By Suren Pillay
The picture swayed from side to side like a feather, and then landed face up. Black and white. A boy. No older than 16. The expression in the eyes, the anger, so concentrated. The deep contrast of the grainy image accentuates the boy’s contorted body as he is flinging a petrol bomb, its flame a white streak. His arm creates a blur as it swings the flaming cocktail. His eyes are focused intensely at something outside the picture. There have been many moments in South Africa when one could have taken that picture. Anonymous, angry, black. Timeless. That’s what I would tell you if I didn’t know you.
But that picture is not anonymous. I took it in August 1985, on Belgravia Road in Athlone. Near where Ali’s corner shop used to be. We had just come from Gugs, and some of the other nearby townships. The police were breaking up a meeting kids were having at a school there. It was hectic ek se. All hell broke loose when the police just shot teargas into the hall. Students hysterically running off in different directions. Police with batons. Shotguns. We got some good images of them shooting at the kids – while the kids were running away. I was with Associated at the time and knew I had a wire service deadline, so decided to head back to town. The army had also decided to try and clear the area of journalists, like they would often do before the State of Emergency. So they could run amok in the townships, ‘mopping up operations’ I think they used to call it.
I had a kid with me. From Minnesota. Pete, Peter Jackson. Freelancing. I was reluctant, not in the mood to be the guide for a trophy hunter, but he begged me that morning to let him tag along. There were loads of them at that time. Some of the big names. Some trying to make it. And this was a chance to make it. If you were prepared to go where more established types, or those who had families and so on, would not go, then you would sell a pic or two. Make a name for yourself. It’s still like that today of course, Gaza, Kabul, Freetown. He seemed alright. He was trying to make it like we all did at some stage. Somebody hooked him up with me – I had a car. We could still get cars then from the rental agencies. Later on they stopped giving us cars altogether. Couldn’t afford having so many cars wrecked every day. Stones through windscreens, bullet holes. burnt out. The insurance companies are not actually in the habit of underwriting disasters, no matter what they might say in the ads. I let Peter hitch a ride.
I knew the area, the townships, the Cape Flats. It’s where I grew up. Things were very competitive. It depended on your contacts on the street. People would page me, page others, saying “Shit’s going down”, or the cops are shooting here, detaining someone there, and we would rush over, get the pic, get out, put it on the wire. There was competition. Who could get the picture out first was a big thing. If your agency had it first, they could sell it first. Bottom line.
I didn’t really like a lot of the internationals. I didn’t like a lot of the locals either. There was a lot of tension between us. There were different groups. Different ways of doing things. Lots of problems. But we got along. Most of the time.
Well, you know, this kid, hanging out with me, he could get to places the other internationals couldn’t. By that time I was also passing pics to the anti-apartheid movement, gratis, pasella, and my agency didn’t know. As long as there was no byline I could get away with it, but when they found out, that was to be one of the things that put an end to our relationship. Anyway, because of this I knew some of the underground people too, so they would also keep me informed.
That day, as we were heading back to the city centre so we could send our stuff out, I got paged that there was something happening in Athlone, in Belgravia Road. We were driving by on the way to town, so I said lets go.
When we got there, things seemed quite still. The shops were trading normally, traffic flowing smoothly. No mothers and aunties out on the stoeps. I hadn’t even noticed that somewhere along the line normality was something that I had learnt to be suspicious of. I stopped the car at Ali’s shop, told Peter to stay in the car. Said my salaams and chatted to Ali for a while. Bought some smokes. He said the students were having a meeting. We drove past the school to peek in. It looked quite reserved. To kill time we popped in to see some kids staying at a place nearby in Osterly Road. Had some coffee. Caught up on the latest developments at the University of the Western Cape. From their lounge, I could catch a useful glimpse of the school. A police casspir went by. Slowly. I could see another one in the far distance. The green and brown camouflage standing out rudely, in this very average residential area. It clearly looked out of place – the exact opposite of camouflage. This was a camouflage that was meant almost not to camouflage. Like undercover cops with undercover tattooed all over their faces. Suppose that’s why the police later used vans that were actually an almost luminous lemon, just to make them even more noticeable. The kids would call them mello-yellos. It’s the same ones they use now, nogal. Between you and me, I still get a bit of a skrik when I see a yellow casspir in my rear-view mirror.
