With Light and Lens


For millions of South Africans, 27 April 1994—the day of the country’s first democratic elections—is indelibly marked on our minds as the culmination of a series of euphoric moments that began a few years earlier with the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. The euphoria reached its pinnacle on 10 May 1994, when I, together with countless others around the globe, watched Mandela take the presidential oath of office at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. Such a moment had seemed impossible, with the country having only just sidestepped a looming and vicious civil war, and with decades of rebellion, fraught processes of negotiation and transition, still fresh within national memory. Mandela’s inauguration seemed to cast aside the violence of the past and of the legalised racial subjugation that had begun in 1948. We watched the Old Guard of the country’s armed forces salute our new president.

This day, and the heady years that followed, saw South Africa, the world’s newest democracy, figured in a very particular way: as the miracle of the “rainbow nation”, a term coined by Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. With the country further buoyed and brought together by the winning of the Rugby World Cup in 1995, it was impossible to think that 21 years later it would seem to me a country almost bereft of hope, entangled in the ongoing ordeals of land dispossession, out-of-control corruption, institutionalised racism, endemic violence against women and children, and a fumbling education system. It appears that, in all sorts of ways, South Africa has deeply repressed its own past, seemingly unable to break free from the sanitised confines of history books. How has post-apartheid South Africa accounted for its past? Or has the past been negated in order to get on with the future? Beyond the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), what exactly does repair and freedom mean now for South Africa? And how can we begin to think about the past as unfinished business?

In this essay, I consider how an ordinary object—the family photograph found in homes across Cape Town—can be mined for insights into the past and present lives of those oppressed by apartheid. The family album of the oppressed illuminates some of the questions raised by scholar Anthony Bogues (2011) in a lecture at the University of Cape Town, where he asked, “What kind of human beings are we…And how therefore shall we live?” Bogues (2010: 40) uses the notion of the “wound” to describe lingering, repeated trauma that results in “an historical event of long duration”. Like the camera flash that burns a transient blind-spot on the retina, its act of illumination causing certain erasures, the story of oppression exposes every possible kind of erasure to the eye.


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The photographs of clothing and textile workers in the Western Cape who take part in an annual pageant called “Spring Queen”, and the snapshots taken by “Movie Snaps” street photographers in Cape Town, are two examples of archives that speak to us about apartheid afterlives, providing an entry point for us as we think about erasures and absences in this moment and across other spaces and times. It is telling that these archives exist largely in homes across the Cape Flats and belong to people who are considered “black” (that is to say, non-white).

The Cape Flats is a relatively flat geographical plain between the Table Mountain chain, on ita western end, and the Hottentots Holland chain, on its eastern end. It is a highly complex and contested space. Through the apartheid mechanism of the Group Areas Act of 1950, which saw thousands of citizens forcibly relocated from the city centre to these peripheral areas, the Cape Flats has come to denote that part of Cape Town where “black” and “coloured” people live, even though there are pockets that would have been classified as “white” areas during apartheid. Areas such as Bonteheuwel, Manenberg and Hanover Park are easily visible from key tourist areas such as Table Mountain and Rhodes Memorial, but to many of the inhabitants of these flat and dusty settlements the division between the wealthy suburbs of the city and their own is acute. Newspaper headlines draw continuous attention to the socio-economic ills that plague the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who live in the Flats, reinforcing the division and isolation. These areas provide the backdrop to the Spring Queen pageant, a frame that on the one hand weighs heavily on the scripting of these “other” lives, but on the other allows a group of women to take to the fashion ramp and perform a moment of freedom.

The Spring Queen pageant is an annual event in which female factory workers from the clothing and textile industry in the Western Cape strut their stuff on the ramp. The pageant began in the late 1970s and was at its height in the late 1980s. Today, there are still up to 7000 excited and jubilant supporters who attend the final event, which is hosted by the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (SACTWU) at the Good Hope Centre in November each year. Yet the event barely registers in the affluent and still largely ‘white’ areas of the city.

