Tag Archives: South Africa

Portraits to last a lifetime

African photography is on the rise. Following decades of photographic misrepresentation by observers from outside the continent, African photographers are now showing the world what they see through their lens. This is Africa spotlights them in a series of interviews.

When South African photographer Alexia Webster visited Sudan in 2006, a specific situation opened her eyes. While on assignment for a big international media company she wanted to make a story about hiphop in the capital city of Khartoum, but her editors didn’t think it would fit into the image their audience has of the country as war torn and impoverished. On her next assignment, in a refugee camp in Kenya, a refugee came up to her and asked when he was going to see the images she shot. “I had to be honest and tell him, probably never. I knew that the photos would never get back to him.” The man became upset, telling her that he had been in the camp for over 15 years and didn’t have any images of himself or his family. “Foreign photographers had been coming in and out of the camp all the time taking photographs without sharing them”, Webster explains. “He was justifiably frustrated.” From this experience the idea for the ‘Street Studio Project’ was born. The project creates outdoor family portrait studios in public spaces and invites anyone to come have their portrait taken. Webster has a portable printer on site and prints the photographs for free for people to take home with them. She wanted to return these images, ‘treasures’, to the people she photographed.


“In the context of a refugee camp it can really mean a lot to have your photograph taken with your loved ones and to get to keep a copy”, Webster explains. About halfway through her photographic career she got frustrated with how her photography was reflecting her continent. She wanted to make a change herself and this project hopefully is the first step. “Especially in places where life is so disrupted, a family portrait can have such a big resonance and importance.” Creating open air studios in refugee camps proved difficult at times, but in the end it was always worth the effort. Webster started out in Woodstock, Cape Town with her first Street Studio. “People were lining up non stop for the two days I was out there.” After five other locations in her home country she managed to get funding and take the project abroad. Alexia has managed to bring her outdoor studio to Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.


For Webster, who studied photography in New York and did a course at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg, it’s not so much about what her audience thinks about her photography, but her subjects. “The intention is different; it is not for others to get a better understanding, but quite simply to provide family portraits.”

With documentary photography Webster sees the potential to transform peoples opinion about her subjects and the world around them. “I do believe that the more positive images we put in the media, the more optimistically people will look at the world and the more potential there is to transform things. Negativity feeds negativity and we don’t need more of that in the African continent.”

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Breaking the cycle of negative stereotypical images

African photography is on the rise. Following decades of photographic misrepresentation by observers from outside the continent, African photographers are now showing the world what they see through their lenses. This is Africa spotlights them in a series of interviews. 

It is lucky that South African photographer Barry Christianson got bored on vacation when he was younger, otherwise he might never have picked up a camera. From the moment he did, back in 1998, and spent all his pocket money on buying and processing film, he was hooked. “I was just sixteen back then, but I knew right away I wanted to keep on doing photography”, he said. “But because film and processing is expensive I needed to get a part time job, next to studying, to keep on shooting. Luckily I had the chance to buy a digital camera in 2011, which gave me the opportunity to shoot as much as I wanted.” Though he doesn’t yet work as a professional photographer and his work is not being published or shown in galleries, he plans to do so in the future and is currently part of the ‘Everyday Africa’ network, which provides his photography with a wide reach via the social media platform for images of daily life on the continent.

barry-135508 barry-170022

No conscious effort

Christianson, who has always lived in Cape Town, is now working as a web developer, which helps fund his photography. While walking the streets of his hometown he likes to capture intimate moments quietly; moments that otherwise would go unnoticed. He tries to reveal something unrecognized with his photographs of the deeply familiar.

“On the one hand I rarely make a conscious effort to go out and photograph. I enjoy photographing situations I just encounter, in environments I’m familiar with. So if it’s foggy outside, I will take a stroll and make some photographs. Other times it’s basically just what catches my eye in an everyday moment. By doing this I try to have people look at familiar situations differently I suppose, but that doesn’t happen on purpose.”




According to Christianson, it’s very easy to live in Cape Town or look at pictures of Cape Town and actually never get a proper sense of the city. He tries to show his images of everyday people using the city for their own needs. Not only does he upload them to his own Instagram, but he also runs a separate channel to show this view of Cape Town.  “I avoid perpetuating stereotypes that get perpetuated all too often. I have become aware of how certain images get burned into our imagination. And so when we see those images while photographing we reproduce them unconsciously, and we in turn perpetuate that cycle of bad stereotypical images. I try to show images that people from Cape Town will recognise as being from here, not the kind of marketing that is aimed at overseas visitors.”


Mitchells Plain

Growing up in the coloured township of Mitchells Plain, Christianson recently saw a bunch of images made by an overseas visitor in a predominantly coloured area. For the first time he felt what it was like to be objectified as a so-called coloured person. “I found the experience really interesting. Cape Town is a very racially segregated city. During Apartheid you had white, coloured and black areas with no mixing. Since the end of Apartheid the restrictions were lifted but the economic barriers remain as the economy is still divided in terms of race. So you still get predominantly coloured, black and white areas.” Back in 2013 he photographed the Marikana protest and afterwards decided he wanted to see the site Capetonians – consisting of two remaining shacks and a tent – for himself. He didn’t want the people to look like victims, but Christianson had the intention to show their sadness and trepidation, caused by the Anti-Land Invasion Unit that illegally demolished their dwellings. “You can see the outline of Table Mountain, the city’s claim to fame, in many of the photos. In this case it is a reminder that the City of Cape Town’s slogan ‘This city works or you’ does not apply to all residents. As a photographer I can only try to portray a truer narrative.”

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Unstructured Image of South Africa

African photography is on the rise. Following decades of photographic misrepresentation by observers from outside the continent, African photographers are now showing the world what they see through their lens. This is Africa spotlights them in a series of interviews. 