I could hear the sound of students singing, and the rumble of toy-toying. “Zenzenina, Zenzenina, what have we done, what have we done”, the song murmuring innocently in the distance. They were probably planning to march with their placards to Athlone police station, which was the nearest one. That was the plan. They wouldn’t get out of the school gates. I ran back to the car. Peter was agitatedly lighting up a cigarette. We drove around the school and parked close by. I could see more police vehicles, some unmarked, circling. They noticed us. I knew some of them by now. They knew us. Some kids had come from the townships to Athlone. A thing that never really happened when I was growing up. Divide and rule had worked better then. Now it seemed they were stripping away the differences. When they were being whipped, it didn’t matter that they were classified as coloured or african or indian. It was equal opportunity oppression. It was infectious, their hope. Their enthusiasm. The possibilities they showed us. But also tragic. Or maybe old age just beats that enthusiasm out of you? That battering of time against your soul, till you’re just floating with the breeze, that’s how I think many of us, many of our parents were. But these kids. To see them stand up, resilient like taut blades of grass upright against the power of the Cape’s south-easterly wind. That was quite a feeling. You have that, don’t you? I hope you keep it, hold on to it as long as you can. Savour it. Nurture it my friend.
I recognised one of the kids from Langa. Themba Mtumkulu. That was his name. He ran up to me, shook my hand. ‘Bra’ Faze, howzit?’ he enquired earnestly. That’s what he called me, that’s what they called me on the street, ‘Bra Faze’. ‘It’s alright broer’ I said, ‘and you, what’s going on. Mass meeting?’
‘Sipho was detained yesterday, did you hear? ’
‘No!’ I exclaimed, surprised and not surprised. ‘This for him?’
‘Yah, we need to get more support, mobilise the community.’
Then in a spin, he ran off, saying ‘Take care, hope you get some good shots’, and me shouting back, ‘Cover your faces.’ Some tied their handkerchiefs around their faces. Others had taken to wearing the checked scarves that Palestinian kids wear to hide their faces. It both hid their identity and gave them one. Soon Themba melted into the big heaving smudge of discontent.
The camera was a double edged sword. Like politicians, these young kids had learnt that they needed us to get their message out. But it was a fragile affair, because they could be identified by the pictures we took. Many had been, and many photographers had been irresponsible about this, shooting pics of kids who would then be put away because of the images they had taken. Those who parachuted in and out with big names and big bucks, they didn’t give a shit. Well, most of them anyway. It was also racial. I think the black photographers, the few of us, we were more sensitive to things like security, like protecting people, than most of the other photographers. Probably because these could easily have been, and sometimes were our kids out there on the streets. I remember sitting with Don McDougal, who won the Pullitzer, in a bar on Long street, and having a moerse argument diep into the darkness of early morning about this. He just didn’t give a damn. And it hurt. To have your heroes turn out so ugly, right in front of you. And it wasn’t just the whisky. It was as if under the haven of darkness he felt safe enough to reveal the vampire he was.
Well, it didn’t take long for the police to act. The usual. Teargas. Then shot guns. Pete and I ran to the back of the school. Jumped the fence, ran through the rows of school blocks till we were amongst the students. I ran for the edges to get a good point of view. It didn’t help to be between the kids and the cops. No man’s land. ‘You could get shots, but no pictures’, was a corny joke that went around. If I was a writer I would say, ‘there was chaos’. But to me there wasn’t. In those moments all that noise seems to come together like a finely arranged orchestra. Every move, every gun shot, on cue as if conducted. First movement: cops attack. Second movement: students retreat and regroup. Third movement: students defend. Fourth movement: cops attack, and so it would go on. Adagios. Then rapid staccatoed notes. You tend not to hear a lot of the screaming. You try not to fall over pimply boys and girl-women tripping over each other. Shoes strewn around. You learn to breathe swimming in clouds of teargas, the adrenalin converting the choking gas into crisp Ceres mountain air. You tend to be able to see through the white haze, to focus, to think about composition, to think about film speed, lenses, lighting, deadlines.
