The best thing about James Oatway and Alon Skuy’s coffee table book [BR]OTHER is the set of essaysBy Justice Edwin Cameron, Achille Mbembe, Joao Silva, Justice Malala, Dr. Jean Pierre Misago and Jan Bornman. The worst thing about it are some of the photographs. Which is perhaps a terrible thing for me to say about a book where the essays are supposed to be supporting material for the photographs and not vice-versa but there, I said it. I thought it when I first got the book over two months ago, I think it now.
One of the most critiqued actions in modern day journalism was when the New York Times decided to splash images of the dead in an article on the Dulsit Hotel bombings in Nairobi in 2019. The New York Times attempted to justify that by saying they wanted the world to witness the horror of terrorist violence. The Kenyan national defence force that is Kenyans on Twitter (#KOT) critiqued this disrespect for black bodies by highlighting that in school shootings in the United States and in terrorist attacks in other Western countries whether France or the UK, bloodied dead white bodies had not been explicitly shown as seemed to be the case with black and brown bodies. The deaths were traumatizing and terrible enough without having to show the bodies. I couldn’t help thinking about this as I saw the gruesome images upon images of Afrophobic violence in [BR]OTHER.
This publication sent some questions to the two photographers whose images are at the centre of this book and who are also credited as the authors.
Were the families of the deceased in the images that feature in the book contacted for permission to use the images?
If this wasn’t the case then why not?
And if “no” in 1 and 2 above, why wasn’t blurring the photos of the deceased or survivors of Afrophobic violence not an option?
Oatway and Skuy responded:
No. After intense deliberation, we decided that including these images was vital in portraying the inhumanity of what is taking place. The process is not without flaw and leaves room for debate. Some of these images are painful to see and we deeply regret any distress their publication may cause to family members, survivors or anyone.
We decided not to blur any of the images. Each image selected for the book was subjected to deep interrogation and discussion. We did not take the decision to publish these images lightly. We strongly believe in making this crisis visible within a climate of denialism. Our book confronts this unpopular issue directly. Xenophobic sentiment is becoming more pervasive and the violence more frequent. The images document the brutal fallout and the humans involved. They are difficult to view but they are at the heart of the issue and can’t be ignored.
Now, I agree with the authors’ decision to highlight the inhumanity of Afrophobia through the images. I just do not agree with this particular publication. You see, when Oatway and Skuy had these images published in the newspapers, it made sense. It made sense given that the average South African has access to a newspaper even if they may not be able to buy it. At taxi ranks, at spaza shops, in villages where it comes wrapping meat or is used for ablution, the people that Oatway and Skuy portray in this book as the perpetrators of xenophobic violence have access to the newspapers and can then see the horror and perhaps question their own actions.
This is not to suggest that the middle and upper classes are not taking part in Afrophobic violence.
They are but in just a more subtle way, as they use Afrophobia to protect themselves from class warfare. A capitalist like ActionSA’s Herman Mashaba will, for instance, ignore concerns of the citizens of Johannesburg while Mayor – as Jan Bornman’s essay Inside the Anger highlights. Mashaba will then go on to inform South Africans that their city is dirty and/or there is no employment for South African citizens and/or there is crime because of undocumented immigrants from across Africa thus fueling Afrophobic violence even though he himself may not be seen chasing, beating or burning anyone he believes is not a South African.
As one commentator on Facebook, Thamsanqa Jacob Maseko, put it in response to electoral results in Gauteng, ‘ActionSA is clearly a fascist party using all the rhetoric of fascism to gain votes. They are potentially a toxic blot on the political landscape of South Africa. Everyone wants and prefers foreigners to be documented in the host country and to stay away from crime, but to dedicate a whole election manifesto on that is just scapegoating. It’s not like the South African government hasn’t already been detaining and deporting illegal immigrants all along. It’s not a new policy that would be introduced by Mashaba, he is just amplifying on his own Afrophobia by promising to do what’s already happening without being reported clearly.’ Maseko’s comment has echoes in sections of Achille Mbembe’s essay No African is a Foreigner in Africa in this anthology.