To be honest, Graeme Williams actually became a photo journalist by default. He was always more interested in doing his own documentary (long term) projects, but the situation in his home country of South Africa dragged him into a flow in which he suddenly found himself working for Reuters. That was back in 1989 and after having spend a year in London, the Cape Town born photographer was covering South Africa’s transition to ANC rule. “The plan was to go to Joburg for two years, but I’m here for over two decades already”, Graeme says. He moved there because it’s the place to be when things are happening in South Africa and you can be sure that if they happen there, they will spread across the nation. “Of course in that time it was also the place for great political change and a turning point for South Africa as a whole.” He admits that Cape town is a beautiful place to live, but for a photographer Johannesburg is much more interesting.

Johannesburg. From the series A city refracted. 2013. Johannesburg. From the series A city refracted. 2013. Johannesburg. From the series A city refracted. As the grass grows 08

A city refracted

Everyday was a nice challenge back in those days and the work he did during that period is not housed in the permanent collections of The Smithsonian, The South African National Gallery, The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and Cape Town University amongst others. “In 2013 I was awarded the POPCAP Prize for Contemporary African Photography as well as the Ernest Cole Book award for the series, ‘A city refracted’.” The fact that photographic assignments have taken Graeme to fifty countries and that he has been published in major publications worldwide like National Geographic Magazine, Time, Newsweek and The New York Times Magazine, didn’t change his passion for South Africa though. Nowadays he finally has time to work on his own projects, to show a side of his country he wants to shine light on.

As the grass grows 09

Soweto 2006. From the series, The Edge of Town
 Graeme Williams13


“Where in the nineties it was about hard news, I now focus on aspects of society in an abstract way. I try to move away from what is happening at the moment and show more of a global view that evokes a feeling with the viewer.” It’s not a direct story Graeme is after, rather than it step back and look for a visually aesthetic way of portraying aspects that interest him. Take the series ‘A city refracted’ mentioned earlier for example. Instead of focussing on a single situation that occurred in the inner city of Joburg, he tried to capture his own feeling on being an outsider in a neighborhood that is less then ten minutes drive away from his home. Capturing the increasing social polarization isn’t something that can be done in a single shot; Graeme actually had to change his viewpoint from that of a local to that of a foreigner. “The images are unstructured and the content of the frame is at times seemingly random”, he explains. “Many of the images are blurred by movement or have a limited field of focus. The images therefore take on a dreamlike appearance resonant with the sense of disorientation tourists might experience when finding themselves surrounded by a foreign culture.”
Glen Cowie, 2005. South Africa. From the series: The Edge of Town.

Graeme Williams20
 Hanover. 2006. South Africa. From the series: The Edge of Town.

Born Frees

Reason for this way of working is the visual overload that makes us numb to feel emotions, according to Graeme. “There is too much information available. Therefore it’s losing it’s impact because of the intensity.” His own projects aren’t linear, but evolve around something bigger than a single subject. For another series ‘As the grass grows’, he focuses on young South Africans, who were born after the end of apartheid in a democratic South Africa. Therefore this group of young voters have been nicknamed ‘Born Frees’. “Paradoxically, the country’s unemployment rate has increased steadily over the past two decades providing little hope of employment for many millions of young South Africans, despite being born free. I wanted to give people a look into the lives of this group, to understand and learn.”

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South Africa through personal experiences

African photography is on the rise. Following decades of photographic misrepresentation by observers from outside the continent, African photographers are now showing the world what they see through their lens. This is Africa spotlights them in a series of interviews.

“It can be considered that as a South African growing up within a changing political and social environment these transitional facets are influential. Upbringing, tradition, religion and family can all play a role in ones own identity and conscience when exploring various societal dynamics through photography”, Ilan Godfrey says. The photographer from Johannesburg is born is 1980 and lives in Cape Town at the moment, but most of his photographic series still evolve around his hometown. His focus is mainly on subjects transpired out of personal experiences and life events, like ‘Louis Botha Avenue’ and ‘Living With Crime’.

Living With Crime Living With Crime

Cross section

“It was on initiation of these projects that social, economical, geographical and historical themes began to surface”, he explains. “They bring to the fore various elements that engage with South Africa on multiple levels and that shift in relation to the narratives I am compiling. With most of my personal work I strive to reveal a more contemplative and honest explorations of life within the seams.” Ilan strives to focus on a cross section of South Africa, all classes, races, religions and cultures. “So I am ultimately bringing together all South Africans through new avenues of story telling where possible.”

Living With Crime

Living With Crime

‘Living With Crime’

The untold stories that don’t make the headlines, those deserve supplementary exploration and expansion according to Ilan. Drawing together various layers that reveal the good and the bad sides of South Africa. “My brush strokes are broad and tangential incorporating characteristics of our changing society in one-way or another.” His first series, ‘Living With Crime’, reflects back to the decade of the 1980s; one of the most violent periods in South African history. “This period was characterized by the extensive use of force by the South African state and those opposing. By the 1990s, the term ‘culture of violence’ was frequently used to describe the conflict that shrouded South African society. The nature of this violence bled into all parts of public life, undermining the ethical, and social fabric of society.

“What the images in this series represent are various communities in South Africa that have been affected by crime, who have survived a horrible ordeal or have had to live with the loss of a loved one due to crime. And through my work they will have the opportunity to express their feelings of sadness and anger as they struggle to come to terms with the psychological and emotional impact of their loss and that much in their current structural situation remains unchanged for instance the architectural environment they live in, with the constant threat of recurring crime.”

Louis Botha Avenue Louis Botha Avenue

‘Louis Botha Avenue’

After this series Ilan was concerned with photographing Louis Botha Avenue, a major street in Johannesburg. Botha however believed in maintaining black traditions and in totally segregating black and white, except where black people were needed as workers. “In post-apartheid South Africa, divisions and historical facets are transforming within a new urban democracy. The council announced its intention to replace apartheid street names with names that reflect the country’s democracy, freedom and cultural diversity. This series can be seen as a time-line of change that represents the reconstruction of what is old into what is new. Reflected are the subtle and extreme changes that diversify and alienate me in a place I once knew and now try to understand. ‘Louis Botha Avenue’ reveals a chapter in my life as a youth but also a microcosm of Johannesburg as a city of extremes.”