The kids responded with a barrage of stones. Most barely reaching the perimeter of police vehicles that lined the school like a thick hedge of yellow and blue thorns. More teargas. A few kids, prepared with their aunties’ padded gardening gloves, faces covered with scarves, would pick up the ice-hot canister and fling it back at the cops. If it reached its target there would be roars of applause, like an expression of appreciation for a well bowled ball in a cricket match. Kids can pick on your weakness like adults cannot. And the faults of the varke, clumsy-fat-sweaty-pink policemen, or manoeuvres that would backfire – like when the wind would blow the teargas back at the cops – would earn them well-deserved giggles and teasing.
Another kid goes for the next round of teargas canisters. I focus on him. He throws. I get the pic. Gunshot. The kid slumps to the ground. A scarlet line rips across his grey flannel school pants and white shirt. Slap on a long zoom. Shoot. Shocked. Keep shooting. The motordrive on the camera chowing film faster than you can say sorry, siestog or ag shame. Look around and see Pete. Shouting to himself in his midwest accent from behind the camera, ‘Motherfuckers, motherfuckers’ over and over.
Eventually some kids ran over and dragged the shot kid into one of the classrooms. Pete and I crept up behind a low brick wall. I looked over and saw Themba hunched and striding towards the cops. Behind his back, in his hands, a flaming petrol – guava juice. I knew he was going to throw it. I focused. He swung the petrol bomb towards one of the vehicles. It landed with a crackling thud, then the gentle tingling of the shattering glass, and the hour long freeze-frame second before you hear the muted swoosh of flames gasping in all directions. ‘Get out of here! get out of here!’ I instinctively yelled out to him. ‘Why didn’t he cover his face. Why did I take the picture?’ I realised as soon as I took the camera away from my eye. A policeman, his blue uniform in a red-yellow halo, rolled around frantically as his colleagues wrestled the flames.
In the corner of my eye I saw another cop pointing his finger at us. I shouted at Pete to get out of there, to hide. I knew they would try to take our film. I knew I had shot the image of Themba. If they got my film I knew he was in shit. I ran through the school buildings. My cameras suddenly feeling like concrete slabs to and fro-ing, the straps like cables strangling me. Up the stairs, sweating, slipping, banging the cameras against walls – I could hear them behind me. Run into a class room. Lie on the floor. If they looked through the window they would see me. Hear the heavy boots. Stomping. Angry voices. Slamming open doors down the corridor. They are coming closer. I couldn’t get out of the class room. Shit. How I could I be so stupid. I rewind the film. Try to slip the roll of film out, but the camera-back jammed where I had knocked it. The voices are getting closer. The sound of a dog barking. I pull hard. It opens. Slip in another roll. Hope for the best. The door bursts open and a stubby cop I recognise barges in, his red face sweating profusely as he heaves his body about in his undersized uniform. Oversized shotgun at the ready. ‘Where is it? Give me your fucking camera!’. ‘No’, I say, quoting press freedom rights and all that stuff. ‘Don’t give me that kak, I’ll klap your fucking head in right here. Give me the fucking camera’, he shouts. I hand him the camera. He says ‘thank you very much’, and assures me, ‘that fucking little darkie is going to roast for this!’.
I lie there. It felt like hours. Looking up at the ceiling of the classroom. It’d been a long time since I’d been in a class room. This time I actually feel relieved. I still have the roll of film with the pic on. I am a schoolkid again and got away with something naughty. Then I remembered my deadline. Rushed back to the car. Pete was nowhere to be found. Figured that he’d made his way back to town. Send off my film. Then go to Don Pedro’s for a shot or two of Johnny Walker. I knew I couldn’t go home that night. They would soon find out that I had given them a blank roll of film. They would come looking for me. Luckily I didn’t keep any other stuff at home. You had to be careful about things like that. We never stored all our pics or negs in one place. Always moved them around. It was your canvasses, all you had. Without them there was nothing to verify what you’d done when you had to account. No alibi.
