The problem with ‘Soweto’

2010-07-26 00:00

IN his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. du Bois, the African-American writer and human rights activists, asked “how does it feel to be a problem?”

Written in 1903, The Souls of Black Folk spoke of how “negroes” were perpetually seen as “the problem” white America felt the need to fix. Du Bois, the first African-American to earn a doctorate from Harvard, was responding to a prevalent situation in the early 20th century where, regardless of how high black people rose in society, they were still regarded as a problem.

I was reminded of this question as I went through photographer Jodi Bieber’s photo essay on Soweto.

The cover of the book shows a picture of a girl, no older than 14, wearing a sarong around her pink swimsuit, posing like a catwalk queen. She is surrounded by a crowd of children, some wearing ordinary underpants and another with a plastic bag on her head. I imagine the intended message here is to show the enigma that Soweto is. We are to wonder how seamlessly the life of beauty and sophistication lives side by side with riffraff.

I wondered why it is that more than 100 years after the establishment of Soweto there are still some people in our country who refuse to see the people of this place and, by extension, urban black people country wide, as a natural part of the social tapestry.

If they are still a subject of academic and art interest after 100 years in “white” South Africa, will they ever stop being “a problem” that social engineers must wrestle with?

I have no idea how Bieber got funding for her project, but I have a suspicion that it must have been based on the belief that township people are freaks whom the rest of the world needs to know about.

I don’t know what will follow once, thanks to Bieber, we have made it into the consciousness of the general public. But perhaps like the whales, some nice people will come watch us and praise us for our cleverness and even save us from ourselves.

The jacket of the book praises Bieber “and her astonishing yet careful study of the people, the place and the time, [that] offers us an opportunity to reflect on the mystery of this changing space”.

One has to wonder when, according to Bieber, Soweto started changing? Why is it that, knowing everything we know about human evolution, gentrification of a part of a neighbourhood would be called “a mystery”?

Without using as many words, pictorials such as these create an impression that the natives were running around in loin cloths, bartering, drinking mampoer and riding in donkey carts. Then Nelson Mandela was released and nothing has been the same since.

If you are not black, imagine how you would feel if tending your garden, wearing perfume or cologne or driving a car that was designed in Germany made you an accepted subject of academic study, and artists and photographers considered you a fascination. Imagine how you would feel about the fact that regardless of how many languages you were proficient at, the ability to speak one particular tongue qualified you as “well spoken”.

Yet, this is what happens to black people every day. Some people even earn a living showcasing us to outsiders in much the same way that game rangers show you wildlife in a game park.

Some, like Bieber, take pictures of this strange phenomenon called urban black people. So pardon me for pissing on the national reconciliation mood parade that Bafana Bafana and the World Cup are supposed to have engendered. I, as an urban black person, happen to detest being regarded as “a problem”.

Parading township people as freaks because they shop at malls, are involved in ballroom dancing or are passionate about heavy metal or the football teams they support is not much of an improvement on the days when Sara Baartman was paraded around the world as an oddity, a problem that needed to be solved.

Of course, there are many black people who seem to enjoy being “the problem”. Nobody forces them to pose for these pictures or to allow the Biebers of our world to come into their houses and into their bedrooms.

Award-winning author Niq Mhlongo writes a long introduction explaining life in the ghetto to give context to the pictures.

It appears there are some black people who think they are extras in a drama aimed at entertaining those who do not live in their world. Some black people seem genuinely to think that their role in life is to explain themselves to whites.

They seem happy to play the historic role of the ever “smiling nigger”, ever eager to explain why “we blacks” do this and the other. Those who refuse to play this role are then categorised as angry, living in the past or having chips on their shoulders.

Steve Biko must have had these “happy natives” in mind when he wrote: “We do not need to apologise for this because it is true that the white systems have produced throughout the world a number of people who are not aware that they too are people.”

If there is “a problem”, then it should be that people who have lived cheek by jowl with others have not made the slightest attempts to see how the “other half” lives, other than through these superficial cut-and- paste projects that spring up from time to time.

Maybe Bieber should take pictures of a people who have incredibly insulated themselves from the reality and inevitability of blackness in South Africa. Maybe the next art or academic project should try to discover why it is that a minority would think of a majority as some exotic species.

Until we can look at all South Africans as neither odd nor exceptional because they do not look like “us”, the dream of a nonracial South Africa remains deferred.

• Soweto by Jodi Bieber is published by Jacana.

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