FOR SOME SOUTH AFRICANS, apartheid infiltrated every facet of life. For others, it rarely impinged on the routine comforts of the suburbs. It all depended on which side of the bench one sat. Okwui Enwezor and Rory Bester’s exhaustive exhibition and accompanying catalogue consider the photographic response to apartheid, as well as to the immense bureaucracy that sustained the system for forty-one years. Eighty photographers spanning several generations, from Leon Levson in the 1940s to Thabiso Sekgala in 2009, track the institutionalization and legacy of apartheid across the country’s bloodied landscape. The catalogue features nine writers, mostly local, parsing the medium’s knotty microhistories and political entanglements. Against the backdrop of state fascism and the fierce resistance it spurred, the intertwined histories of art and politics unroll in tandem in photographic essays such as Ernest Cole’s “House of Bondage” and George Hallett’s “District Six.”
The sweep of visual culture presented here demonstrates how the bureaucracy of apartheid succeeded in grafting its physical divisions onto the social and political realms. Although apartheid was less than a decade old in 1956, when a young Peter Magubane paused to shoot the Johannesburg scene above, his photograph already captures the schizophrenic splitting of the South African city and its citizens. But it also suggests that enforced distances paradoxically produced intimacy. Even as races were separated, formative relationships between white children and their black nannies crossed the color line. As this woman touches the child’s neck—fixing a collar or flicking away a roving bug—her gentle act intimates that a comforting hand could reach across the divide. Sadly, this image’s optimism dates it. Within a decade—after Sharpeville, after the founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe, after the Rivonia trial—such a sentiment would become impossible.
Much of the material here pushes to paint a history of struggle. While the curatorial focus on the regime’s mundane bureaucratization and legalistic armature provides some counterpressure, the narrative of resistance still triumphs. It is tempting to remember apartheid in this way. Yet we do history a disservice if we fail to recognize the mass complicity of most white South Africans, as well as the silent, stunning blindness of much of the world through those four long decades.