By Ismail Lagardien
The Wupperthal project is going to take much longer than I anticipated. Very soon I will need the advice of a publisher, or someone who knows a lot more about publishing. I should mention that the one time I did speak to a publisher, Tafelberg, they were terribly rude and dismissive. Perhaps that is the nature of the craft. I will look elsewhere, this time. Let me provide some introductory points about the project.
Pak Huis Pass. The road from Clanwilliam to Wupperthal over the Cederberg Mountains (Copyright – ilagardien©l’engagé)
Late in the Southern winter of 1987, I travelled to Wupperthal, a village that lies deep in a valley of the Cederberg, and stayed there for several weeks. I was a journalist at the time, and South Africa had entered a very dark period; a national state of emergency had been declared and media regulations were especially repressive…. When I do get the book done, the journey and the visit will be situated more fully in its social and historical contexts.
Wupperthal lies about 25 kilometres (as the crow flies) from Clanwilliam – which is a straight drive up along the West Coast of South Africa for a couple of hours – but getting to the village is a difficult 75km trek across two mountain passes, much of which is along dirt roads, over the Cederberg Mountains and down into the valley where the Tra Tra River gently flows besides the fields worked by villagers.
The dirt road into Wupperthal winds down the slopes of the Cederberg and into the valley where the Tra-Tra River flows (Copyright – ilagardien©l’engagé)
The village is home to people whom the state had (first, since the mid 1950s) classified as ‘coloured’, which relegated them to somewhat lesser beings than those classified ‘white’. After 1994, the ruling African National Congress retained apartheid’s racial classification system and continued to relegate ‘coloured’ people to second class status, with restricted social and economic opportunities, when compared to people has classified ‘African’.
While I have not taken the scholarly literature seriously enough, South Africa’s ‘coloured’ people have been described as having been ‘not white enough’ during apartheid and ‘not black enough’ in the contemporary period. One research paper concluded that the coloured community has assumed a type of ‘in-between’ status located between those wielding power, and those with none. Indeed, people now classified ‘coloured’ are increasingly under pressure to surrender any positions of leadership or authority over people classified African. It’s all terribly confusing sometimes, given, especially, the arbitrary nature of racial classification (which is often based on admixture), but always infuriating, but there has been a morality shift that we have to accept….
The problem is that I never actually engaged in ‘coloured’ politics. From my early adult years, I assumed a black political identity and, generally, associated myself with the Black Consciousness Movement. I am, therefore, inadequately equipped to provide any clear insights on ‘coloured’ identity in South Africa. I will leave it to the growing legion of identity brokers in South Africa. They seem to derive great pleasure, and build their intellectual credibility on telling others what race they are, where these others belong in the ordering of society – and what they may or may not say. I am reminded of a passage in Gayatri Spivak’s seminal essay, ‘Can the Sub-Altern Speak’, and which I will mangle in paraphrasing: In some cruel twist of fate, in the context of settler colonial production, the subaltern could not speak until 1994, after which the coloured community, once part of the (subaltern), but now ‘not African’, slipped deep into the shadows of discourse, place and community in South Africa, and now remain silent – simply because they are considered to be ‘non-African’. As the story goes, whereas they were not white enough under apartheid, they are, indeed, not black enough under the current regime. Or, as a friend told me: ‘You coloureds are double-fucked’.
Children in Wupperthal. A generation after my first visit in 1987. (Copyright -ilagardien©l’engagé)
The book will certainly deal with the issue of colouredness, but not directly or on my terms. I don’t care much for it, but, as with race (it may be true that there actually is no such thing as race, it does not mean there are not racists in the world) because I don’t believe in colouredness, it does not mean that there are not people who believe themselves or others to be ‘coloured’, and base their social relationships on this given/adopted identity. The issue will be carried mainly on the voices of the people I photographed 25 years ago – and whom I will photograph again – and the interviews I will conduct with them over the coming months. Let me turn, back, and provide a brief introduction to the story that I will be working on in the coming months – if my day job is not too demanding.
The project, for convenience let us call it The Children of Wupperthal, began somewhat fortuitously. In the Northern winter of 2008/09, I came across some old negatives and pictures that I had kept stored in a box. I began to digitise the pictures and negatives slowly over the next two years. Among them were a set of images I made in Wupperthal. The pictures were mainly of women and children. When I scanned the images, memories of the time they were made flooded my mind. It was a difficult period of my life. I had sought refuge in the village after a few months of difficulty with the security forces who persecuted journalists. There was nothing too dramatic or serious about the problems I had with them; many people lost their lives at the time, so I am wary of sensationalising my own situation…. Nonetheless, as I unpacked and digitized the images, I began to wonder what had happened to all the children I had photographed, and how their lives had changed since I first visited the village.
When I first came back to South Africa in the winter of 2011, I began to make enquiries…. which resulted in my first visit to Wupperthal on 11 October 2013 – almost exactly 25 years after first visiting the place. I have managed to locate two of the young girls I photographed – both are now adults with their own children – spent some time in the village meeting some of the elders, and made a few photographs.
Much as we found during our first visit (I was accompanied at the time, by AGRB, a fellow journalist and close friend), the village had a very deep sense of itself. Today, the people are very much at home in their village, and much like then, they fear that the village may die someday, ‘because the young people don’t want to stay’ in a village that has two SABC TV channels, no 3G signal and which has limited resources. This is almost precisely what I was told during my first visit in 1987.
‘Die dorp gaan vrek,’ one of the elders told me then, for the same reasons.
One big thing that has not changed is this: When I first visited Wupperthal in 1987, the villagers through I was a ‘white man’. When I told the story to one of the young women whom I photograph as a three year-old, we had a laugh – after she asked, in all seriousness: ‘If you’re not white, then what are you.’
On the steps of the only store in Wupperthal. October 2013.
A generation later, Wupperthal is still alive; it’s people still battling on in a village owned, as it were, by the church, and where, in the lexicon of the state, there are no ‘Africans’ and no ‘whites’ just the in-between people…. All of that will be explored and explained in the book. SSK∞