A few months ago while preparing to launch Shots011; I visited the home of World Press Award winner Jodi Bieber for the first interview to be shared on this very site. After we wrapped up the interview, Jodi and I continued to speak at length about the direction and vision I had for the website and how it fit into my life and quest to establish myself as a thought leader in the photography industry.
Seeing potential, the lovely Jodi shared some parting gift with me in the form of signed copies of all three of her books. I had went there looking for a captivating interview to allow me to launch the site with a bang but I left with something even more valuable, the copies of Between Dogs and Wolves, Soweto and Real Beauty.
With the books weighing heavy on my back-pack, it was all-systems go! A few months later, I am now looking back and reflecting on her 2nd of three offerings, Soweto.
A Symbol of Change
For Jodi, the idea for Soweto came about when a friend told her that there were very few contemporary books about Soweto and with the 2010 world cup slowly approaching, a contemporary book about Soweto seemed a must for the Photo-journalist who had been photographing the township since 1994. “Fast forward a couple years and I knew some things had certainly changed”, she says about her visit to the esteemed Maponya Mall in 2009. To a large extent, Jodi felt that the township was in a transitional period and in her mind, this was “a symbol of change and normality. It was an image rarely portrayed in the international media on South Africa” she adds.
The cover itself features an image I like to call the Madonna of The Pool; which is a young lady gracing the Orlando West Swimming Pool with her presence and giving the photographer a striking pose. Everyone else around her seems to be animated in their own excitement but the young lady uses the distance between the pools like a runway and she stops for a pose. Her swimming costume, scarf around her waist, and posture are something that could be seen on a cover of a magazine – or a book called Soweto. The image is clearly one of Jodi’s favourite as it hangs at the centre of her living room at her home in Melrose.
With an intro by South African author and Soweto born Niq Mhlongo, the book walks us through Soweto and its people, the different individuals and their different values and beliefs. Because of its rich history, Sowetans have, over the years, become the unofficial pioneers of cutting edge trend setting in South Africa. We see this in brands like Thesis (a local clothing brand) that have disrupted the status quo and really challenged all that we know about local business, brands and trend setting.
A Sense of Ubuntu and Communal Living
Although Jodi’s aim is to capture the uniqueness of Soweto, I feel what makes Soweto is not a uniqueness particularly found in Soweto. The four roomed houses with the toilets outside and the hostels that served as barracks in the heyday of mining in the golden city are a characteristic of Soweto which can also be found in townships like Tembisa and Vosloorus or even Thokoza. In addition, the sense of Ubuntu and communal based living are some of the things that resonate around townships surrounding industrial areas of Gauteng and the rest of the country.
The Welcome Dover stove in the kitchens, which often fitted with zinc cupboards, remind me of my Grandmother’s house in Tembisa. My cousins Bajo, Jabu or Refiloe and I would curl up next to the warm stove on our winter school holidays, family gatherings, weddings or funerals. The zinc cupboards, which are light enough to shift around the house and the large pots on top, come in handy when the house is rearranged to accommodate, cook for, and serve guests. We celebrate together and we all mourn together, community, family, and friends.
Some of the images reminded me of people that added to the tapestry of my township experience, an example being Bra Andrew Sithebe on page 128 who reminded me of Bra ‘Smang-mang’ (so and so), up the road who always looked clean with nowhere to go. The tales of these men are always clouded with mystery and myth as to what their night time activities are and how they can afford the expensive European Brands like Gucci or Prada that they rock routinely. The Bra Andrew’s of the various townships are also responsible for passing on the oral lineage of Tsotsi-taal (the township slang) and their great fashion sense which often bridges the generational gap between their generation, ours and the next.
With Soweto and the various townships carrying similar traits there is one thing that holds true about all Sowetans; a great many of them carry themselves with a sense of pre-destined greatness. For them, it is as if being born in Soweto – “Bara Babbies”, a name they call themselves which is adapted from the well-known Baragwanath Hospital in Orlando – is a birth-right into greatness, superstardom, fame, and/or success. I too would carry myself this way if I was born on land which most of our country’s history is written on.
Moreover, Soweto is also home to two of the country’s biggest soccer teams, Orlando Pirates and its spawn Kaizer Chiefs. With the two teams being from Soweto this warrants bragging rights among soccer fans and fuels their rivalry. Jodi captures aptly the length with which supporters of the rival teams are willing to go to show their support, even as far as painting their entire houses in their team’s colours. With the Orlando Pirates house shown before the Kaizer Chief’s house on page 108 and 110 respectively, is it safe for one to speculate that Jodi may be a Pirates fan?
I have never lived in Soweto but I have family and friends that I visit. Each visit feels like seeing the place anew, much like how Jodi captures this in the book. The thing about Soweto is that unless you are a permanent resident of the area, the township forever remains an enigma and often feels like you are an outsider looking in. No matter how many places or the number of times one may visit Soweto, nothing ever feels stagnant. The township is always reinventing itself and its narrative and I think Jodi has been able to capture that.
How will Soweto look in the next five years? No one knows, I don’t think Sowetans know either, but it is always interesting to watch and see what they have to say as a generation and landmark of South African history.
I would also like to take this opportunity to say thank you, again, to Jodi for the gift and faith. Your belief and advices will forever live on and carry me throughout my career. May the universe continually grant you all of your heart’s desires. THANK YOU