31 10 2010

Mandisi’s call came at 7:00 a.m. and I awoke as Thabiso prepared to bathe.  He told me that they were burning tires on the main road.  My first thought was: Why can’t they wait for a more reasonable time to protest, say noon?

I started the primer to fix coffee, figuring I’d need it, but also banking on African time for the actual burning.  When I arrived at the scene, however, the flames were reaching for the sky.  I soon understood why they were keen to start early—to catch the authorities off guard.  A Casspir (an armoured vehicle infamous for its use during apartheid) soon appeared, with a high pressure hose cannon on top.  It doused the fire at one intersection before moving on to the others, as far as the eye could see.  I imagined the show was over, but as soon as the Casspir had disappeared, more tires appeared from every direction and were immediately set alight.

Cue the Darth Vader track: the Casspir returned about 15 minutes later, this time with tear gas.  As I photographed people running away, I was pegged in the leg with the cannon spray.  It wasn’t until later that I realized the special attributes of the liquid splotched on my trousers.  The spray was neon blue as the Casspir continued down the street.  Children fled, screaming.

For much of the morning, the pattern continued.  Police vehicles trample and destroy barricades.  The people immediately find a way to reignite them.

Why tires, I wondered aloud?  A few responses: Symbolism/tradition.  Color of the smoke (black as night).  Quickly relit after dousing (unlike wood).  Longevity: a tire will burn for nearly an hour.

Councillors from every district soon arrived, making their political pitches on behalf of the people.  They echoed the pleas of the people: Electricity and Housing. No more broken promises.  The largest newspaper, The Herald, was soon on the scene.  More and more police appeared.

Eventually bargaining began.  Different police officers spoke to members of the committee, always surrounded by a mob of soot-faced people.

As I walked between communities with my camera, many thought I was a photojournalist from the local newspaper.  Children threw glass on the road while teenagers tied wire to flaming tires and spun them high above their heads like giant fire poi.  Most were keen to have their picture taken.

I take a break to go home to plant seeds in my new garden.  Carrots, maize, potatoes, and tomatoes with a border of sunflowers for protection.  Harvest in 3 months.

When I return, the tension of the morning, which saw rocks hurled at passing vehicles and protesters shot with rubber bullets (and me in the middle), dissipated as afternoon wore on.  The atmosphere began to feel more like a braai, people chatting and laughing, even police officers striking up conversations with us.

One officer had a frank and reasoned discussion with the director of the Informal Settlement Network, an impromptu spokesman.  He expressed dismay that Bethelsdorp taxes would have to pay for patrol and cleanup.  The director agreed, but countered that people with their backs against the wall have to do something—anything—to get attention to their cause.  It’s a shame but what else can they do?  The officer suggested that the blame lie with the councilors and that the people need to elect leaders that will truly help them.  I suggest that we go burn tires on their lawns.

The next morning, Chairman’s voice travels deep into my subconscious and gives me a slap to the face.  “Wake up!  Wake up!  P.E. is burning!”  Thabiso buries his head deeper under the covers on the couch.  I go to make coffee.

An officer tries to run me over on the sidewalk in his police truck.  I confront him and he refuses to give me his name.  “You don’t wear a badge?” I ask.  He checks his breast and replies, “Don’t have one on this jacket.”  I take several photos of his face and his license plate while he responds and inform him that I will be filing a complaint with his department.

I begin to discern my role as that of journalist/advocate.  If my lens is directed at the action, there is a better chance that human rights will be respected.  And if they are not, I will have proof.  I must deny the requests to help fetch tires.

The burning has lasted four days now.  There have been several arrests, a few injuries, an attempted looting,  no casualties.  Communities all over the city are now taking part.

Not everyone in the community is supportive of the measures.  Pastor argues that there was no forethought, no clearly defined aim, no leadership.  That it is destructive and illegal.  Though committee members are present during the day, schollies (hoodlums) run the show at night.

As stubborn conflict goes, each side has at least marginal merit to their actions.  There is logic in every idea and each argument. I take it all in.  A few schollies get out of control, but mostly, there is abundant spirit of community and togetherness.  People stay outside their homes and fellowship.  I’ve met more people from the neighboring communities than I previously knew altogether.  Whether it achieves results or not, demonstrations are the rare opportunity for those in informal settlements to change the power dynamics.  They give a marginalized community a say: power for the dis-empowered, voice to the voiceless.  This alone may be worth the tax dollars.(These photos are just a vanilla taste…photo essay to come?)


Glimpse Photo Essay

28 02 2011

First things first: my photo essay has been published over at Glimpse.  Find it here.

I enjoyed the process of writing for Glimpse.  I have spent years of my life writing academic papers (usually hurriedly, with little sleep and not a little beer)  to be submitted for a grade and never thought of again.  I used to joke that once I hit the prescribed word count, I would stop mid-sentence, press print and elatedly (if not belatedly) turn it in.  This was no exaggeration.  Most of my papers in graduate school really did go straight from screen to submission, without even a hint of revision.

“Creative Writing” (for that’s what they call it, it turns out) was never required, nor was it attempted in my normal life, for the most part.  I began to write “creatively” as a means of expression, to give critical thought and voice to my experience as I traveled and encountered new things.  I never really thought about the difference between this and how I had written in school, except that this was more fun and more fulfilling.

Nothing I had done in school had prepared me for the experience of submitting a piece of my creative writing for the editorial process.  I had become used to the red ink on a critical essay for class; I had not anticipated the emotions I would feel when I received my creative writing, basically my journal, with pages of feedback and critique.  My travel journal was a place of freedom.  I hid my embarrassment, fuming about my editor at Glimpse: “These are my thoughts.  If you don’t like them, too bad.”

Whereas I really wasn’t that concerned with how well I expressed my analysis of theological typologies, my creative writing was much closer to my heart.

After the initial shock, I began to appreciate the feedback from my editor.  After several months of the editorial process, I emerged a better writer.

I initially applied to Glimpse as a photographer.  It turns out that words definitely form the core of the program.  While I do enjoy that form of expression, photography is my passion.  I was allowed one photo essay of the four pieces that will eventually be published.  Where writing was sometimes a struggle, the photo essay was pure joy.

My photo essay is now live on Glimpse.  In pictures, it tells the story of a mass public protest action in Riemvasmaak.  I wrote this about the experience at the time.

You can find the photo essay at Glimpse here.

Special thanks to Erica for feedback on the original round of photos.  Thanks to everybody for your support!