Equally, Mashaba – and this book – ignores how capitalists are in fact responsible for fueling Afrophobic violence through their employment policies. There are quite a significant number of companies employing undocumented immigrants. They can thus avoid adhering to labour laws by not paying their non-South African citizens as per requirements of labour laws while threatening them with possible deportations or just lack of income. They will whisper to the South Africans how ‘foreigners are taking your jobs.’ These same captains of industry will tell their non-South African employees “you are not lazy and/or you speak pretty good English and/or you are not demanding like the natives…” all these actions leading to the creation of animosity between two workers who are both African but one of whom is, by coincidence of birth and the 1884 Berlin Conference border drawings, not a South African citizen.
It’s a truth too often unacknowledged that a person at the bottom of the totem pole is always looking for someone else lower to step down on. An abused woman may end up abusing her domestic worker and her children. An abused child, tortures dogs. It takes a certain self-awareness for an abused person to avoid trying to obtain some small power so that they can themself perpetrate abuse. A poor South African is relieved that at least they are not Somali, or Zimbabwean, or Mosotho.
In his introductory essay to the book, Justice Edwin Cameron says of [BR]OTHER ‘… it dignifies imperiled bodies by allowing them to be seen.’ I hold Cameron in extremely high regard so it pains me that I have to disagree with him but on this one, I must. I would like to suggest that showing images of the victims of Afrophobic violence in this book only serves to make an observer immune to just how horrific the violence is. It also serves to ‘other’ in a way that the book is, I hope, trying to avoid.
It dignifies imperiled bodies by allowing them to be seen, says Cameron in his introductory essay. But what are photographers to do when they want to show just how horrific Afrophobic violence is?
Here is a thought, how about not publishing at all?
Or choosing different images that do not further victimize people who are already victims?
This book has some examples of this. One being the man in the leather jacket who stops a mob from further attacking his [br]other and who was immortalized in Justice Malala’s essay We Are The Barbarians and images of a Congolese woman and her daughter in the final days before departing for France for asylum after losing a husband to Afrophobic violence in Cape Town. Those images spoke eloquently about our common humanity without creating a pornography of the deceased.
And as good as the essays are, they are not saying anything new that hasn’t been mentioned in discussions by the middle and upper classs who are clearly the target audience of this book because the [BR]OTHERs and sisters who are documented in the book as either perpetrators or victims will not be able to afford this book.
Lest we forget, South Africa has one of the highest Gini co-efficients in the world and at R359 on Take-a-Lot, this is clearly not a book that is supposed to be getting to the man and woman who our government believes can survive on R350 per month during a covid lockdown.
Unless Oatway and Skuy and their publisher plan to have this book widely distributed in the areas they covered so that Afrophobic violence is not repeated or so the communities can actively protect their [br]others against those who would perpetrate violence, this book will yet again be another feel good exercise of the ‘at least we said something’ sort, a navel-gazing wankfest by some middle class brothers. Seeing as any of this is highly unlikely and it’s equally unlikely that any lives will be saved in the next wave of Afrophobic violence because this book was published to make South Africa reflect, perhaps the authors should have thought of the environment and just put all of this online. Because I am not sure that any tree should have died for this.
Going through these photos again, there weren’t that many of dead bodies and injured people, in fact, there were a lot of photos that depicted the violence without being graphic about it (fires, a mob marching with weapons, women hiding behind a car) and now I wonder whether those which showed violence got stuck to my brain because of how gratuitous and unnecessary it felt to me among photos that could have otherwise told the story eloquently while giving dignity to the humans depicted? The Emmanuel Sithole photographs for instance. There is one where his attacker is raising a knife about to stab. Then a next one where he is crawling with blood on the ground. I felt the second photo could have been avoided.
So many thoughts and questions about all of this.
|1.||By Justice Edwin Cameron, Achille Mbembe, Joao Silva, Justice Malala, Dr. Jean Pierre Misago and Jan Bornman|