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Xenophobia exhibition

  • Alon
Photojournalist Alon Skuy has seen a great deal over the years, but he recalls the time when he was really taken aback. It was one morning in May 2008, following a night of intense violence in the Ramaphosa informal settlement, east of Johannesburg. “It was still very volatile. I saw this woman nonchalantly walk past a dead man in the street on her way to do her daily chores,” he recalls.
by NICOLA MILTZ | May 24, 2018

This was after a murderous night 10 years ago as xenophobic attacks gripped isolated pockets around the country.

The image he captured shows a covered dead body sprawled in the dust, a gathering mob in the distance and a mother with a baby on her back wheeling a green wheelbarrow on her way to collect water in plastic drums. Life goes on.

The image is just one of 60 photographs currently on display at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre. The exhibition, Killing the Other, reflects on a decade of xenophobia, and showcases the work of two highly respected photojournalists: James Oatway and Skuy.

An image by Oatway, which he said encapsulates the “senselessness of the violence”, shows Michael Sambo cradling his seriously wounded brother, Amos, in his arms. It was taken on May 17 2008 in Alexandra township, near London Road. The fate of the brothers is still unknown, but their intense fear is palpable.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report, Oatway said: “This moment stands out for me because it highlights the lack of action being taken by society to tackle this problem and shows the senselessness and hopelessness of it all.”

History repeated itself seven years after this photograph was taken, when Oatway captured another gripping scene, taken less than a kilometre away on April 18 2015. It was of the iconic image of a crazed Mthintha Bhengu, 21, about to stab Mozambican trader Emmanuel Sithole, who later died of his stab wounds. It was splashed on the front page of the Sunday Times.

Both Skuy and Oatway’s images point out the overlapping and jarring narratives of xenophobia and the parallel worlds that play out in South African society.

“People go about their daily business as if nothing is happening a mere stone’s throw away,” said Oatway, referring to Alexandra township and the nearby suburbs of northern Johannesburg. “We really live in two separate worlds,” he said.

Skuy and Oatway collaborated on the exhibition, which opened last Thursday at the centre. Ironically, that night another spurt of xenophobic attacks erupted in KwaZulu-Natal, where foreign national shop owners were being targeted.

“Xenophobia needs to be addressed and confronted directly,” said Oatway, “It can’t be swept under the carpet like a dirty secret.”

When Oatway took the pictures, he was a freelancer working for the Sunday Times at the time. Skuy works for Tiso Blackstar.

The pair sifted through hundreds of their disturbing images covering the sporadic attacks over the last decade.

“Xenophobia is a very nuanced subject,” said Skuy. “It changes over time; there are so many different subtexts.”

He is amazed by some people’s resilience and generosity of spirit when faced with extreme adversity.

He’ll never forget how, in 2015, after a new wave of attacks, this time on foreign nationals in Grahamstown, a Pakistani hotel owner opened his establishment, Stone Crescent Hotel, to those whose shops had been looted.

“Tariq Hayat opened his hotel as a refuge for frightened people from Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Somalia and Pakistan. He allowed them to use his place until things calmed down,” said Skuy, still amazed.

He described some of the initial nights of terror in 2008, waiting to hear reports of outbursts of violence.

“We would get information about a flare-up; there would be a tip off at a hostel somewhere. Then we would respond to it and wait, sometimes for hours. There is an element of the thrill.

“When I think back to those nights, it stirs things in me that I’ve suppressed.”

Looking at the images so closely again now, years later, he said he was “reminded about how unprepared South Africa was for such a wave of violence”.

“At the time, it was all very shocking. South Africa was totally taken by storm. There was a deep sense of urgency about how to address this emergency situation, the need for immediate interventions, how to deal with the injuries, the aftermath, the hopelessness and futility.

“I’m still grappling with why these things happen, and keep happening, to those marginalised members of society.”

Internationally renowned photojournalist Joao Silva said that the images documented one of the darkest chapters in South Africa’s history. He believes they serve as a reminder of how “little it takes for human beings to turn into beasts”.

The photographs, he said, gave a voice “to those who would otherwise not be heard” and put a human face on events that are hard to comprehend for people who are not living that reality.

Director of the Holocaust Centre, Tali Nates, said the photographs “invite the viewer to reflect on their own deep-seated prejudices and the ways in which we turn people into ‘others’.

“The suffering carried out and endured under apartheid does not necessarily mean that South Africans are now immune to racism and prejudice. The increasing instances of hate speech, racism and periods of murderous xenophobic attacks sadly highlight a different reality.”

Professor Tawana Kupe, vice-principal of the University of the Witwatersrand, spoke about the attacks as being “anti-human” and that they “threatened the sustainability of humanity”.

“Xenophobia or Afrophobia, when it is committed by Africans against other Africans, is a form of discrimination that is pernicious and reveals the darker side of our humanity.

“Clearly, the multiple experiences in South Africa of patriarchy and forms of violence in pre-colonial society, colonialism and apartheid have created psychological insecurities that influence and fuel discrimination, hatred and violence. Add social and economic pressures, and you have a toxic mix of unparalleled proportions.”

Skuy and Oatway believe there are many faces of xenophobia, and their aim is always to try to balance the narrative even by showing brightly coloured images of everyday migrants going about their lives in their new adoptive country, making ordinary things happen during extraordinary times.

There is one photo, taken by Oatway in March 2017, of Rashid Shaba, a minister in the New Apostolic Church, a tented church in Olievenhoutbosch township – a known area for xenophobic attacks. He stands tall and proud in the tent, which attracts mostly Malawian migrants in search of some spirituality over the weekends.

“He is a dignified, proud Malawian priest – not a direct link to the xenophobia, but he shows a foreign national in another light which counterbalances the negative images.”

The exhibition runs until July 1.

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