Spring Queen fever begins around June/July each year, when thousands of women participate in in-house factory pageants. Given the historical labour particularities of the Western Cape, these women are almost all “black” and hail from the Cape Flats and the West Coast township of Atlantis.

I am not sure what exactly about the Spring Queen compelled me to begin this archive project. Except for my paternal grandmother, neither my parents nor I have worked in the garment and textile industry, and it could even be alleged that I was raised relatively unscathed by apartheid in the middle-class suburb of Walmer Estate. Yet the story of factory workers on the pageant ramp in the Good Hope Centre on the edge of what used to be District Six, with their beaming smiles and elaborate hairstyles, hovers closely over mine, and quite easily I think it could have been me who donned the blue overalls and made my way to work each morning to produce items of clothing for an unconscionably low wage. These women also know me in unwitting but intimate ways, for they have stitched the items of underwear I have purchased in careful and considered moments.

This project, which began when I found a faded photograph of my aunt in a clothing factory, has produced an exhibition, a 44-minute film documentary that has been screened across the globe, and a digital archive of hundreds of hours of interviews and thousands of photographs. It has attracted significant funding through the Arts and Heritage Research Council and collaboration from Brown University, Royal Holloway University of London and Queen Mary University of London.

These photographs are not spectacular in any conventional sense. They are often badly composed, poorly lit and, more often than not, held together by tape, evidence that these snapshots have passed through many hands. Notwithstanding the wear and tear, what is unmistakable is the subject who takes centre stage. She is a woman resplendent in a complicated hairstyle, wearing a dress that is bold, bright and accompanied by a winning smile. The women are of all ages and many are mothers, with several having a long history with the pageant: many of their mothers and aunts participated when they were employed in the factories a generation before. These women are the cutters, runners, machinists and packers of the clothing manufacturing industry in Cape Town. They work forty-eight hour weeks that begin in the early hours of the morning. According to Fachmy Abrahams (2012) of SACTWU, they are often single mothers who support up to eight people on their wages.

The image of the pageant queen appears to be at odds with that of the factory worker in the overalls, as the former shows a woman in a moment of self-representation that argues against everything that a factory worker from the wrong side of the tracks is supposed to be. The snapshots of the Spring Queen weave a story of resilience and imagination that draws our attention to a brief moment grabbed on the ramp—a moment that argues for liberation of a different sort, beyond emancipation at the polls. The performance of the ramp, manifested in the careful dress design, the hairstyles, the arresting confidence of stride and gaze, the group efforts of the factory workers in raising funds for their queen, urges us to consider these fleeting moments of profound self- and re-representation.

The previously constituted archive of the pageant photographs clears a space for unexpected connections to be made—between memories, bodies, histories, space and time. As such, it is a crucial prism through which we can start to think about how, as Bogues (2011) says, we now want to live, what histories we want to write and what questions we want to put to the legacies of trauma. A pageant of clothing and textile workers demands a radical look into ways of life and sets of practices, a look that asks whether we are really free. It demands that we think through the borders between emancipation, liberty and freedom, that we begin to conceptualise freedom as something not necessarily separate from the living of ordinary lives. The archive forces us as scholars, in the academy at this particular moment, to think about what it means to engage with the ordinary, the banal and the everyday. It probes us into thinking about our responsibilities and about how we are to access and theorise the experiences of thousands of South Africans who continue to live lives that are marked by an oppressive and racialised past. Critically, it requires that we include in our imagining of these lives the radical re-representations and performances of freedom that are embodied each year in the moment on the ramp.

Perhaps more importantly, though, this project has allowed me to think about the construction and nature of the apartheid archive in the postapartheid landscape. It has urged me to think about the work of the imagination and of creativity, gesturing towards new possibilities and practices that are outside of conventional frames. The Spring Queen pageant offers an opportunity not only to present alternate histories but to theorise such histories as well. The questions of the past become valuable only when we think of them as an effective critical history, unearthed through excavation and interpretation—when we create room for the previously silenced archives that will allow a new writing of the history of South Africa.