Louis Botha Avenue

The mine

More recently Ilan focussed on South Africa’s demand for gold, diamonds, coal and platinum, that for more than a century has gone from strength to strength, often shifting in accordance with the political economy and the availability of foreign markets. Mineral exploitation by means of cheap and disposable labour has brought national economic growth, making the mining industry the largest industrial sector in South Africa. “The mine”, irrespective of the particular minerals extracted Ilan explains, “is central to understanding societal change across the country and evidently comparable to mining concerns around the world. This enabled me to channel my conception of ‘the mine’ into visual representations that gave agency to these forgotten communities. The countless stories of personal suffering are brought to the surface and the legacy of ‘the mine’ is revealed.”

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‚My photographs don’t belong in a drawer’

African photography is on the rise. Following decades of photographic misrepresentation by observers from outside the continent, African photographers are now showing the world what they see through their lens. This is Africa spotlights them in a series of interviews. 

Africa might be a colourful continent, through the eyes of Sabelo Mlangeni (1980) from South Africa it’s a world in black and white. It emphasises the essence of the subjects he photographs. With his images he reflects on his countries past, while at the same time looking forward into the future and how life has changed. ‚History forms an important part of my work’, he explains, ‚especially in my own country where it’s just two decades ago that Apartheid was abolished.’ Sabelo focusses on a lot of subjects that have not been portrayed in his country nor the whole African continent yet, leading the pack.

Identity, 2011

Stripes, 2011


Take one of his latest series for example: ‚Black Men in Dress’, a series of portraits shot at the Johannesburg and Soweto Pride. ‚This yearly event is a celebration for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and interest (LGBTI) community. Most communities have what we call ‚uSis’bhuti’, a term used to describe a boy who behaves like a girl. We all grew up knowing this, but never acknowledged it. So I asked myself questions like: Why then do we hate these boys when they have grown up to be men who dress as women? Why do we turn and call them names, pretending that we’ve never seen it? These are some of the issues I try to bring to the foreground in this series.’

Izibuko, 2011

East Rand girls, 2011


Sabelo came up with the idea for ‚Black Men in Dress’ while shooting his preceding series ‚Limbali’, about reed dances in KwaZulu-Natal and Swaziland. This being a traditional event where maidens bring reeds to rebuild the queens mother’s home and pay allegiance to her, it’s a rite of passage that forges commonality in a community. Although it’s perhaps better known as the king’s opportunity to choose a new wife. ‚I travelled through Africa looking at how weddings and the associated ceremonies are celebrated and wanted to aim that at the LGBTI community. It’s part of our community and we should not deny it being so. We tend to act like these people don’t exist, but they’re everywhere around us. The same goes for cross dressing; we see it, but don’t know how to react to it because it’s unnatural to us. That’s very interesting to me, because it engages the viewer and confronts them with a part of Africa that’s usually under lit.’

Zaza, Soweto Pride, 2011


Photography is the perfect medium for Sabelo to explore these subjects, with which he started in 2003 with his series ‚Country Girls’. He researched what goes around behind the scenes of a rural community, focussing on gay life. ‚Back then gay couples weren’t allowed to get married officially, but in small towns and rural areas it already happened. I decided to follow these events and tried to capture the progress in their situation. That’s why this project took several years.’ The people he portrayed were not used to photographers to stay for a longer time; they usually just come and go. But for Sabelo it turned into a collaborations that allowed his to spend more time with them in Mpumalanga. And they could open up to him, also because he grew up in Driefontein and therefore is an insider to their community. ‚It’s a matter of trust, especially with these kind of subjects. You need to create a relationship.’

Invisible Woman i

Invisible Woman ii


Although the areas he shot the series are rough and poor, Sabelo manages to show the glamour present in the form of drag queens, hairstylists and beauty pageant contestants, who are still often perceived as un-African or un-Christian Afterwards He released a book about his work in 2010, besides another book called ‚Men Only’ and a catalogue containing his series ‚At Home’ and ‚Ghost Towns’. For the first he focussed on rural areas where the breadwinners have migrated away in search of work, leaving behind only the young and old. The lather concentrates on small towns that have been abandoned due to immigration towards the country’s urban areas. ‚The kind of photographs that I make doesn’t belong to a drawer, but should be seen by a wider audience that appreciates a diverse view. It’s not mainstream and I don’t want to lead the viewer, but give them a chance to interpret my images in their own way.’

Invisible Woman iii


As a photographer Sabelo admits to create his own truth, but that goes for all his colleagues as well. He tries to find answers to the questions he asked himself through his images. He tries to inform his viewers about a certain theme or subject that in his perspective needs to reach a broader audience, something he felt strongly when shooting ‚Invisible Woman’ back in 2007. A series in which history is very much present: ‚it’s about the fact that African woman weren’t allowed into the city during Apartheid, so you didn’t see them. Now, these woman are the ones cleaning the streets at night and when we wake up in the morning their gone. Again their are invisible, but now their are actually there, just not when others are around. They’re ghosts and I want to get people to wonder who they are with my photography.’

It’s something Sabelo very much like to do abroad – especially in Europe – in the future and bring his African photography style to other countries and continents. ‚But my approach to people and situations will always be the same: with integrity.’

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Changing the negatively-biased view of the black-African image

African photography is on the rise. From street to art photography, conceptual and documentary to fashion photography, homegrown photographers (not only in the Francophone-African countries) are increasingly stepping up to show their world what they see when they look through the lens, following decades of photographic misrepresentation, or reduction, by observers from outside the continent.

When Neo Ntsoma started her career as a photojournalist back in 1998, there were only a handful of black female professional photographers in South Africa, herself included. The profession was largely the preserve of white males. “Like the other black upstarts, I had to work hard to prove myself to a sophisticated market not known for giving too many second chances.” The absence of black female photographers was mainly a hangover from the apartheid years. It was not safe for any photographer to take images that carried any political message – and this danger applied particularly to women. “Many photographers were regularly locked up, while others went into exile. As a result, my generation of women was left without any role models.”


