By: Kevin Drew
Cape Town – For Jürgen Schadeberg, jazz riffs, political activism and nights at “shebeens” – impromptu venues where liquor is sold illegally and then downed at a frenetic pace – score the soundtrack of South Africa.
Music, politics and alcohol frequently were stirred into one pot in the 1950s by journalists such as Schadeberg, as well as activists, laborers and a group of white-collar workers who lived under the government’s racial discrimination and segregation policies collectively called apartheid. Maintaining one’s dignity under apartheid, it seemed, often required having a drink.
“You are at a shebeen and everyone was drinking,” Schadeberg said, when asked about his most vivid memories of the 1950s. “They had terrible ways of drinking. There was one called ‘zip and fly.’ You drink quickly and get out because you were worried about police raids, because it was illegal.
“And there were these political meetings. People would sing, and people were very emotional. The whole music … the success of the South African jazz, or the reason for the South African jazz, which was really great jazz, was to act as a defiance to apartheid.”
The raucous South Africa of the 1950s largely defined the life of Schadeberg, a documentary photographer who is now 83 and living near Valencia, Spain. The white Nationalist government’s apartheid policies would test his values as he grew into a man during that decade in South Africa. Today, he is self-effacing about the legacy that he and other journalists forged with their work that covered the majority black population and questioned the government’s racial discrimination policies. But for those who suffered under apartheid, Schadeberg and his journalistic contemporaries from the 1950s through the 1980s remain icons of what journalists can accomplish against authoritarianism.
“The journalists played a vital role” in the struggle against apartheid, said Renfrew Christie, dean of research at the University of Western Cape and himself jailed in the 1980s for passing on details of the South African government’s nuclear program to the then-outlawed African National Congress. “In fact, they were better journalists than our current generation. There were some very fine journalists in that era.”
Schadeberg’s career as a photojournalist began in 1950 when, at the age of 19, he moved to South Africa. Despite extensive training and early work in Germany, Schadeberg said finding work in South Africa was difficult. He eventually found work at a new magazine called Drum, where the publication’s founder, a white South African cricket player and writer named Bob Crisp, started the magazine with the vision of covering the majority black population in the country. Drum provided Schadeberg the chance he was looking for.
Drum magazine’s early years coincided with dramatic changes taking place in South Africa. A new black urban community was forming across the country as blacks, Indians and coloreds – three of the four official racial designations by the apartheid government, in addition to whites – began migrating to the country’s cities.
Crisp eventually sold the magazine to Jim Bailey, a white South African and British writer and publisher who had served in the Royal Air Force during World War II. Bailey refocused the publication to cover the black urban scene, and Drum quickly gained a popular following. Schadeberg said the success of the early years reinforced his belief that the apartheid system could not last for long.
“I discovered that the apartheid (government) was pretty ridiculous,” said Schadeberg, speaking over Skype from his home. “I realized that most of the people in South Africa didn’t believe it would last, that it would fall apart. They (Nationalist Party) couldn’t, wouldn’t be able to run the country.”
That optimism proved misplaced as the 1950s unfolded. The Nationalist Party government tightened its enforcement of segregationist laws. Schadeberg found himself chronicling the anger, violence, sadness and despair that came from apartheid, such as the forced removals of black families from the Sophiatown Township near Johannesburg. He and other journalists also faced tightening censorship.
“You weren’t allowed to publish a picture of a white boxer boxing with a black boxer, against a black boxer, in the ring. So what we did was we used one boxer on one side of a double page and the other boxer on the other side of the page. There were a lot of things you weren’t allowed to do, which was against the law, so we tried to sort of slip through it.”
Schadeberg enjoys retelling how he photographed black singer and actress Dolly Rathebe at a mine dump, with the star dressed only in a bikini, as an example of the repressive discrimination that apartheid imposed. The two were arrested for violating the government’s Immorality Act, which prohibited intimate relations between whites and non-whites.
“It’s impossible to describe how awful it really was,” he said. “You constantly had to look over your shoulder. If I had somebody like Dolly Rathebe in the car sitting next to me and we were driving to the city, people were making remarks like, ‘Why don’t you let that girl sit in the back? Why does she sit next to you?’”
In an interview stored at the Mayibuye Archives at the University of Western Cape, Humphrey Tyler, a former assistant editor at Drum, discussed the suffocating atmosphere that existed in South Africa in the 1950s. Even in relatively liberal communities such as Durban, Tyler said, blacks were not allowed to enter shops that sold food, and instead had to be served through a small hatch in a wall.
“Drum functioned in that milieu,” Tyler said. “It interviewed gangsters willy-nilly. These guys (gangsters) were very important in people’s lives. And Drum had a look at the success stories in a way (that) it didn’t glorify over-glamorize the people who made it in the society. But it reflected their activities.”
Any optimism left in the 1950s came to an end on March 21, 1960, when South African police opened fire on protesters at the Sharpeville township police station who were demonstrating against the country’s pass laws – rules limiting the movement of people within the country and effectively enforcing racial segregation. Estimates say police killed 69 people that day, which marked a pivotal moment in the anti-apartheid movement. The South African government drew international condemnation for the massacre and Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress abandoned its non-violence policy to bring an end to apartheid.
Schadeberg left South Africa in 1964, the same year that Mandela was sentenced to prison. He moved first to London and then settled later in Spain. He returned to South Africa in the mid-1980s and remained to witness the downfall of the apartheid system. He chronicled Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 and the ANC’s leader election as president in 1994. Schadeberg’s photograph of Mandela looking out of his former prison cell has been recognized as one of the iconic photographs of the 20th century.
South Africa in 2014 is a different place from the country that Schadeberg worked in as a young man. The gap between rich and poor in the country is among the highest in the world and wider than when democracy arrived in 1994. The African National Congress maintains widespread popular support, yet politicians in that and other political parties routinely face accusations of corruption and cronyism.
Journalists are free to investigate and report on such allegations, yet concern remains about government attempts to restrict what news organizations can report on. In July, the Committee to Protect Journalists protested what it called were comments by the head of the South African Broadcasting Corporation calling for the licensing of journalists and tighter regulation of the media industry. At the same time, however, the Paris-based Reporters San Frontières (Reporters Without Borders) ranked South Africa 42nd in its 2014 World Press Freedom Index – four positions higher than the United States.
Schadeberg is philosophical about today’s political and social landscape in the country he cut his journalistic teeth in. “I think things could have been better, but they always could have been better. I think that in 1994 we were a bit naïve talking about the ‘Rainbow Nation.’ It didn’t quite happen, I think.”
Schadeberg may be overly pessimistic. The work and struggles that he and fellow icons of independent South African journalism years – Henry Nxumalo, Peter Magubane, Bob Gosani and Ernest Cole, to mention a few – faced in the early days of apartheid echo today.
“I truly appreciate what they went through,” said Andisiwe Makinana, a correspondent for the Mail and Guardian newspaper. “They went through hell. I’m just glad that we’re not back there, and hopefully we’ll never go back to anything close to that system.”
And Schadeberg’s views on the significance of Drum magazine resonates today for journalists working anywhere in the world.
“What Drum did was to create a unity for the African people. They used to write in letters about their love problems and their relationships problems and we had a column where we answer them. So those people found for the time a place where they could talk about their problems, complain about their problems in the paper. So I think that was the most positive thing that was done by Drum, apart from the criticism of the government.”
— María José Valero contributed reporting.