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Review-a-Day
Christian Science Monitor
Monday, February 7th, 2005


 

Mr. Mkhize's Portrait: And Other Stories from the New South Africa

by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

The spectrum of hope after apartheid

A review by Alfredo Sosa

The whole world is not often unified by a single event. But the end of apartheid in South Africa was one of those moments. People all over the planet rejoiced in the hope and freedom that millions of South Africans had finally won. Through a series of photographs by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, Mr. Mkhize's Portrait documents the country 10 years after the end of apartheid.

Far from glamorizing or simplifying the country's current challenges, the book presents a complex look at the social changes that have occurred. With the shift of the political and social landscape, people have come to reconsider their identity and their position in the community. Along with the obvious benefits that come with freedom and racial equality, this shift has brought difficult problems to a society that had been made rigid by an elaborate web of restrictions.

The portraits in this book, taken over a three-month period, grant us a unique look at a generation of socially displaced people whose lives are captured at a particular moment of South Africa's history. Most of these people have been affected by social and political change, and their futures will depend on how they adapt. For many, democracy has brought wonderful improvements; for others, it has brought HIV/AIDS, crime, housing problems, white emigration, displacement, and hopelessness.

Though violence permeates the book, there are also stories here of empowerment such as traditional women healers (formerly banned) proudly posing for a graduation portrait, a white father in exile who brings his children back to the country to participate in a new society, and a black lesbian pastor who welcomes gay people into her congregation.

Moreover, these portraits reveal the "gray areas" of a society that the world usually sees only in stark black and white. We see:

A middle-class black woman who has a black maid.

A white landowner who has his black employee erect 1,500 white crosses by the road to symbolize violence against white farmers by blacks.

A white girl from a rich family who seems numbed by the stillness of her electric-fenced neighborhood.

A 9-year-old black girl who goes to the Supreme Court to claim ownership of the shack her father left after his death.

These vignettes create a full picture of a society that is by no means close to what it wants to be, a society that has generated an array of new problems as it moves forward. The last two images in the book show a car with a giant sticker that reads, "Thank God I am a Black Man" and a destitute Afrikaner woman sleeping on the side of the road, dreaming of winning the lottery. Clearly, South Africa is moving, but the path ahead will be rough.

Alfredo Sosa is the Monitor's feature photography editor.


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