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August 12, 2018

The Harsh Realities of Apartheid-Era South Africa Through a Black South African's Lens

In the mid-1960s, photojournalist Ernest Cole undertook a dangerous mission—to produce a volume of photographs that would reveal to the world the excruciating realities of life under apartheid. The result was the groundbreaking book House of Bondage, published in 1967.
“When I say that people can be fired or arrested or abused or whipped or banished for trifles, I am not describing the exceptional case for the sake of being inflammatory. What I say is true – and most white South Africans would acknowledge it freely. They do not pretend these things are not happening. The essential cruelty of the situation is not that all blacks are virtuous and all whites villainous, but that the whites are conditioned not to see anything wrong in the injustices they impose on their black neighbors.” – Ernest Cole, House of Bondage, 1967.
Ernest Cole was born in South Africa’s Transvaal in 1940. His early work chronicled the horrors of apartheid and in 1966 he fled the Republic of South Africa becoming a ‘banned person’. He was briefly associated with Magnum Photographers and received funding from the Ford Foundation and Time-Life. In North America, he concentrated on street photography in primarily urban settings.

Between 1969 and 1971, Cole spent an extensive amount of time on regular visits to Sweden where he became involved with the Tiofoto collective and exhibited his work. From 1972, Cole’s life fell into disarray and he ceased to work as a photographer, losing control of his archive and negatives in the process. Having experienced periods of homelessness, Cole died aged forty-nine of pancreatic cancer in New York City in 1990.

In 2017, more than 60,000 of Cole’s negatives missing for more than forty years were discovered in a Stockholm bank vault. This work is now being examined and catalogued.

City benches were for whites only and were so inscribed. There were no “blacks only” benches in Johannesburg; blacks sat on the curbstones.

Contract-expired miners are on the right, carrying their discharge papers and wearing “European” clothes while new recruits, many in tribal blankets, are on the left.

Handcuffed blacks were arrested for being in a white area illegally.

Earnest boy squats on haunches and strains to follow lesson in heat of packed classroom.

“Penny baas, please, baas, I hungry” This plaint is part of nightly scene in the Golden City, as black boys beg from whites. They may be thrown a coin, or… they may get slapped in the face.

During group medical examination the nude men are herded through a string of doctors’ offices.

A white pocket being picked. Whites are angered if touched by anyone black, but a black hand under the chin is enraging. This man, distracted by his fury, does not realize his back pocket is being rifled. He is allowed to go his way – till next time.

A guest with mother and child.

This was in the bank in the building where he and Cole had their studio. There were separate counters for blacks and whites.

Doornfontein Railway station in rush hour. This picture shows the reality of apartheid without the need for any words.

Servants are not forbidden to love. Woman holding child said, “I love this child, though she’ll grow up to treat me just like her mother does. Now she is innocent.”

Newspapers are her carpet; fruit crates are her chairs and table.

These were recruits. Johannesburg station, South Africa.

Students kneel on floor to write. Government is casual about furnishing schools for blacks.

South Africa. 1960.

After processing, they wait at railroad station for transportation to mine. Identity tag on wrist shows shipment of labor to which man is assigned.

The washing conditions at the mines were primitive. Shower rooms were crowded with men trying to bathe while others did their meagre laundry.

This was probably in Berea, Yeoville or Bellevue; one of the older eastern suburbs of Johannesburg.

The train accelerates with its load of clinging passengers. They ride like this through rain and cold, some for the entire journey.

The relocation of people from Eersterust to Mamelodi.

Which black train to take is matter of guesswork. They have no destination signs and no announcement of arrivals is made. Head car may be numbered to show its route, but number is often wrong. In confusion, passengers sometimes jump across track, and some are killed by express trains.

South Africa. 1960.

People returning after a long day’s work and a train ride from Pretoria. Mamelodi, South Africa.

“We sleep anywhere,” a boy said, “in drainpipes, parks, junk yards, anywhere.” At dawn children lying in a park, shivering.

Living in her “kaya” out back, servant must be on call six days out of seven and seven nights out of seven. She lives a lonely life apart from her family.

This was on the edge of Von Brandis Square, next to the Supreme Court. The municipality had recently installed new underground parking, with toilets.

(© Ernest Cole / Magnum Photos)



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