I called my wife. The phone just rang but no answer. Where can she be? She was usually at home this time. Or maybe I just really wanted her to be at home. I left a cryptic message on the answering machine. Had another drink. Some of the other journos started pulling in. To swap stories about the day’s escapades mostly. I wasn’t really into that. I didn’t like those post-mortems, about close calls, almosts, ifs, buts. I didn’t know where else to go. Tried phoning Yasmin again. No answer. Then I remembered she was working nightshift. I would wait it out. Just after midnight a photographer I knew from the Cape Times came into the bar. He had just come off duty and the morning edition was probably at press now.
‘Hey, Faze, how you doing? You must’ve got some great pics you old bastard’, he smiled, with a tinge of envy.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘Well, a kid brought in some excellent stuff this afternoon to the picture editor. Said he was with you.’
I wasn’t sure if Pete has shot a picture of Themba. I put my hand in my pocket just to check if the roll of film was still there. Felt better just knowing it was there. But it didn’t help for long. I went over to the Argus building where the papers were printed. A strong South-Easter was kicking the day’s junk around. I asked the guys at printing if they had run the paper already. They showed me a copy. Front page pic – Themba throwing the fucking petrol bomb. Fuck! Fuck! How could Pete do this. I had warned him. Told him to be sensitive. I didn’t know how to warn Themba. I didn’t even know where he stayed. Who his family was. Who his friends were. I knew the townships like the back of my hand. Alley ways and byways. Good positions. Friendly taverns and shebeens. Where to buy good zol. But I realised I didn’t really know the people…
I went over to Pete’s flat. Banged on the door. A young blonde girl opened, angrily demanding to know what my problem was. Eventually Pete came into the lounge, woken up by my loud voice. ‘Whats up’, he drawled, surprised. ‘What the fucks up? You don’t realise what you’ve done? You’ve just killed someone you know. I took you there. You were with me. I told you don’t shoot the kids if their faces aren’t covered. You sold that pic to the Times and they’re running it, and that kid’s gonna get fucked up, that’s fucking what!’ He looked at me, somewhat dazed. Still a bit stoned; ‘Come on man, Fazel, don’t sweat it. It was a great pic. I had to sell it. Besides, man, there’s no way they gonna pick that kid up, I mean, man, how they gonna find him, recognise him…hell, I wouldn’t be able to’.
All blacks look alike? I didn’t bother to let him explain. I just gave a good swing, decked him and walked out. The chick ran after me shouting hysterically.
I still didn’t know what to do. I sat in my car outside the building Yasmin worked in. It was a community radio service and she handled production, sometimes through the night. The early blue radiance of dawn crept up. I wished I could turn it off. Change the filter. When you make pictures you think you have a lot of power. To decide what to put in the frame, what to leave out. But this time I felt as if I was framed as much as I was doing the framing. I thought I was doing good. But fuck it, now I was part of the problem. The morning light became harsher. The refuge offered by dawn’s shadows were now illuminated. Then I saw Yasmin and called out to her. She would go home and if things were alright she would leave an agreed upon message at her mother’s place for me. I needed to look for Themba. Drove out of town towards Langa. Avoided the early morning traffic coming in, as people lined up to earn their bread and butter with their normal jobs. Safe jobs. Maybe I should have just done that. Lawyer, accountant or something like that. The jobs that make parents happy. The jobs that make husbands and wives and kids happy. The taxis were darting down Main Road as I passed through Woodstock, then Salt River, then Mowbray. Women of all ages, shapes, sizes, but not races, pouring into the clothing factories where they earned their weekly wage. Streaming in from Bontehuewel, Mannenberg, Mitchells Plain. The morning papers lying in bundles outside the shops, like timebombs waiting to go off. Maybe I could just pick them all up.
