It’s no surprise the presence of journalists changes a situation. The press not only provides an audience for acts of violence, but also an impetus for it. This is most often evidenced in situations where a pack of media wolves descends on a moment of news significance. At Jeppe hostel in Johannesburg last Friday night, the actors gathered on the street. The hostel dweller is not just a member of “the mob”, but a player in a drama – cast as warrior-villain, as demon (as savage?). The photographer, the reporter, is there too as a player in the drama – not only as witness, not necessarily as director, but often as co-conspirator – the hero. Most often this manifests in a not unconscious act that underlies the most informal arrangement of photographers: not to get in each other’s “frame”. Breaking the line is frowned upon, and often fiercely policed by the photographers themselves. Many iconic moments in the canon of photography are not a true reflection of the events they claim to depict because the presence of the media has been removed. Each newsmaker on the scene is actively working with every other newsmaker to remove their presence. The Con’s Lloyd Gedye and Dean Hutton tell the story from an insider’s perspective, not as a glimpse into the media story but as a more conscious reporting of an event in which everyone present is complicit in the performance of violence.
We approach the Jeppe men’s hostel from the west, travelling along Wolhuter Street. Four snappers (photographers) and a scribbler (writer) are packed into a battered old 4X4 that was clearly manufactured in the days before the American term “SUV” invaded South Africa’s lexicon.
Our driver, a European intern at one of South Africa’s weekly national newspapers, doesn’t even see the heavy-set member of the South African Police Service waving him down. We are so busy looking ahead at the burnt-out car wreck from the previous night’s violence lying abandoned in the street, stripped of all its value by scrap dealers throughout Friday.
The intern reverses back to beyond what the police have designated as a safe distance from the hostel. There is not a journalist in sight. We head one block north to Hanau Street and turn right. Then all we can see are journalists. And cops.
The intern turns right into Hans Street and parks. He is immediately confronted by some fellow snappers. “Don’t park here,” one offers breathlessly. “If they come out of the hostel, they’ll come straight down here.” It’s said with such authority one almost feels like the photographer in question has a direct line to the hostel dwellers.
At the end of Hans Street, the hostel is clearly visible, although things look quiet.
We hop out as the intern parks the car back down Hanau Street. It’s 4.30pm on Friday afternoon and at the intersection of Hanau and Hans; small groups of journalists stand around chatting, their boots and takkies crunching through a layer of burnt barricades from the past few days. Writing on the wall warns, “We don’t want Maboneng” in white spray paint.
Off to the side stand a handful of police, biding their time, what they would probably call “monitoring the situation”. Many hostel dwellers pass us on the street on their way home from work. Some carry bottles of booze, some try to bum cigarettes from journalists, and three women walk past carrying a speaker and a mixing desk, one assumes for some kind of party in the hostel tonight.
We have all the photographer tropes here: the big men for the wires; the stringy nervous ones sucking on a chain of Peter Stuyvesants; the young Bang Bangers, heirs to the original dawn patrol; legendary João Silva is here; and a handful of fresh-faced, rosy-cheeked newcomers packing a bunch of bravado.
Just after 5pm, singing and chanting can be heard coming from the hostel.
It’s like a mating call to journalists as they all begin to hurry down Hans Street towards the hostel. As they reach Wolhuter Street, one photographer turns to another and says, “Considerate of them to wait until the light is good”. His colleague chuckles.
Out the front of the hostel, more than 100 men have gathered. The stairs that run up the west side of the hostel are packed with men, and the rooftop too. The photographers go to work trying to capture “the mob” as they sing and toyi-toyi outside the hostel entrance.
Many are dressed in jeans, tracksuits and bucket hats; some are wearing the blue overalls of the South African working class. Most are brandishing weapons, which range from empty Heineken bottles and pieces of wood to knobkerries and axes, with a few sharpened umbrella poles and pangas thrown in.
As the photographers edge closer, looking for the perfect shot to express the rage and violence of “the mob”, the hostel dwellers become more animated. Every now and then, one will charge out of the crowd towards a photographer, brandishing a makeshift weapon menacingly, perhaps hoping for a front-page feature tomorrow morning.
This dance continues for about 20 minutes or so. The photographers are already a bit bored, and are now mostly standing around chatting. Then scribblers and snappers are scrambling for cover as rocks begin to rain down on them from the hostel. Hostel dwellers on the roof laugh as the media scatters. It feels like a warning: “Don’t get too close. Don’t get too familiar. You are needed here, but we will decide when you are expendable.”
Nobody is hit, but the mood becomes tenser. The journalists have been made aware of their lack of power in this dance – they may be documenting, but they are not the choreographers.
