By James Oatway
“Here we go again.”
That dreaded phrase…
It’s Monday night and I’m in Jeppestown. I’m standing in a street surrounded by filth, staring at “Wolhuter Native Men’s Hostel”. I’m watching police fire rubber bullets at the residents. The complex is better known as “Jeppe Hostel”. The word “Native” has been painted over but you can still see it. It is a macabre monument to slave labour. A structure that shouldn’t be there. The hostel is home to thousands of mostly male, Zulu migrants from rural KZN. Many are proud, dignified and law abiding South Africans. All are products of extreme poverty and a criminally inept rural schooling system. The lucky ones struggle to eke out an existence as security guards or taxi drivers. Others turn to crime. Tonight the walls struggle to hold back a seething mob with the scent of blood in their nostrils. I was here in 2015 watching similar events play out. Surrounded by the same squalor… although the whole area seems to be filthier now than it was then. More rats this time around. Brazen fuckers, barely bothering to run away when confronted. The same violent scenes in the same depressing areas.
In 2015 I remember photographing a mob outside Jeppe Hostel. They were putting on a real show and were cursing and taunting the media mob, launching mock attacks with an array of crude home-made and traditional weapons. I remember a sweaty man in a leopard vest angrily wielding a knobkerrie. A few hours later I recognized the same man pushing his way through the mob. He had transformed. He was no longer a crazed thug. Now he looked fresh and clean. He was neatly dressed in grey trousers, black shiny shoes, a blue jersey with red trimmings and a red tie. I watched him as he walked up the street towards the main road. He was off to his day job as a security guard. Probably to protect someone like me from someone like him.
The next day I found myself in Alexandra witnessing some other young, hostel-dwelling men murdering a Mozambican man called Emmanuel Sithole. In 2008, seven years before the attack on Sithole, I spent many hours cruising up and down the streets in the very same area, ironically nicknamed Pan (as in Pan-Africa), photographing xenophobic attacks. Not much had changed since then. Even now sewerage leaks into the streets from rows of plastic bucket toilets. Residents queue up next to the few taps to fill buckets with water. The same violent scenes in the same depressing areas. Nothing changes except the kids get older and angrier.
Surely it’s not a coincidence that the most brutal attacks on migrants take place in areas where poverty is the worst? Khayalitsha, Ramaphosa informal settlement, Primrose informal settlement, Zandspruit, Diepsloot, Alex, Jeppe. These are all places where it’s not easy to live. These are places where poor South Africans feel let down and forgotten. The same violent scenes in the same depressing areas.
The last two weeks I’ve been walking around with a stomach knotted with tension. Absent minded, heart palpitations, panic attacks… the works. This happens to me every time there are rumours of violence. I feel suffocated by dread as I remember the gory details of the attacks I have witnessed. I feel angry and frustrated that we allow these attacks to continue. Once again there’ll be some or other bullshit commission of inquiry that produces inconclusive findings. The government will once again deny that it’s xenophobia. People will rage on twitter for a few days. And then it’s over. Until the next time.
The pictures I took of Emmanuel Sithole’s death were difficult to look at. They were painful. They were offensive. They were powerful because they put faces to the controversial word, Xenophobia. The face of the attacker. The face of the victim. Familiar faces. I’ve decided to shoot a series of portraits of migrant Africans living in Johannesburg to again put faces to a controversial word: Foreigners. It’s a simple project… portraits of people shot in context. I’m hoping that we can look at these pictures and see humans and that we can see more similarities than differences.
Main Image April 17, 2015. An Induna commands a mob outside “Jeppe” Hostel in Johannesburg. Picture: JAMES OATWAY
James Oatway is an independent South African photographer.
The former Chief Photographer and Picture Editor of the Sunday Times newspaper, he has been freelancing since 2016. He has covered many important stories in South Africa and abroad, but has a special interest in telling under-reported stories in Africa.