I take the turn-off onto the N2 highway. If I just kept going I could head out, away from this whole situation. Cross the Hottentots Holland mountains, like the boere who trekked out of the Cape. But I turn left into Bhunga Avenue, round the sharp bend off the road that delivers you into a different world. The townships in Cape Town were designed to be completely unobtrusive. To be polite to the privileged. You could live your whole life in the coloured and indian areas on the Cape Flats, in the leafy white suburbs in Claremont, Newlands, or the ocean side areas of Camps Bay and Clifton, and not ever go into the townships. Not ever see the joys and sorrows, the life that went on there. Langa was already long awake compared to the sleepy city centre I had just come from. People here knew they had to leave early to get to work, by bus, by taxi, by train. They were the ones who had to prepare the city centre for those who would come in from the suburbs and mess it up, like only ungrateful guests can.
I circled around the school. The place was already bristling with army vehicles skulking around like hyenas, looking to separate the weak from the strong and turn them into breakfast. School kids were making their way through the gates. I asked a few if they knew Themba. Some said they did. Others, suspicious of me, wouldn’t talk. Yesterday’s tiredness suddenly came up behind me and just grabbed me. I made it to my in-laws’. The message from Yasmin said everything was OK at our place. I slept. The constant buzzing of my beeper eventually woke me at around 2:30 pm. The day was almost gone. I flipped through my messages. Three calls from Langa. My heart sank. Anxiously, I called. Cops were there. Early in the morning they came, looking for Themba. They had the picture. I rushed over. The beleaguered principal and some students were milling around. They were angry. I tried to explain. It seemed no use. The wound was still oozing with blood. I felt completely dejected. I hadn’t felt this angry at myself, at what I did for a living, before. I vaguely realised, on the advice of those who had gone before, that it was a difficult place to make your meaning. But this felt so different. How could I have been so stupid…I should have made sure Pete didn’t have the picture… I asked about Themba’s parents. Reluctantly, someone gave me an address.
As far as we knew Themba didn’t arrive at school that day. I went over to his mother’s. She sat distraught in the centre of the tiny lounge. Neighbours shuffled around. The house had been raped and left for dead after the police searched it looking for her son. An old man, recognising me as a journalist, asked me what I wanted. I said I wanted to know where Themba was, if he knew where he was. He showed me the paper. That picture, like a phobia, was paraded in front of me. He didn’t say much. All the accusation was there, on the front page. In the furniture strewn across the lounge. On the face of the sobbing mother. I tried to extricate myself, saying that I had not taken it, but neither I nor they seemed convinced of this. I was implicated. The press card I carried was enough.
I did manage to establish that Themba had not come home the previous night. This had not been great cause for alarm as this was not unusual. He was often on the run from the police and rarely slept at home those days. Like butterflies, the young activists bounced from flower to flower on the go all the time. A friend of his told me that Themba had been hiding somewhere, but had left for school. I had just been at the school and we knew he had not arrived. He could be hiding or he could have been picked up. It was hard to say. No one on either side would give up that kind of information readily. I had read in the article that the policeman had been quite badly burnt. Themba would be in for serious trouble if they picked him up. I drove around hoping to catch a glimpse of him.
It was getting late. None of Themba’s friends had called back. I decided to go to Caledon Square and ask the police if they had detained him, and to demand the camera they had taken from me. I wasn’t actually sure that I wanted it back, but it seemed like the right thing to do. As fate would have it, the cop who’d taken my camera was lounging around the information desk. Eventually recognising me, he mused. ‘Ah, only now, I thought you would have been here ages ago for your stuff. I would have come looking for you’, he explained, ‘because you think you’re a slimgat, don’t you, giving us a roll of blank film. But luckily that boy was all over the papers. We didn’t need your picture anyway. But just keep your eyes open my friend. Funny things happen out there’. Then he turned his back on me. I asked him if they had arrested the boy. Without turning around he muttered ‘Don’t you worry about him. He is going to get it good.’