One hostel dweller, dressed in blue jeans rolled up to just below the knee, a grey tracksuit top and a white cap bolts from the crowd, running menacingly at the photographers. As he reaches them, he begins to slam what looks like a large metal peg used to erect marquees against the ground. He runs sideways, heaving the peg into the ground. He is demarcating a line for the photographers, a line they should not cross.
Some of the senior black photographers begin to retreat. One says the hostel dwellers are saying the journalists are not welcome. An elderly man in red overalls is yelling at the journalists and police. “Voetsek! Voetsek! Voetsek!” he screams, gesticulating with his arm.
As the message spreads, more and more journalists begin to fall back. Soon everybody has retreated back to Hanau Street. It’s 6pm, and more police are arriving. “They are changing shift,” says one journalist as way of explanation.
We decide to head out to see whether there is any looting going on in the surrounding suburbs.
We arrive back at the corner of Hans and Hanau streets a few hours later. The police are still present. Two black SAPS minivans are parked in Hans Street.
Police officers are putting on bulletproof vests. It seems something is happening.
They tie a piece of police tape across Hans Street and sit behind it. Journalists who are still waiting say that the police have blocked off all other access routes to the hostel. They are trying to police one access point – Hans Street.
Many hostel dwellers are still passing the police and journalists on the way to the hostel. A journalist who works for a radio station says the police are letting people into the hostel, but nobody is allowed out. Another says the police say the hostel dwellers want to go to Hillbrow and attack the Nigerians.
Many young men wander up to the tape from the hostel and are rather rudely turned around by police holding shotguns. Some just turn on their heels, but others stare at the police, their eyes clearly stating their anger. Some even challenge the police. “Brave bastard,” one of the cops is heard muttering. The hostel is under house arrest, it seems.
Then some of the journalists notice smoke billowing up about a block away, close to the hostel. “What is on fire?” one young journalist asks.
“It could be a tyre,” answers another older more experienced hack.
“That’s too much smoke for a tyre,” replies a third.
“Tyres can make a lot of smoke,” responds the experienced hack, not wanting to be undermined.
Soon a journalist returns from a conversation with a police officer and claims a building is on fire. This fact, unverified by any of the journalists, probably made its way into countless live crossings on television and radio last Friday night.
And then, all of a sudden, all hell breaks loose. Police officers carrying shotguns run east down Hanau Street towards Karl Street. At the same time, some hostel dwellers charge down Hans Street, determined to challenge the police lockdown. It sounds like gunfire is being exchanged, and a few petrol bombs burn on Wolhuter Street.
The police hide behind walls on Hanua Street, peering down Hans Street to see what is happening. Behind them are crouched photographers and videographers trying to get shots of the approaching hostel dwellers. The police retreat further back down Hans Street. Journalists move their cars down the block.
The police start loading up an Nyala and take off down Hans Street, firing rubber bullets into the crowd of hostel dwellers gathered on Wolhuter Street. When the Nyala returns, it looks like it has taken a severe bearing, stripped of paint by all the rocks smashed into it.
The police have become a lot more agitated; they forcefully shove pedestrians to the ground, searching them for weapons and rocks as they pass by. As each passer-by is forcibly searched, a pack of photographers and videographers swarms around the cops, desperate to get in on the action.
Back on Wolhuter Street, the hostel dwellers create new barricades. They have dragged the burnt-out old car in front of the hostel and set it alight again. At one point, a group of about six officers in bulletproof vests, carrying shotguns, starts to walk down Hans Street, creeping along the walls. The journalists, sensing action, begin to follow.
Suddenly the lead officer turns around, takes a few steps back and begins to berate a number of cameramen who are shining lights on him from their cameras as they follow down Hans Street. The lit-up officers are sitting ducks. The lights go off and the procession continues down Hans Street – six armed policemen and a pack of almost 20 journalists. After some more gunfire, the police and journalists make their way back down Hans Street.
Later, a small group of photographers tries to sneak closer to the burning barricades, hunting that ‘if your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough’ moment, but slowly, skittishly, because no amount of clicks is worth a brick to the brain. The hostel dwellers seem oblivious to the stalking photographers for a while, then suddenly a yell rings out and the group turns tail and sprints back to the safety of the police line.
We decide to take a drive around the corner. Back on Wolhuter Street, we find the police have not blocked off all other access points, as the journalist pack believes. Taxis drive in and out along the street. At one point, a taxi comes along pushed by about five men, half carrying shields and spears, trying to push-start the taxi. It barely splutters.
They push it up to a Metro cop van and ask for a jump-start. The traffic officers chat for a while and abruptly drive off. We leave as well; it seems pretty dumb to keep sitting in a well-lit street a block away from stalking death.
Dean Hutton presents a wide selection of the images made that day, some showing multiple framings of the same ‘moment’. All gifs and photographs © Dean Hutton