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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

STRAIGHT TALK (article first published : 2005-01-2)

German photographer, Dawin Meckel, and graphic designer, Ole Keune, have produced a straight-talking, hard hitting but often extremely poignant description of current day South Africa.

In the first paragraph of their book, Straight Talk – Voices from the new South Africa, Dawin Meckel and Ole Keune describe Cape Town: “Unlike all-too-grey Germany where everybody is chasing the clock, life here seems so carefree.” However, there is another world that is not so carefree outside the comfort of their observation point in a coffee shop. A streetchild sniffs glue and watches as seven rand is paid for a cup of coffee. The two lives are far apart.

“After spending two months at City Varsity in Cape Town in 2001,” say the authors, “we decided not to continue with our studies but through photo-journalism rather to try to gain our own insight into this country as it stands today, after a decade of democracy. Straight Talk was intended as a vehicle to allow people from the most diverse echelons of South African society to speak, and in their own words to give their impressions of the lay of this land.”

The first four photographs in the book provide an example in themselves of the diversity to follow: a group of jubilant men joke and laugh; two supine male figures tan in the blazing sun; a multi-screen presentation takes place around crowded fast food outlets in a shopping complex, and two charred and stained mattresses lie dumped in a clearing.

The book mainly deals with Cape Town and there are many memories about forced removals and concerns about the gangsterism that is rife in most township communities. Jerome, who comes of a “mixed marriage” remembers his childhood days of “having to be one person with my (white) friends and another person with my (coloured) family at home on the weekend.” Women’s activist and former apartheid activist Avril Hoepner recalls the dark days when white people supporting the struggle became immediate targets.

In most instances, those interviewed are not happy with South Africa as it is today. There is general concern about violence being accepted as a norm by youngsters. DJ Ready refers to a new generation of hard-living gangsters aged between five and the late teens who are not afraid to die, to kill or to murder. An embittered prisoner just wants to stop the gangsterism: “Then this is going to be the sweetest country in the world.”

Many yearn for the days of Mandela, others feel the country is not moving forward fast enough. “Reconciliation means, if a person reaches out his hand, grip it. You can’t take just the little finger,” says Thando Sekame who was involved in the 1976 student uprising against the introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of education.

Often the opinions are extreme. Wiehan, a self-acknowledged active racist, doesn’t consider himself a “gangster” – just a member of “a normal bunch of guys who stand up against gangsterism and all that shit that is going on.” Counteracting this hatred and violence is Vicky Yokwane who, with the help of the Presbyterian Church, heads a community garden in Guguletu where she trains people to “get peace inside themselves” by doing gardening.

The photographs speak for themselves: a well-ordered middle-class suburb of Goodwood and a shack in District Six; or a mural preaching care of the environment in a street strewn with rubbish. A pair of young BMX bikers just want everyone to get on together without fighting. A serene photograph portrays an old woman striding out across a park-like field in Klein Constantia and another stunning photograph shows Llandudno beach at sunset. Smartly tailored, MD Letepe Maisela stresses the importance of employment and sustainability. Founder of the Stoned Cherrie label, Nkhensani Manganyi believes we need to see beyond the things that divide us, maintaining that putting too much emphasis on cultural differences divides people. Successful Motamane Mathosi, who now employs 15 engineers, had to overcome prejudice against his massive dreadlocks before he was employed according to his high engineering academic achievements.

It is good to see that the younger interviewees are positive about the future and are grasping opportunities with capable hands.

This is a worthwhile publication that makes interesting reading but, considering that the authors describe their book as being from the new “South Africa”, rather than from the “Western Province” or “Gauteng”, I would have liked a wider representation of South Africa’s people – for instance, there is only one interviewee from KwaZulu-Natal.

Straight Talk – Voices from the new South Africa is published in hardcover with a dust jacket by Struik and retails at R189.95. ISBN No. 1 77007 008 7 – Caroline Smart




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