South Africa’s apartheid history is visible only through the lens of struggle and oppression. Books, articles and photographs are sources, far and few in between; from which knowledge into that period can be garnered, only showing us what were already aware of, it was an extremely challenging time. Hence the work of documenters like the late photographer Santu Mofokeng in those mediums (books, text and photographs) provide unique insight into life during apartheid. His impact has not only been in terms of reflecting those times, he has also had a massive impact on a new generation of photographers, serving as a reference for an evolving country healing from its past.
Born in 1956 in Soweto, Mofokeng began his career as a street photographer during his teenage years. After working as an assistant in the dark rooms of various newspapers, in the 1980s, Mofokeng worked as a news photographer and went on to join Afrapix, a collective of anti-apartheid photographers which he worked with for most of the 80s. The collective engaged in exposé and documentary photography of anti-apartheid resistance reflecting the social conditions during that period. However, Mofokeng was an internal critic of mainstream photojournalism, he was uncomfortable with the conventions that broadly came to define "struggle photography" and its relentless depictions of suffering. He referred to it as a "partial reality" and strove to represent a fuller, more complex picture of ordinary life in SA.
His images reflect a nuanced understanding of daily life during and after apartheid showcasing various South African communities up close and from within. His depictions of ordinary South Africans has inspired a new generation of contemporary documentary and street photographers, whose work display the parities between then and now, revealing a country that has evolved but has stayed the same in terms of spatial and systemic inequality.
Reflecting on his legacy, photographers, curators and the like, have been sharing the impact of his work and its significance:
"Johannesburg is a city that dances on the edges of elusive, and yet somehow Santu Mofokeng managed to contain it within a frame"- Lidudumalingani, writer, filmmaker and photographer (for Joburg Review)
"An icon whose images haunted me, an artist who inspired me and an observer who captured a generation and intrigued many to follow with his awe inspiring body of work. Thank you for your contribution" - Anthony Bila, street and documentary photographer.
“A complicated and dynamic photographer whose poetic images and short stories captured eloquently the ongoing human struggle against existing inequalities,” Tumelo Mosaka, South African curator based in New York.
(Some works by a few young contemporary photographers reflecting Santu Mofokeng's work. Credits: top left: Obakeng Molepe, top middle: Andile Buka, top right: Harness Hamese, bottom left: Obakeng Molepe, bottom right: Anthony Bila for Faculty Press)
Mofokeng's work offers a deeper perspective on communities that had been defined by oppression and turmoil, highlighting spirituality in that era through his work "Train Churches" and his prolific book and body of work "Chasing Shadows".
Later in his career Mofokeng taught photography at the Market Photo Workshop and at the University of the Witwatersrand.
And now to honour his legacy, it was announced on 22 April 2019 that a new fellowship, The Santu Mofokeng Fellowship will provide researchers, archivists, curators and students the infrastructural support and access to photography archives in the development of new narratives and content. The fellowship was announced at the Market Theatre when the Market Photo Workshop was presented with the prestigious Prince Claus Award. “The Fellowship is an opportunity to continue Santu Mofokeng’s love, respect and contribution to the practice of photography in Africa and the world”, said Lekgetho Makola, head of the Market Photo Workshop.
His books, bodies of work and the Santu Mofokeng Fellowship are legacies that impact not only the photography industry but offer perspectives of history to a country trying to reconcile its past.