Fifteen years later however, Ntsoma is the first female recipient of the CNN African Journalist Award for photography and the National Geographic All Roads Photography Award, and her photographs have appeared in major publications around the world. She is living proof that where there’s a will, there’s a way. ”For nine consecutive years of the CNN competition only male photographers were recipients, until my name was called out. That was especially uplifting because I was under so much pressure to achieve something great at the time, seeing as there were no black women in the field who had achieved anything that spectacular.” Her determination to change the industry was realised that evening of the awards. It was only the beginning of even bigger opportunities for Ntsoma, and she knew it wasn’t going to be easy. “But I was prepared for the challenge.”

Neo Ntsoma_003

She yearned to prove to South Africa and the world that African women could excel at professions that had solely been associated with men. “I made it my responsibility to build a solid legacy for future generations. There was always a constant reminder that what I was doing or striving for was much bigger than me. I was rewriting our history as black (African) women photographers and changing perceptions of how the world viewed us.” According to Ntsoma, black women have always found themselves in front of the lens, rather than behind it. Frequently portrayed as victims of patriarchy, tradition, violence and poverty in apartheid South Africa, she doesn’t think women from her mother’s generation could have become photographers if they’d wanted to.

Now, almost two decades into democracy, a lot of photographers still struggle to find platforms to showcase their work in South Africa. “I believe that more should be done to develop the field in my country like other art mediums such as music, dance and theatre. Photography is still a relatively new profession within the black community, and understandably so given our colonial history. There’s nothing more frustrating than wanting to study towards a profession that’s not fully understood by your community, let alone by your own family.” Ntsoma doesn’t want to have to go overseas to exhibit her work, or to get funding to pursue a photography career – “We need those opportunities at home.”

Neo Ntsoma_004

But how did Ntsoma decide on Photojourmalism? “It turned out to be more of a calling than I could ever have imagined, with memories of my childhood playing a big role. That really sparked my interest in photography. It felt like I had to capture images of my people and my country to add to the riches of the past and help tell and explain the story of our time, now and, perhaps, for generations to come.” She joined The Star, one of South Africa’s biggest daily newspapers, as staff photographer in 2000, and was determined to earn respect as a photographer by making her work match the quality of shots by already respected photographers, like the members of The Bang Bang Club.

“Johannesburg had earned its place as one of the most dangerous cities in the world and I was right in the middle of it all. This ran contrary to the reason I became a photojournalist in the first place – not seeing enough vibrant images of black South African life; I so much wanted to capture this and share it with the world.” Now, having earned her place in the field, nationally and international, she photographs to reclaim the dignity and pride of Africans, “to prove that we are not inferior, as the history books would have us believe. What people see of Africa needs to change.”

Neo Ntsoma_005

Ntsoma is hopeful that her images will play a part in changing the negatively-biased view of the black/African image the Western schools curriculum has for many years forced upon young people. That goal comes with it’s usual obstacles though, because despite all she has achieved Ntsoma still doesn’t have any gallery representation in South Africa. Most most don’t represent photojournalists for simple reason that it is not regarded as an art form. “Unlike in other parts of the world, the work of photojournalists in South Africa is only associated with newspapers and NGOs. Although I have exhibited my work in most parts of the world, I have only had three exhibitions here, the last being in 2006.” Like many others in her field, she still has to battle to convince the local market that her work is worth it. “I know many South African photographers with amazing work in their archives, but these works are never going to see the light of day.”

Needless to say, it’s a challenge to survive financially as an independent photographer in South Africa. And if this weren’t a big enough problem, there’s also the influx of foreign photographers sent by international photo agencies to come and document the lives of South Africans and tell their stories to the world. “Like we lack the skill to do so ourselves. As long as we allow this to continue, we will forever feel that Africa is misrepresented and mis-imaged in the western media. We do welcome collaborations and skills exchanges, but what we don’t tolerate is for them to take from us and not give anything back in return.” The image of Africa should be shown in all its diversity, not from one point of view and it’s this diversity that Ntsoma tries to capture.

Neo Ntsoma_002

“My aim is to reverse the negative stereotypes of Africa and Africans. Next to that, unlike in other African states, commercial photography in South Africa is still very much controlled and dominated by white people. In places like Nigeria and Kenya, you find black/African females shooting advertorial campaigns and really taking the world of fashion and advertising by storm. Lately there have been a good number of black girls venturing into photography as a profession, but only a handful have managed to make a significant mark.” According to Ntsoma many end up dropping out to pursue other interests because of the lack of emotional and financial support from their families. “A black woman with a camera is still a rare thing in South African townships, and it will probably take a lot of convincing to prove that – just like our brothers – we too are capable.”

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Deephouse talent from South Africa: Culoe de Song

His distinctive sound, a mixture of house, deephouse, hiphop and electro combined with African influences, make him one of the fastest rising stars of South Africa. Culoe de Song just entered his twenties, but the DJ from Johannesburg is rapidly taking over the world. He recently released his new album Elevation! in the Sugar Factory, Amsterdam. For Overdose.am I had a nice chat with him before he boarded his plane to dazzle us with his epic African house music.

You participated in the Red Bull Music Academy in Barcelona in 2008, from where you’re international career took flight. There you shared your culture and experience through music with a new type of audience and got in contact with the Innervisions lable. What happened after that?

‘Well before I was just making the music, but at the Red Bull Music Academy I got serieus. Of course I joined Soulistic Music already, but kept reaching out. The academy was a big step. The moment Innervisions came to me was the moment it all really started, especially internationally. It felt like the time to present them my part of the evolution in music.’

It must have not only been a big step for you, but also for South African dance music. You being one of the few reaching so high?

‘Yeah, it was. We’re in an era of the youth, a lot of young people are getting into the dance business and that’s just what I did. There are a lot of young South African producers, musicians and other artists that are taking their chance. I’m just part of the movement.’

Operating from Johannesburg, how do you manage to get such a broad audience?

‘Joburg is good for my business and it has a nice vibe. It’s like South Africa’s New York. But also in the countryside the dance scene is growing. That’s the good thing about South Africa; there’s a lot of things growing in different places. Not only the people in the big cities, but also in the smaller towns they’re are interested in dance music. The scene is big and filled with African house musician.’

The year after the academy you returned to the city for Sonar Festival. The same summer you played in Europe’s underground dance music scene in Italy, Belgium, Germany and Amsterdam. How does that make you feel?

