out of yourself.
I can’t be frustrated, really, honestly, I can’t be frustrated for people staying in nice houses, having nice flashy calls and stuff like that. And I don’t see really, honestly, I don’t see the reason why I should be frustrated.”
Asiphe Ntshongontshi (pictured below) lives in a simple shack made out of tin and wood, along with thousands of other people carving out a tiny piece of a wetlands in Cape Town, South Africa. When it rains, the area turns to mud, and although the city has dug drainage canals into the bush, rubbish and foul water still occasionally seeps into people's homes. The worst homes are the ones closest to the reeds, as those are the wettest, and the furthest from the road. Nearby, only a few hundred meters away, an electric fence surrounds modern family homes in the gated community of The Lakes.
"Living in the wetlands to me is a drive. You know that every day I must wake up, go to work, go to college, go to the university in order my kids from the future not to live in the same environment that I lived."
Danie Kagan (pictured below) walks next to the electrified fence which separates her community, called "The Lakes", from the surrounding wetlands in Cape Town, South Africa. Many gated communities exist in SA, however The Lakes is unique in that just 200 meters away sits the sprawling community of Masiphumelele. Masi has almost 40,000 people, many living in tin shacks, with no reliable sanitation, services, or employment. Danie welcomed me into her home and allowed me a window into her life, living side by side with such great poverty. "I don't think I'll ever get my head around the disparity".
Kenny Tokwe (pictured below), a community leader, leans against the concrete wall which separates the community of Imizamo Yethu from Hout Bay. Nowhere else in Cape Town are the haves and the have nots so closely positioned to one another as they are here, and the relationship between them, especially along this wall, seems to range from acrimonious to barely tolerable. It seems that few people, on either side, would say they choose to live here; the shack dwellers don't have jobs, money, or indoor toilets. The house owners have built gigantic fences around their properties which look like palisades, and live in a siege-like state of constant vigilance. It's a stalemate which leaves both sides fuming, and the government seems ill-equipped to provide alternatives.
Kenny's position as community leader is tenuous - his home was burned down, and his life threatened, for negotiating "too leniently" with the city after a large fire - but he remains ever cheerful, breaking into a large smile at the slightest provocation. On the subject of the fence, he pauses for a moment, as if it's a subject which doesn't come up too often. Perhaps it's just too obvious of a subject. " Yeah, this fence is kind of irritating to people. We need more land. We are like rats in a small cage. For the rats to have a space they normally kill each other to create a space."
(top left) Dunoon, Cape Town, Khayelitsha, and Tokai.
(top left) Alexandra, Johannesburg; Strand and Nomzamo; Philippi, Cape Town.
(top left) Dunoon, Cape Town; Morningside, Durban; Cape Town scenics; Soweto, Johannesburg; Morningside, Durban.