David Goldblatt’s South Africa
Early in 2017, the late photographer David Goldblatt invited me to take a road trip with him through South Africa. We would drive, he said, from the sprawling city of Johannesburg, where he lived, southwards to Cape Town, detouring along the way. Over four days and three nights, we’d stop at the key places where he had produced some of his most celebrated photographic works from the early 1960s on – among them, Some Afrikaners Photographed, and his expansive Structures series, which depicted the natural and built structures of his home country over 35 years. The invitation seemed too good to be true.
David said what kind of traveller I was would determine whether we took the easier or the more challenging route, which included the Swartberg Pass – a treacherous, elevated passage that winds its way up and around the Swartberg mountain range in the Western Cape of South Africa. The view from the top would be a highlight – an extraordinary chain of peaks, folded against one another like dominos.
I asked an artist colleague about the Swartberg Pass. He looked back at me seriously, “Do you like heights?” When I responded with a “Mmm, not really”, he laughed and said, “Well, just don’t look out the window and don’t look down.” It gave me a brief, but only brief, moment for pause. As someone else close to the scene described, it was bound to be the “trip of a lifetime … but slightly hair-raising”.
Travelling with David was an immense privilege. It was also, as it turned out, his final opportunity to drive unhindered right through his country of birth, reviewing the landscapes and memories of his near nine decades along the way. He became sick in late 2017, increasingly so in early 2018, and passed away on June 25 this year, surrounded by his family who loved him dearly.
David was an excellent storyteller. His recall and attention to detail was next to none. He was always honest, and the stories were unvarnished, often laced with anger at injustices witnessed. I learnt so much from him, just listening to him talk as we drove. He was also funny in a wry sort of way; and as those who knew him better would agree, he was definitely not one to suffer fools.
His language could verge on the blue, particularly when there was an errant iPhone involved, or worse, a flat tyre. I can still see him punching away at the tiny keys of his mobile phone during a pit stop along the way, cursing with frustration. He travelled as he lived: simply, with no frills, taking a clear-headed and modest approach. His clarity of vision, both literally and philosophically, was unparalleled.
David was 86 going on 87 when we took our road trip together, yet he navigated with the agility of a man half his age. This was helped by his stringently healthy diet – I could not even tempt him to eat a potato chip, though I tried. Chocolate was another no-no. And yet he loved nothing more than a Shell Ultra City roadhouse stop each morning for cooked breakfast. The staff seemed to know and welcome him, despite the fact we were many miles from his home. He opted for black coffee and eggs with veggies on wholemeal toast. I was particularly taken by the table advertisement for the Cheese Thriller Breakfast but decided not to go there.
His agility was also no doubt the result of so many years on the road: taking photographs in locations that were both safe and unsafe, some relatively easy to access, others near impossible. It took a certain kind of endurance and perseverance that David had to the very end.
We travelled alone, the two of us. Initially I had suggested that a third person accompany us. Ideally, though I did not say this to him, I had someone huge and strong in mind to protect us – a man of nearly 90 and a woman completely unfamiliar with the terrain – from who knows what. My main paranoia was the baboons that perched along the road in the mountains; I’d heard the big males could be particularly aggressive. But David put his foot down, No, and that was that.
David was a tireless chronicler of the people, places, history and landscapes of South Africa. With an unflinching eye he documented the rise of apartheid, its destruction and its aftermath. He often talked about his inability to confront violence head-on. But his photographs are historically and politically resonant, portraying the wider context and conditions in which gross injustice was officially legitimised and perpetuated.
As we drove, David pointed out how apartheid’s devastating legacy lingers today, most noticeably in the townships that were adjacent to every town or city, as a means to separate black from white South Africans. The system may no longer exist, David said, but poverty and inequality continue in post-apartheid South Africa. Violence and widespread corruption are ever present.
We drove through the city of Bloemfontein, stopping at the University of the Free State (UFS) to see works of art on campus, including Willem Boshoff’s Thinking Stone (2010), a 21-tonne granite slab engraved with petroglyphs inspired by those of Driekopseiland, one of the earliest sites of human creativity in the world. This work is the subject of a large colour photograph by David. In explaining its history to me he touched on some of the complexities of teaching institutions and racial integration, post-apartheid. A university for white South Africans under apartheid, UFS began to accept black South African students following its dismantling in the 1990s. But as the student body grew, and black students outnumbered white, racial strife ensued. Tensions culminated in 2018 with campus riots, which were in response to the release of a video that documented the abuse of black workers on campus, who were seen to eat food that had been urinated on by white students.
Driving south along the national highway, we crossed the central heartland of the country known as the Karoo – a vast, semi-arid region that, visually, is strikingly similar to Australia in terms of its land formations, geology and flora. We passed through Beaufort West, too, home to a massive roundabout that housed, in its centre, a giant, circular prison that all passing vehicles drove around.
David told me a story about a young teenager who was apprehended and sent before the court, where he received an unusually harsh sentence. The small details of the court scene stay with me – a boy with his mother, both desperate and poor, he in a fresh-pressed suit. Distressed by the boy’s treatment, David tried to intervene but was rebuffed. He later sought to support the boy to study during his incarceration, but to no avail. Prison reform and prisoner rehabilitation became something David was passionate about. It was reflected in his Ex-Offenders series, which combined portrait images with often harrowing testimony.
In the Swartberg Pass, we headed off the asphalt onto an unpaved, rocky 48-kilometre stretch of road with the unfortunate name “Die Hel”. Enter at your own risk, warned a battered sign at the turnoff. We continued on to a small, fertile valley hidden in the bosom of the mountains called Gamkaskloof, or “the lion’s cleft”. There, hidden from the rest of the world, lived a community of Afrikaner citrus growers whom David had photographed twice in 1966 and 1967. Only three families are left working the land today, the descendants of the people in David’s photographs. They grow – and pickle or preserve – most of their food and have no electrical power or phone line. It is an isolated, hardworking but strangely idyllic existence.
One farmer was writing a history of the community and had been in touch with David about accessing images of his parents and grandparents. He and his wife kindly put us up in their visitors’ hut overnight. I had a rather fitful sleep, due mostly to my lurking – perhaps unreasonable – baboon fear and the hut’s flimsy locks. We drove carefully back out through the mountains the next day, and I soon understood the warning sign. Our tyre was shredded and we were left with no mobile reception, two unworkable jacks and no hope of help from a passing car for hours at least. After much cursing – not by me – help did eventually arrive, in the form of a passing group of Afrikaner farmers. They made quick work of changing the tyre as David and I watched.
I returned to South Africa in early April this year with a journalist colleague from Sydney when David was in the final stages of his illness. He was in good spirits though, and we set out for a day trip to Randfontein, the former goldmining town where he was born and raised. His dear friend Thabo was at the wheel. David pointed out the building that had once housed his family’s clothing business, where the homes of his parents and grandparents would have been and other small memories. We were silent and reflective as we left.
We also made a final visit to the sprawling township of Soweto, which was pulsating with fraught energy in response to the passing of “Mother of the Nation” Winnie Madikizela-Mandela just a few days earlier. Black, green and gold African National Congress flags were flying everywhere, women were ululating rhythmically in mourning and the police presence was high. We made one of several stops at Freedom Square, which had been paved over and renamed the Walter Sisulu Square. We spoke about the Freedom Charter for a non-racial, democratic South Africa that had been drawn up there in 1955, about how much the country had changed since, and where it might head in the future.
Rachel Kent is the curator of David Goldblatt: Photographs 1948–2018, at the MCA Australia from October 19 to March 3.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 13, 2018 as "Clarity of vision". Subscribe here.