‘There must be a lot of people around the world that love my music. With all the publicity I got more bookings and that feels very good. The people are reaching out to my music, they way I play it. Before I mainly worked in South Africa, so to go out was huge. The responses of the rest of the world were enthusiastic. It’s a great honor touring around the world with my music.’

Now you’ve come back to Amsterdam to delight us with a new album of epic African house music. Does Amsterdam have a special place in your heart?

‘Amsterdam is amazing. I’m really excited to come back to Sugarfactory, because last time it was very nice. The city is one of my favorites in the world and last year I also performed during Amsterdam Dance Event. What attracts me most is the fact that Amsterdam is so retro, you get a really calm atmosphere.’

And our dance music scene, including our audience?

‘When they get to clubs it’s a different story with the people from Amsterdam. They really enjoy the music and just go crazy. Everybody feels the music very bad. You got a lot a artistic people walking around and you can see that in the dance scene as well as within the audience. Amsterdam is just one of its kind.’

In what way do you think your music connects people in Europe and the United States to the people in Africa?

‘It’s great to travel the world, experience and meet people around the world because it’s all about music. With music we can all understand each other: it’s universal.Even though we use less vocals in dance music, it makes sense and therefore bridges gaps. We feel each other. It’s powerful.’

And South Africa in particular?

‘I’ve got a big fan base in South Africa that reflects to the fans outside. But of course South Africa is a country where the difference between rich and poor are very big. So I think by growing up in Africa we got the message that with music you can relate to people, no matter their status. Next to that South Africa is a country with a lot of – turbulent – history, whereby the music and rhythms got filled with political messages. It’s the young people who learn about this history via music and so I try to keep that local flavor into there as well. That’s unique for South Africa.’

About your new album Elevation!: how did you keep the mixture of house, deep house, international hiphop and electro with African influences alive on this one?

‘My new album is filled with local vibes with the inspiration of indigenous music. It also features some collaborations, like I did before as well. I chose the title Elevation! with a good reason, because I think it’s a step up again for my music. Everything I experienced has led me to a point right now and I wanted to put the growth into this album.’

What’s the next step for Culoe de Song?

‘Keep spreading the word, spreading the music. I want to tell my people about my love for South Africa and show them the beauty of our country. I try to do that with my music, but also just by telling people. More collaborations around the world to keep putting people together with the music. That’s my main influence and that’s what keeps me going.’

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Gone, but never lost

Back in 1972, in a whole different South Africa, my uncle left the peace and quietness of the Dutch lowlands for an exciting life in the roaring South. He was never to return to Europe. Now, 36 years later, I took the opportunity of my stay in South Africa to look him up; nobody else in my family ever did.

Working for a construction company which needed employees to go overseas, Willem Boshuis (back in Holland known as Wim, but because of pronunciation problems better known here as Willy), always had bigger plans for the future than to stay in the small rural village of Maartensdijk in The Netherlands. Born in 1938, the carpenter therefore left the wind and cold at the age of 34 to change it for the sunshine and warmth of the Gauteng Province. He moved to Mosselbay, where after everybody back home lost track of him. What he actually did in South Africa wasn’t clear, but the fact the he flew back to visit his family every once in a while and brought enormous gifts, gave us the idea that he was doing better than ok.

After 20 years, in 1992, he brought his last visit to his family. From then until now, his life was a complete mystery for his 6 sisters and 2 brothers. His two youngest sisters tried to get in contact with him in 2000, trough a Dutch radio program called ‘Adres Onbekend (Adress Unknown), but had to settle with a conversation of about 2 minutes and a mysterious address in the Pretoria suburb of Irene, in a country no one has ever been before. During the past 16 years nobody saw him or even got a message from him; some sisters didn’t even want to know him anymore, one was sure he was dead, but others kept up hope. And not without result.

Even before I enrolled for an internship at The Big Issue, I already knew that I was once going to find my uncle in South Africa. Either still going strong, living on the edge of survival, or six feet under. Because of all the different stories told by his sisters, of whom the youngest one is my mother, I became curious about the real Wim Boshuis. After my internship I departed for Joburg, determined to find him and hear his real story out of his own mouth. With a rental car I drove off to the place he was last seen and where they probably knew where he left off to: Jan Smuts Caravan Park in Irene, Pretoria.

Driving towards Pretoria on midday, passing multiple suburbs which were way too big to just start ringing bells, I realized that without a specific address the search would already be lost. Arriving at the Jan Smuts Memorial I came to an unpleasant surprise; the park was closed and all its inhabitants moved. But Willy hasn’t been a man whom they soon forgot: generous, helpful and always friendly. And I looked like him, they said. I therefore sat down with the director of the memorial, Miss Baumgarten, who, together with her daughter, had known my uncle for over 25 years. Not only did he live on their property almost as long as he lived in his home country, they also took care of him when he had some hard times over the years.

Until he reached his mid sixties, around six years ago in 2002, my uncle always was a self made man. But after quitting work, making a stupid decision to give away his caravan and turning his back to the plane that was supposed to bring him back to Holland, he fell into a big black hole. And everybody in South Africa knows that help is not to be expected when you’re laying down in the gutter. After a failed suicide attempt and living in a bathtub on the closed premises of the Jan Smuts Memorial, Miss Baumgarten started the Dutch embassy. In her opinion, which she shared with my mother, the Dutch government should take care of their citizens and because my uncle reached the right age (65) to apply for a pension, it was up to them to take care of his finance. Although it took them a few years, Miss Baumgarten was glad to tell me that he now receives money to take care of himself and is right back on track. And that he now rents his own bungalow/shed in Centurion, just a ten fifteen minute drive from the memorial.

