As a cover image it makes a much bolder statement than that of Between Dogs and Wolves, Bieber’s 2006 work. Soweto is for Soweto, for its spirit, its joy and its palpable sense of ubuntu (togetherness). Though visually mesmerising, the earlier work was an (intentionally) idiosyncratic journey, an attempt to locate Bieber’s privileged white upbringing under apartheid in the new South Africa, where economic apartheid still shapes lives. As such, it only partially succeeded, though it is memorable for its extended portrait of 19-year-old David Jakobie, who says of his neighbours in Vredpark: ‘You can just see by their faces. Most of them have got that hard look… No matter how happy their faces look, they are not really happy.”
In Soweto, Bieber shows us people who are demonstrably very happy indeed. Yet the economic fortunes of South Africa’s poorest – black and white – has surely not changed in recent years. Rather, Bieber has chosen to turn her camera to lived life in the suburb where many of the most important battles to demolish apartheid were played out (12-year-old black student Hector Pieterson was killed in the 1976 Soweto uprising), instead of seeking out metaphorical fragments – as in Dogs and Wolves – that may or may not draw out a turbulent and complex socio-political history. We see a supremely stylish wedding, where groom Humphrey Nkosana and his ushers sport surely the sharpist suits and shades in Soweto, and the bride, Goodness Sonto Mokgogo, is resplendent in white, a virginal foil to her bridesmaids’ satin green finery. Rock band Ree-Buurth continue the township’s musical reputation – it’s where kwaito, a specific strain of hip-hop began – posing with their instruments and a green VW Beetle.
That’s not to say every picture teems with this energy. The flats at Jabulani, photographed at dusk, look more desolate, yet the tender gestures of the two people in the long grass of the foreground offer yet another unexpected reading. The word Jabulani (Jabulani literally translates as ‘rejoice’) has seeped into international consciousness this past month, as the name of the football used for the World Cup 2010. It has attracted much criticism from players and managers, because its unusual trajectories can make predicting flight paths difficult, apparently, which sounds like an equally accurate description of the unclassifiable nature of this neighbourhood, just a tiny part of the vast township.
Soweto is officially one of the world’s biggest slums, a term that carries with it connotations of lawlessness and ill repute as well as straight-forward deprivation. In Mike Davis’ study of this increasingly prevalent way of living, Planet of Slums, Soweto is ranked eighth in the world’s top 30 ‘megaslums’. Such statistics sound obscene and while they may be useful in exposing the gaping inequalities that cleave this earth, they do little for those to whom the ‘slum’ is simply home. Bieber’s open-ended, non-judgemental portrait of Soweto reveals significant changes in the perception of the place by outsiders and its own people. Now, the township itself spawns an upmarket suburb called Beverley Hills, where there are mansions on a par with those in Sandton, an area I was walking around just yesterday. Sandton’s gated driveways, its electric security fences and ‘armed response’ signs made their own case for a community living not of course in poverty, but in fear. A series of photographs from the streets of Sandton would reveal little of the neighbourhood, because only tourists use them. No communal tents deck the streets there when a marriage takes place. The affluent suburb’s residents are no doubt proud of where they live, and, it is clear in Bieber’s photographs that so are they Sowetans. After all, home is home. Bieber’s achievement is to document an independent and highly original culture that was borne of resistance to a repulsive system of inequality. That same spirit, that sense of identity, of family, of community, even in the face of continued economic apartheid, has a value beyond the Rand.
Soweto is published by Jacana Media