Thokoza looks back at its 'bang bang' days

'For the poor it's still a shitty life. These people feel betrayed. And they were betrayed, and are being betrayed'

The brutal fighting between the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party has ended, but other than that the place in Thokoza where Greg Marinovich was shot hasn’t changed much.

Residents of Thokoza, a poor township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, are no longer confined there by South Africa’s apartheid laws, which were formally repealed 20 years ago, on June 30, 1991.

But they are still separated from the metropolitan area by a chasm of class, education and culture — just as they were when Marinovich, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, was shot in the chest covering the violence that erupted in the dying days of white-minority rule.

“Physically it hasn’t changed much. I go there quite regularly, and it really looks the same. People still live in very similar circumstances,” Marinovich told AFP.

“The hostels are still grim and dreadful and filthy. The squatter camps are still squatter camps.”   

Marinovich is a member of the so-called “Bang-Bang Club”, a group of South African photojournalists who rose to fame chronicling the violence that gripped the country’s townships in the late 1980s and early 90s.

The group documented the violence between Nelson Mandela’s ANC and Inkatha, a rival movement founded by ethnic Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, whose Johannesburg supporters were mostly migrants living in decrepit worker hostels.

Their photos cast a spotlight on the seemingly senseless “black-on-black” violence — later revealed to have been sponsored in large part by the apartheid regime.

Two decades ago Thursday, South Africa repealed apartheid’s legal framework with the Abolition of Racially Based Land Measures Bill. The law revoked the 1913 Black Land Act, the 1966 Group Areas Act, the 1984 Black Communities Development Act and other laws that  had separated blacks from whites.

For the Bang-Bang Club, as for the township fighters they photographed, the legacy is an ambiguous one.

Marinovich and three of his colleagues are the subject of a new film starring Ryan Phillippe, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in April and has its South African premiere next month. While the conflict launched their careers and brought them renown, they paid a heavy price for membership in the informal “club”.

Marinovich has since retired from war photography, and is at work on a documentary film following the lives of the men who fought in the “Hostel Wars”.

Today, Thokoza’s worker hostels are still desolate and impoverished.

Instead of fighting, groups of young men now spend their days clustered around improvised card tables or lifting weights, fighting off boredom in a country where one in four workers is unemployed.

A hostel on the road where Marinovich and Oosterbroek were shot is plastered with grimy campaign posters left over from local elections in May, flashing an ANC slogan — “Together we can build better communities” — next to a smiling President Jacob Zuma.

“They take us to vote, they say, vote for IFP or ANC, we can make a better life. But after you vote, you can’t say anything. You  receive nothing,” says David Hlatshwayo, 21, a high school graduate  who has been unable to find a job.

Democracy has seen the rise of a black South African middle class, and some black townships, like Soweto — home to Mandela and  fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu — have gone on to become neatly groomed neighbourhoods with shopping malls and cinemas.

The ANC government has built 2.3 million homes, expanded water and electrical lines, and overseen a steadily growing economy. But nearly one in four South Africans still lives in shack. Nearly one in five has no electricity.

Samson Mdlalose, 55, an IFP supporter in Thokoza who still bears  the scars of being shot in the leg by police trying to break up a township battle, says he feels democracy has left him and his neighbours behind.

“Since Nelson Mandela came out of (prison) till now, the hostels are poor,” says Mdlalose, who scrapes out a living as a traditional  herbalist.

“There are no job opportunities.... All South Africa’s hungry.”   

For Marinovich, democracy has still not undone the country’s deep divisions.

“It used to be class based on race, and now it’s just class based on class. I suppose that’s normal. We should be grateful,” he says. “But for the poor it’s still a shitty life. These people feel betrayed. And they were betrayed, and are being betrayed.”  - Sapa-AFP