Pulling up to the bungalow park and parking my car right in front of a shed with an old man sitting in front of it with an Afrikaans book and a beer, gave me immediately the feeling that I finally found my long lost uncle. My last memory of him giving me the biggest Lego Island I’ve ever seen, 16 years ago, shot through my head. Not even looking up from his book, I opened the car door, stepped out and walked towards the small stone table. “Wim, Wim Boshuis?”, I asked. “Wim Boshuis? Yeah, I’m Wim”, he answered. This 69 year old man, about to turn 70 in two weeks time, was clearly going deaf and spoke Afrikaans with a Dutch accent (or the other way around) and next to English also 3 indigenous languages. Because he didn’t seem to notice who I was, where I came from and especially not what I came to do I explained. “I’m Jorrit, the son of your youngest sister, you’re my uncle. We haven’t seen you in 16 years. I was around, thought I stop by”, I smiled. “Mijn God, Jorrit”, he says surprised, “it has been a long time.”

Before visiting my uncle there was actually one thing I wanted to know: why didn’t he came to Holland or even wrote us a letter or something in the past 16 years? But now that I was sitting opposite of him, I also wanted to know the true and complete story of his stay in South Africa. Unfortunately, my uncle didn’t seem to find it strange in any way to leave his family behind and start a completely new life on the other side of the world. “Some people are family people, some people aren’t”, was his easy explanation. “I never saw a good reason to come back and had everything that mattered in my life here. What did, and does, Holland had, and have, to offer me?”, with which he immediately answered the question if he ever was planning to come back to The Netherlands. Negative.

“The company I was working for had branches all around the world”, he started to explain his life in South Africa, “so I traveled a lot.” “Because I had a Dutch passport and no wife or kids to look after, I was the perfect candidate to travel trough Africa and to Australia. They send me out and I got the chance to see the world, it was a very pleasant combination.” So, instead of being homebound in Irene, my uncle traveled and lived in Namibia, Angola, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique, plus the Australian continent. “I didn’t even have time to go home to Holland, I was too busy working and travelling around.” Although he did found the love of his live, and had a baby girl with her, he never thought about settling. “I think that was the reason she moved away from me to Australia, with our daughter, when she was only 3 years old. I didn’t see them ever since”, he says while looking away from me.

The true answer if he ever regretted any of his choices or the abandoning of his family will always be a secret, but according to him this “is the way I choice to live life”. “I lived my life my way and am happy with what I’ve done and didn’t do”, he says with a broad smile on his face. When I asked him if he would like to throw a party when he turned 70, he replied that he didn’t celebrate a birthday for years and was planning on starting now. Without a cell phone and only a postbox which is emptied every once in a while, it’s not likely that he will receive any congratulations. I know his family isn’t going to send him any, just like he never sends them a message. Leaving him later that night, I realize this was probably the last time I, or anybody else from the family will see my uncle Wim. The only letter we will ever receive from him will most probably be his death certificate.

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Meet the Garden People

Living in the heart of New York’s Central Park or Paris’ Jardin du Luxembourg seems unimaginable. But there are people who don’t have to pay a single Rand to ‘live’ in the most prestigious park in Cape Town: the Company Gardens next to the Iziko South Africa Museum. But they have to eat, sleep and work on the street. Meet the people of the Company Gardens; the kings and queens of Queen Victoria Street.

With a straight-forward and determined look the 32-year-old Robert Claasen is watching the cars driving through Queen Victoria Street. “I’ve got money is this street”, he tells without hesitation. Every car which parks in his part of the street, parallel to his ‘home’ the Company Gardens, is a potential R5, or even R10. “I’ve got 4 cars parked here right now, I can’t leave, that would mean I lose R20.” Originally from Bonteheuwel, the eldest of 2 brothers and 3 sisters moved to the City Bowl when he was 25 years old. “I needed to stand on my own 2 feet”, the well-thinking Robert says while running between the parked cars, “I needed to show that I can survive without my mother and be an independent man. That’s what I am right now; there is nobody telling me what I can and cannot do or where I can and cannot go!”

Like many other homeless, Robert has been living on the street for over years and actually doesn’t see himself living anywhere else. There wouldn’t be anyone in the townships that can support him anyway. While rubbing his just shaved head he explains: “The Gardens feel like home, it gives me a better feeling to live here than in any township. Here we form a community and take care of each other. It actually doesn’t feel like living on the street.” Together with his ´neighbours´ or ´roommates´ he shares the feeling that the shelters around Cape Town are more like prisons, without any freedom for their inhabitants. “You can only sleep there, have to be in at 4 and out at 10, don’t drink and do what the ‘guards’ say. If I wanted to be treated like a kid, I would have stayed at home”, says Robert slightly irritated.

Next to Robert, who left his parental house 7 years ago and lives and works along Queen Victoria Street permanent for 2,5 years, 41-year-old Jackie Goliath and her 33-year-old boyfriend Jeff Arense have been living in the park for respectively 6 and 3,5 years. “I am the first lady here!” the always smiling Jackie claims. “I am the queen of Queen Victoria Street and the mother of the Gardens.” Meanwhile the modest and observing Jeff tends to hear her, but doesn’t really listen. “We all have our own reasons to be here”, he says calm, “and the only thing we do right now is surviving and hoping that the future while bring us better days.”

Whoever was first, owns the warmest blanket or makes the most money parking cars, isn’t important for the people in the Gardens. Every day brings them a new sunrise and sunset and so each day can bring them either success or misery. But what all the 15 to 20 permanent residents of the Company Gardens have in common is a past which made living on the streets the best option for them. A normal childhood, good education (Robert reaches highest with standard 6) or a positive sight for the future is not something they got at home. “When I dropped out of school and became a bad boy”, Robert admits seriously, “I realized I was making the wrong decisions. Drinking, smoking dagga and stealing controlled my life when I was 16/17 and finally they putted me behind bars. There was no mommie to guide me there…”

Jackie, who was born in Vredenburg near Saldanha Bay, had a hard knock life from the moment she was born. As the eldest of one brother and sister, her mother went looking for work in Cape Town and took her first born with her. But because the family couldn’t cope, Jackie was left with a colored family in District Six when she was just three months old. Her grandmother, who was living in Manenberg in the Cape Flats, got custody over little Jackie when she was 4. “My whole life revolved around Manenberg”, Jackie says while softly telling her life story. “My grandmother tried to give me everything I needed, but when I got pregnant at the age of 14 the situation changed. My grandmother wanted me to get married when I was pregnant for the second time (from another man) when I was 20 and so I did. We lived together in my grandmother’s house, but tensions ran high when I was pregnant for the third time and because my husband was a drug addict. When I was 25 the beating and fighting reached a boiling point and so I moved out. Alone. He took the children.”

