Living apart

No photographer has captured the stark divisions of apartheid better than Ian Berry. Blacks and whites, servants and masters, exuberance versus obduracy - his photographs record the long journey from South Africa's white republic to Mandela's new democra
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The Independent Culture
When I was a teenager growing up in South Africa, a poster-sized Ian Berry photograph hung above my bed. It depicted a charismatic black couple flirting with each other in a mixed-race cafe in 1960, their interaction evoking playfulness, freedom, even normality. This, the caption declared, was "South Africa". For whites like myself, born after the last mixed- race cafes had been declared illegal, it revealed a reality which the law forbade us to enter. Here black people interacted not as servants but as people. It was a world we could only experience vicariously.

It was this "duty to live apart while occupying the same space" that so fascinated the British photographer Ian Berry. He arrived in South Africa in the early Fifties, a curious 17-year-old "driven by an urge to see the world". He got a job on the black magazine Drum and within a few years had shot to prominence. He was the photographer to capture the defining political event of the decade: the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. Magnum Photos, the cream-of-the-crop photographic agency, signed him up in 1963. But Berry, ironically, was not a political animal. In the cracks between commissions for Paris Match, Life, Stern and the Observer magazine, he set out with his Leica to capture what really grabbed him - the ordinary social relationships between white and black people, within the extraordinary framework imposed by apartheid.

"I spent days walking the streets, not knowing what I was looking for until a fraction of a second before I saw it," recalls Berry. "The challenge was to anticipate what was about to happen, pick up the camera, and not just shoot it bang on, but hope to make a satisfying composition. I always tried to get off the first few frames before anyone saw me. Once people reacted to my presence, the moment was gone. I have always subscribed to the Cartier-Bresson philosophy that you should be able to blend in on the high street of Shanghai with a couple of Leicas, stark naked."

The result of this enduring personal project is Living Apart: South Africa Under Apartheid, a disturbingly beautiful retrospective of Berry's work spanning 35 years, from 1960 to 1995, published next week.

If it feels as if we have seen Berry's images (or images like them) before, it is because we have. The South Africa they portray is familiar to us precisely because photojournalists such as Berry have shaped our preconceptions. In the foreword to the book, Archbishop Tutu describes Berry's images as "a searing indictment of our inhumanity to one another, and an important record to counteract amnesia". But Berry's gaze goes beyond historical reportage, evincing the archetypes of Afrikaner, English and African consciousness and the subtle shifts they have made over three decades.

What essentially is it about South Africa that these images portray? And how relevant are they to the new democratic era of today?

The most obvious point about Berry's apartheid-era images is that we rarely see black and white together in the same frame. Berry wanted to show the racial groups reacting to one another, but physical constraints rendered this difficult to accomplish. Indeed, the only time we observe them together is in the master-servant relationship. Such images - such as the one of a black flower-seller humbly holding out a bunch of flowers to a stiff white couple doing their best to ignore her, or the backs of a white couple strolling hand in hand, cut off from two lithe black men frolicking on the whites-only beach behind them - are telling for two reasons. They show how blacks were rendered invisible by their white masters - place your hand over the black person in the image to airbrush him out, and you will see what most white South Africans saw: nothing - and, secondly, they show that the interaction between the races was always on the white man's terrain. (The beach image, incidentally, had an unexpected fan - it was Francois Mitterrand's favourite photograph, and hung on the wall of his presidential office, as well as being on the front of a book about his life.)

The black people in these images are in perpetual motion - smiling, jiving, gesturing, demonstrating - usually in groups, with indomitable, raw passion and energy. White people, in contrast, appear static, isolated and pensive, their jaws set like granite against the world. They may have the power, but they rarely look happy. It was this over-simplification of the Afrikaner as an immovable object that led Berry and other foreign journalists to believe, mistakenly, that the final transition to democracy would be a bloody one. "I thought they were going to shoot it out rather than compromise," he recalls. "On the day of the general election I travelled this country expecting disaster, and experienced a miracle. I guess the truth is that, although as a foreigner I had access to black society, I never penetrated the thinking of Afrikaners."

Berry's images of the 1994 general election portray white and black together in a new embrace. But when he returned a year later he saw few opportunities to capture blacks and whites colliding in the same frame. He dwelt, instead, on the enduring legacy of separateness, depressed to find that conditions in shambolic settlements such as Alexandra Township had changed very little.

Yet one year on was too soon to judge the fledgling democracy and, as Berry now admits, his images may reflect a rapidly receding past.