Spring Queen speaks to us about the factory floor, metaphorical and otherwise. The pageant tells us about the disposability of certain bodies and certain lives, and asks us to reflect on just which lives are deemed human, and which are not. It argues for a re-thinking of a system that constructs lives in this way. Through the Spring Queen, I tear apart just what it means for me and others to live in the afterlife of apartheid, in the aftermath of what Bogues (2010: 40) calls the “historical catastrophe”.


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In homes from Bantry Bay to Bonteheuwel, Milnerton to Mitchells Plain, hidden in cardboard boxes and displayed in well-thumbed family photo albums, one will find “Movie Snaps” photographs that comment on the city of Cape Town and its citizens in very particular ways. I came to Movie Snaps several years ago when I found a snapshot of my grandmother and me in the city centre. This snapshot began a journey that would bring me into scores of homes across Cape Town, and that would elicit interest from around the world.

The images, which at first glance appear to be ordinary, conjure up all sorts of conversations around remembering and forgetting, ways of life in the city and of self-representation. The Movie Snaps studio, which originated in a nondescript building at the edge of the Grand Parade at the beginning of the Second World War, provides a photographic framework that speaks to us both of exiled Jewish settlement in South Africa, and of the further annihilation and fragmentation of lives through legislated apartheid from 1948 onwards, the ramifications of which are still felt today.

Situated opposite the Cape Town General Office, a building with colonial and apartheid histories etched on its walls, the Movie Snaps studio was founded by a Jewish family in the early 1930s. The street photographers snapped thousands of people from Cape Town who, once they crossed the photographer’s chalk line, were photographed and convinced to take their ticket in the hope that they would purchase the image a few days later from the kiosk. These images offer us glimpses into history across several decades. They offer scholars of history, space, the archive, the visual, the creative and the postcolonial a chance to enter an archive that was previously held only in homes. These snapshots showing women resplendent in tulle dresses or wearing flared bell-bottoms, sailors in their crisp white uniforms and Muslim children celebrating Christmas with their Christian friends illustrate moments of ordinary living in extraordinary times. They offer a counterpoint to the now-familiar and perhaps tired narrative of apartheid’s images of protest action and violence.

Looking at these images now is much more than an exercise in nostalgia, for they speak to us about histories that still have to be recognised and written. One has to look carefully at those beautifully hand-stitched dresses and those perfectly coiffed beehive hairstyles in order to imagine lives that were at the time deemed inhuman, bodies whose futures were forever destroyed by the Group Areas Act.

The chalk line that was drawn each morning by the photographer comes to be seen as a dividing line that would forever change futures and pasts, separating us, so that today we sit on the opposite side of history. Our memory and its representations frequently seem to us inadequate, falling short in the wake of catastrophe; they cannot get past the violence of what we remember. This project offers us all a chance to revisit and step back over the chalk line, experiencing what it meant to live in a time when the country was intent on dehumanising the majority of its citizens. Like the Spring Queen archive, it offers a snapshot, as it were, of future possibilities, an opportunity to think about those other memories and histories as we continue our urgent quest towards freedom. The apparently banal and innocuous photographs of the Movie Snaps and Spring Queen archives are nothing short of spectacular, for they call for the input of the imagination and dare this fragile nation of ours to dream again of infinite possibilities—where we may yet be free and where the dream of April 1994 may yet be realised.


Bogues, A. 2011. Unpublished public lecture. Trauma, memory and democracy: the politics of historical catastrophe. Producing Africa colloquium, Centre for African Studies, University of Cape Town. [Recording].

Bogues, A. 2010. Empire of liberty: power, desire, and freedom. Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, Hanover and London.

Yule, P (dir). 2012. Spring Queen [Motion picture]. Centre for Curating the Archive.

Dr Siona O’Connell is a visual scholar who lectures at the Michaelis School of Fine Art. A BIARI (Brown International Advanced Research Research Institutes) alumnus, she takes the creative endeavour seriously, viewing it as a means to think about the ordinary and the afterlives of oppression. She has produced and directed several films and curated numerous exhibitions that think about the archive, memory and freedom. In her spare time, and ever an optimist and dreamer, she continues to pursue her childhood dream of being a ballet dancer.