After leaving her husband and grandmother behind, Jackie began to live a whole other live. “Sleeping during the day, partying during the night”, she laughs. Until she, at the age of 27, got pregnant for the fourth time. Their relationship ended quickly after the father married Jackie’s best friend. The only man that gave her a child (her fifth) and took care of both of them was Kenneth, who she lived with in Khayelitsha for over 8 years. “Of all my 5 children, I only still see the last one: Lucia. Gerard, Jo-Anne, Anthony and Tracy-Lee (respectively 27 thru 14) live either with their biological dad, grandmother or are in Foster Care. That’s what hurts the most, not being with my children. My biggest wish is to be reunited with my kids; I know where they are, but I don’t think I can stand the rejection. They never visit”, she tells with tears in her eyes. When Kenneth died 6 years ago of TB, there was no life for Jackie in Khayelitsha anymore. Therefore, she crowned herself queen of Queen Victoria Street.

Her king, skinny and small build Jeff, tells a different but nevertheless interesting and heartbreaking story. Born in Knysna, the quiet and humble man had to leave for Worchester with his 29-year-old sister because his mom died. He was only 1 at the time. When at the age of 4 he moved to Villiersdorp to live with his grandma, she wasn’t able to take care of him. He was forced to live in a Home of Safety till the age of 19, when he finally made it to Cape Town. “There I met a pregnant girl named Linda”, Jeff explains while mysteriously smiling. “With her I lived in Uppington, but I left her because she was constantly drunk on ‘pap-sap’ (white wine). After that I’ve lived in Site-B Khayelitsha for a while, but I got tired of it. Everybody over there was begging for cigarettes, alcohol and what not. I’ve only lived there for 6 months, until I moved to the City Bowl to stroll the streets”, he tells while greeting two passerby’s.

Be aware not to compare the homeless in the Company Gardens with the baggers in Long Street: every piece of clothing, food and (cool) drinks is cherished with the most possible gratitude. Robert smiles: “Every time somebody gives me something to wear, I make sure that I wear it immediately or at least the day after. Just to show my gratitude. Therefore I never reject food or drinks; I enjoy everything the people in the street are giving me.” But unfortunately for the Garden people, it is only the people living along the Gardens who support the weakest in this society. From the government, municipality or city these people don’t have to expect anything. “We live from parking cars, collecting scrap and donations”, Jeff reply’s sounds moderate, “actually were the employees of the streets.” With her head down Jackie adds: “I’m tired of it and actually too sick to work. But there is no government to rely on; we are all on our own. They say I’m not sick enough. But I will never steal or skarrel, that’s below my level.”

Luckily there still are places where homeless people can go to when donations run dry: churches. “Every weekday from 9 till 1 the St. George´s Cathedral turns into a community centre where we can get two slices of bread, some rice and a place to sleep”, Jackie sighs. “And on Wednesday night we can collect some carrots at the church in Kloofstreet”, Robert adds. “But it’s a shame they closed so many places where we could get food down. People were rude, started pushing and that leaded to people getting stabbed. Then they decided: once but never again. No more help”, Jackie sighs again. And help is not something they can expect from the South African Police either. They aren’t bothered with the people living in the Company Gardens; they’ve got ‘better things to do’. So the task of assisting the homeless people on the streets is up to the Central City Improvement District (CCID) security personnel patrolling the parks and streets and, according to Robert, Jackie and Jeff, they do a horrible job.

“They’re drunk and on drugs!” Robert shouts. “They chase you away when you are sleeping, telling you to find another spot, or they steal you’re blanket, food or little money you have. The security is just the same or even worse then the skelms (thieves), because you can’t do anything about them.” The punishment for sleeping in the Company Gardens is hard to define. Everything from just one night up to a weekend, a week or even multiple months is possible. “They just lock you up for nothing”, Robert continues his tirade. “And the stuff they steal, they just keep for themselves or give it away to some other people who live on the streets as a bribe. They’re as corrupt as can be, but who are we to complain. We are just homeless people!”

Although they already have their own spot along Queen Victoria Street where the people know, trust and support them, there are still a lot of homeless people out in the streets who don’t have their ‘own’ place to live and work. “During summertime the park is always more packed with people seeking a place to stay then during the cold winter months”, tells Jackie, “sometimes these new people stay, but most of the time they leave to stroll the streets again.” It doesn’t happen often that a ‘new guy’ wants to take over somebody’s spot. “We chase them away”, Jeff says direct, “we form a community, all together. We have to respect each other’s place, just like everybody else. But we also take care of each other: we share our dop (alcohol) to keep us warm, keep each other company and support somebody when he has a hard time.

The people of the Company Gardens might live in one of the most beautiful parks in South Africa, definitely in Cape Town, but that doesn’t make their lives any easier. Living on the streets, wherever, means a hard knock lives with little up’s and a lot of down’s. Every one of the Garden People has hopes of a brighter future, each in its own way. And there are a lot of dreams, but, as Robert painfully pointed out: “When you wake up, nothing’s changed.”

Pictures © Sara Gouveia

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Connecting the country with jazz

Kicking their Cape Winelands School Tour off with a photoshoot and a small performance for Premier Lynne Brown – who even tried playing the bass guitar – in front of Parliament, made the members of the Cape Town Jazz Orchestra look like real rockstars. “But”, as 20-year-old saxophone player Sisonke Xonti points out, “we’re not ready to rock & roll, we’re ready to jazz!”

The Capetonian artists, except for someone from the Eastern Cape and a Chinese girl, are not only good musicians performing at varies venues around South Africa, either solo or with other band projects, everyone of them is a jazz fanatic and proud of forming the world’s first official jazz orchestra. The fact that during this School Tour, which consists of 8 performances in secondary -and high schools throughout the Cape Winelands, only DVD’s with jazz music are allowed in the tour bus is just one thing that underlines that. With 10 young, motivated and musically driven artists between the age of 20 and 30 under musical director and jazz educator Alvin Dyers’ wing, it is his task to make sure nobody plays out of key. “We got the right people on the right places”, he assures, “I have full confidence in them.”