Indeed, when I returned to South Africa last month, my first trip since the general election, the image that leapt out at me again and again was one of extraordinary racial harmony. A change has been brought about by the burgeoning of a black middle class. Wherever you look, blacks make up the majority in formerly whites-only shopping malls, steak houses, TV programmes, schools and jobs. And when, as a white, you ask whether things have really changed, pointing out that the old problems of inadequate housing, unemployment and rampant crime have barely been dealt with, they bid you be patient, enjoy the honeymoon, "feel free" with them, in their new, free country.

For the first time, too, a few whites are beginning to embrace African culture. Not in the contrived, secretive way of the past, but openly and easily.

While I was there, I had the opportunity to watch the South African football team, Bafana Bafana (meaning "the boys, the boys"), play against Brazil at the FNB stadium on the outskirts of Soweto. I went with my father, with whom I had watched white football in my youth, and we were two of about 5,000 whites among a black crowd of 75,000. It was a carnival-like experience and, despite being on "black" terrain, I never once felt in danger; there was not a scintilla of hostility towards my colour. But there was a part of me, and it rose from deep inside and surprised me, which felt insecure.

The songs, chants, inflections and humour of the black people all around us were African - undiluted, unapologetic African. Watching my father, like myself, making gawky attempts to sway in rhythm and learn the words, I realised that for the first time I felt a stranger in my native country. It didn't feel like an unbridgeable gap, and certainly there is no obligation upon whites to straddle it, but to feel truly "comfortable" in South Africa now it is incumbent upon whites to make the effort to embrace African culture. Many whites, despite their fears of falling standards, are learning to go with the flow. Without making much fuss, they're accepting what it means to live in Africa.

It may be optimistic; it may not last; but today the freewheeling energy of Berry's 1960 mixed-race cafe is alive and well and... almost everywhere

'Living Apart' by Ian Berry is published on Monday (Phaidon Press, pounds 45). His photographs are at the Royal Photographic Society, Bath, from Saturday

1969 A black nanny, aged only 10 or 12, with her young white charge. Despite the lack of contact elsewhere in South African society, it was until recently absolutely normal for whites to entrust their children to black servants 1961 Dr Anthony Barker (left), who ran a mission hospital in Zululand, treating a pregnant woman in a local traders' store room, where he held clinics. His practice covered an enormous area, which he visited by ambulance - a sledge drawn by oxen. 1984 A blind man busks to bus queues in Johannesburg (below left). The man in the foreground, who was slightly tipsy, began dancing on the pavement. 'Even then,' says Berry, 'it was becoming difficult to walk safely round the area. You could take a couple of shots and mo ve on. Now, it would be impossible' 1960 After the Group Areas Act, 1959, when the Nationalist Party government enforced apartheid, the outskirts of Johannesburg, previously racially mixed, were declared a white area.This cafe (right), which was illegal, was frequented by a few liberal whites. On this particular evening, the pianist Dollar Brand was playing and Ian Berry went along for 'Drum' magazine. 'It was just a nice moment that I saw, and shot off a frame,' he recalls. 'It summed up the tender side of the African, which was not often seen' 1981 Halfway down Adderley Street in Cape Town, coloured ladies try to tempt passers-by with flowers (top). Just before the 1994 election, the extreme right-wing AWB blew up a building close to the ANC headquarters. The area was immediately cordonedoff and given an army guard (middle). Here, a young black man mocks the soldiers. In 1995, Berry spent a couple of nights with the Johannesburg Flying Squad, with two sergeants, one black, one white, who spend most of their time chasing stolen cars. Driving round Hillbrow, now a predominantly black area, they picked up a black man. But, despite his threatening attitude (bottom), the sergeant merely warned him to keep his domestic problems quiet. Berry wonders, 'Who knows whether it was because I was there?'

1960 Afrikaners leaving the polling booth at Benoni (below), where they voted on becoming a republic. 1981 A tea break at a fish canning factory in Cape (right). 'I liked the shape of it, the synchronised tea drinking,' says Berry. 1984 Afrikaner women, part of the Kapple Kommando, the female wing of the AWB, at the Voortrekker Monument, the Holy Grail for Afrikaners (middle). They were protesting at the perceived liberal policies of the Nationalist government. 1995 Alexandra Township, the oldest squatt er camp in Johannesburg (bottom). 'In 1994, just before the elections, I felt really nervous, nervous of political violence, just because I was white. This time, there was no real fear. This guy just walked past and gave me a greeting. It was very upbeat '