I began to panic. This cop seemed too confident. It wouldn’t be unlike them to have picked Themba up and not even reported the arrest. Or they could be keeping him somewhere and torturing him. Or worse. My mind convulsed with scenarios and images. I went home.
Over the next few weeks I fell into a deep slump. It was difficult for me to work. Agency demands, bills, bond, debt, all crowding around me. Themba had simply vanished. And no one was talking. The police refused to confirm or deny any knowledge of his whereabouts. All kinds of rumours whispered through Langa about his disappearance. After a few months even his family resigned itself to speaking of him in the past tense.
I continued to visit Themba’s family. In his mother’s lounge, a framed class photo of Themba was one among many competing for space in the glass cabinet. The frame was inscribed with the words ‘Hamba Kahle’. He was one of five boys. Their father had abandoned them early. Mother had to raise them mostly on her own. She explained that she had felt guilty for not being around, always working or trying to find work, and felt she had neglected the children who had to fend for themselves most of the time. She had been receiving support from the community, from the church. There was also a support group of parents whose children had disappeared. They shared stories and pooled their tears. Some activists turned up after being in detention, others were just gone. Themba was gone. The police had nothing to say. There were so many different kinds of rumours. Of children used in muti rituals by withdoctors, of township tsotsis murdering them, of girls in the brothels of Hillbrow in Ho-burg, of MK-Apla-BC camps, and, of course, of death-squads. Rumours of police death squads had began going around again. A State of Emergency had been proclaimed. Press laws were more stringent. No pictures of police activity were allowed. One had to work constantly vigilant, of everyone and everything. Be creative to get into places, get out of places, to get pics. And people continued to disappear.
Themba was gone. And going out onto the street with a camera held the constant possibility that I was going to commit another kid to death. I went through the motions mechanically. Then, like a godsend I got an offer to work for an agency in New York, doing picture editing. No going out into the field. An agent with whom I had become close set it up, sensing the condition I was in. Previously, I wouldn’t even have given it a thought. It felt like a betrayal to leave at that time. It was a betrayal. To my friends, to those in the underground to whom I was supplying pictures, to the unseen unspoken mosaic in which I was a little tile. But I felt my betrayal had come long before. Themba had brought it home to me. Even though I did not take that picture, it seemed like I had done everything else but push the shutter release, and done too little afterwards. It’s the kind of betrayal that seeps into you more insidiously, more slowly, I think, but more dangerously. Until the day you start thinking about the nice way the ‘scarlet red of fresh blood contrasts with black skin,’ as I had heard one photographer put it. That’s the betrayal that settles inside you, undetected like a virus, as you begin to think about selling images, winning awards, beating others to the kill. And you only realise it when it’s too late. That’s the beauty of it. A Faustian pact signed in drunken stupor a long time ago and too late to undo once you’ve sobered up. In the end your eye becomes an undercover agent for the devil. And you need a fix every day. Or the hangover moves in. Permanently.
Yasmin and I have moved to Manhattan. To a small apartment in the East Village. It is like walking out of your time, of your dimension, into a parallel reality. We have put a distance between us and South Africa, an intimate distance that stands between us and feelings we don’t quite know what to do with. At first it felt like being relieved of a backache you thought you were born with. Now I look at images coming in every day. Terrifying images. Sometimes I wish I had been there, to frame it differently, show a different emotion at work in that scene. There is so much in the margins, outside the frame, fighting to get in. Sometimes I wish I had been there not to take it at all. I work with people to whom the local content, the context, the story, individual biographies don’t matter. South Africa’s images of blood and gore are competing for space on a page with blood and gore from a lot of other places around the world. It just depends on whose blood is in vogue I suppose. Sometimes I glimpse Themba in a crowd of protesters toyi-toying in the images that come in every day. Yet I am scared to admit it. By uttering my hope I would be exposing it to light which would destroy it completely.
This essay is also available in print in Chimurenga 11: Conversations with Poets Who Refuse to Speak (2007).