Together with Minister of the Department of Arts and Culture Pallo Jordan, jazz maestro Abdullah Ibrahim (not present during this tour) came up with the idea for the CTJO, which is now an NGO not only performing but also organizing workshops to get kids enthusiastic about music and of course jazz in particular. In its 2 year existence, in which they made 1 tour thru SA, the orchestra only lost 1 guitarist. After replacing him and adding 2 new saxophone players the group stayed as is and, according to world travelling producer Jai Reddy, this “will not change any time soon. They form a tight group and never fight or have serious arguments.”

The moment the tour bus drives onto the parking lot at Worcester Secondary everyone, from the core of the orchestra (drums, piano, bass and guitar) to the brass section (flute, trumpet and 4 saxophones), knows this first concert will set the new standard after their first tour, which covered the southern part of the Western Cape. Full confidence, as jazz is part of their lifestyle, and after a last practice in their hotel rooms, they step into the hall which is already prepared by the sound crew which travels along. Next to the 500 seats 20-year-old dreadlocked crewmember Kent Satram unfolds the flags, banners and lights with as result a plain stage metamorphosed into a jazz podium. When, after sound checking, the orchestra, every single one of them dressed in black, enters the stage, the feeling of being in a smoky, dark jazz café can’t be ignored. While the brass section take their places on the right – forming one single line – pianist Nicholas Williams sits on the left side with the middle controlled by the small 24-year-old drummer Clayton September, 27-year-old guitarist John Russel and ‘master of the bass’ 30-year-old Valentino Europa. The students, when asked by master of ceremonies Quinton Raaf, proudly answer that they didn’t skip class to be here and are honestly interested in jazz music and playing an instrument.

“I don’t want to become famous and then start creating my own sound; I want to create my own sound and then become famous”, admits 22-year-old trumpet player Lwanda Gogwana. The group agrees that touring with each other and teaching kids the positive sides music has, is way more important than a career as a professional jazz musician. If it was up to them the tours would last much longer and reach further into the country. The majority of the fashionable and talented bunch used to (and most still do) perform during Cape Town’s one and only jazz night: the Monday night at Swingers on Wetton Road. It is there that Dyers scouted half of the existing Cape Town Jazz Orchestra. “We call it the Jam Session Connection”, laughs 22-year-old UCT student and pianist Nicholas Williams, “most of the members know each other from there.” Next to the connection, also the UCT – where 23-year-old saxophonist Lenrick Boesack studies Jazz Performance and trumpeter Lwanda studies Music Composition – and the 2005 auditions in music centre M7 (next to the Distrix Roadhouse) play an important role in establishing the CTJO.

The students from Worchester Secondary didn’t lie about their interest in jazz, their enthusiasm during the magnificent performance proves. Jazz might be known as music being played by old men, but the opposite is true. Although the orchestra does consists for 90 percent of men (which of course leads to a loud applause by the female students) they are far from old. The loudest applause however, goes to 30-year-old flutists Alice Zhang; not only because of her outstanding play and lovely dress but also because she is of Chinese origin, what makes the encounter for most students a first timer. The rest of the group forms a perfect resemblance of Cape Town with all his colors and cultures and they couldn’t wish for a more expressive audience. All solo’s get rewarded with a loud applause and even before the show started the kids were peeking through the door with great interest and expectations.

After about 40 minutes and 7 of their repertoire of 20 songs, including the slow ballad ‘The Wedding Song’ which is romantically performed solely by pianist Nicholas and flutists Alice, the applause is as ear twitching as the sound 22-year-old Che Guevara look-a-like Clement Carr produces when he hits a low note on his tenor saxophone. The result of MC Quinton’ question who wants to join in a short, half hour, workshop ‘how do you play a jazz instrument’ is therefore overwhelming. Members of the orchestra use their own, mostly pretty wore off, instruments to show their skills and get the kids motivated, but, as Jai Reddy explains “it’s not the instruments that make the music, it’s the musicians”. While Alice gets overwhelmed with requests for autographs, the girls are mostly interested in 21-year-old cutie Kyle’s telephone number. But none of them let the chance to touch and play a saxophone, guitar or drums (the loudest and therefore most popular) for the first time slip of their nose. “Playing for kids is of course different than playing for a paying, jazz loving audience. You can teach these kids something and hopefully they also get touched by the music and receive the positive message”, tells flutist Alice, who since here vacation in 2005 now took permanent residence in South Africa.

So what kind of jazz does it take to gain the attention of schoolchildren and actually make them enjoy it? “We play straight forward jazz”, explains Jai, who also is an inventor, “with some North American and Cuban influences and of course an African background.” It being a very open and vibrant style of jazz, superb performed by the orchestra, makes listening to it a comfortable and refreshing experience. Most of the kids therefore listen intrigued and it seems that even the biggest bully enjoys and listens quietly. “But playing the music is just the first step”, the music producer with over 20 years experience says, “the connection jazz music has with its African heritage, background and culture is noticeable in every note. Not only the audience, but also the artists themselves learn about their history and see the reflection in the music. For example: when someone play’s a solo, that person puts himself completely out in the open, being the only one who is in control, but vulnerable. That person is proud of himself when he succeeds and at the same time the students can see what someone like them, not some old jazz artist, can achieve and get recognition for that. There is a lot of reality in jazz.”

Although the Cape Town Jazz Orchestra brings many advantages – the whole project employs about 20 people – being a jazz musician in South Africa is not easy. Without benefits the artists are still obliged to pay 25% taxes and as an NGO the orchestra doesn’t expect money from the government. But, like said, jazz is a lifestyle for the members of the orchestra and there is nothing they would rather do then play. The perfect example is perhaps bass player Valentino Europa. “I’m married and my wife knows that I’m an artist. She knew that from the beginning. If she puts me for the decision, I will always choose jazz. It’s a part of me.”

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