*Ranjith Kally, Photojournalist Extraordinaire

(First of two parts)


With the passing of Ranjith Kally in Johannesburg on June 6, apartheid-era photography has lost one of its stalwarts. From his appointment in 1956 as a photographer to Drum, a magazine which Bob Crisp and Jim Bailey launched in 1951 as a vehicle for the expression of black urban life, until his retirement in the mid-1980s, Ranjith Kally worked assiduously and yet creatively to furnish a record that is nearly without equal of the racial element in South African life and, just as importantly, of both the heroic and everyday transgressions of the insidious racial boundaries that make South Africa’s struggle against apartheid one of the most arresting chapters in the modern history of the triumph over oppressive adversity.  His sprawling oeuvre is a veritable library of what are now recognized as iconic snapshots of the principal political and artistic figures who brought the struggle in South Africa to the world’s attention.  But Kally was equally a chronicler of Indian life in and around Durban, working-class culture, the politics of the street, and the quotidian element in the social lives of South Africa’s black, colored, and Indian communities.  His camera was to become an object lesson in how one might begin to understand the extraordinariness of the ordinary.

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Ranjith Kally

Kally was born in 1925 in Isipingo, which lies just south of Durban and had been a ‘whites only’ area before it was reclassified as Indian.  His grandfather had been among those who had worked on the sugar plantations; his father, Kallicharan, was similarly born into this work, leaving for the fields at 3:30 am where he executed his duties as an overseer.  One of Kally’s earliest and most moving photographs is of his father poring over a Sanskrit text:  reproduced in Kally’s Memory Against Forgetting (2014), it conveys an impression of his father as a learned man rather than as a farm worker.  His father is foregrounded against a black sheet, which accentuates the early morning light; as Kally was to write, “I had wanted to use an old book which he would read often and this is the pose by which I’ve come to remember him.”

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Ranjith Kally’s father, Kallicharan, poring over a Sanskrit text.  Copyright:  Ranjith Kally.

Kally walked the three kilometres along a dirt road to school every day.  Schooling among Indian and black school-children seldom extended beyond adolescence in his days, and Kally took a position in a shoe factory after finishing standard six.  Meanwhile, a Kodak Postcard camera, which Kally had picked up at a jumble sale, had spurred his interest in photography, and after a part-time stint at the Durban-based newspaper The Leader, Kally assumed a paid position with Drum and the Golden City Post.  Sometime, perhaps in the early 1950s, a photograph by Kally was selected in a competition sponsored by the Japanese firm Pentax for third prize among 150,000 entries.  (However, in an interview that Kally gave to my friend, the historian Goolam Vahed, on 9 February 2016, he placed this event in 1957; however, in the introduction to Memory against Forgetting, as well as in The Indian in Drum, by Riason Naidoo, the competition is described as having taken place in 1964.)


Kally’s first photographs of anti-apartheid figures would be taken in the late 1950s.  At a break during the Treason Trial in Pretoria in 1958, the young photojournalist saw his opportunity.  Among those on trial were Monty Naicker, a doctor who turned to trade union activism before assuming leadership of the Natal Indian Congress and offering the NIC’s cooperation in the Defiance Campaign.  Monty played a key role in making possible the close cooperation between Africans and Indians that would signal the solidarity that would mark the distinctiveness of the anti-apartheid movement.  In his photograph, Monty commands the center; a young Nelson Mandela and the communist leader Yusuf Dadoo are in the background.

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Monty Naicker at the Treason Trial, Pretoria, 1958; in the background, Nelson Nandela and Yusuf Dadoo.  Copyright:  Ranjith Kally.

Monty remained among Kally’s favorite subjects, and he was one of the Indian political leaders who was featured regularly in Drum; but Kally’s proximity to the Indian community, and his own awareness of the political moment, led him to other Indians who were staunch advocates of racial solidarity.  A photograph from the 1970s shows the attorney Phyllis Naidoo who engineered the escape of many prominent anti-apartheid activists:  taken at her offices in Maseru after she had herself gone into exile, a pensive Naidoo reflects on her narrow escape from an assassination attempt.

Kally would capture, in a series of striking photographs, the travails of the Meer family.  In the early 1960s, Ismail Meer, then in detention, sought a portrait of his wife, Fatima, and their three young children to keep him company in his prison cell.  In Durban’s Botanical Gardens, Kally seated Shamin, Shehnaaz, and Rashid around their buoyant-looking mother.  There is no hint here of anxiety, fear, or the oppressiveness of racial terror.  Less than twenty years later, Kally would snap a photograph of Fatima Meer, a gigantic figure in the struggle in her own right, emerging from a courtroom with steely determination flanked by three lawyers who represented her as she sought to fight the repressive apparatus of the state.  Taken together, the two photographs do not only point to the passage of time:  writ large there is the tale, inter alia, of women assuming a place in the public sphere, the many guises of the political, and the little-discussed role of Indian Muslims in shaping secular narratives of freedom.

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However, for reasons that likely tell us something about Kally’s own political disposition, it is above all the figure of Albert Luthuli, the leader of the African National Congress, to which he was likely most drawn.  Kally was despatched to Groutville in 1961 when the news of the award of Nobel Peace Prize to Luthuli, who was under a banning order, was made public.  Kally photographed Luthuli against a rustic window frame, looking out at what is perhaps an uncertain future.  He is dressed in a workman’s overalls—rather apt, if we consider that he was a man of the people.  The frame tells its own story, of a man who had been framed by the state.  We may say that the framing device surfaces elsewhere in a different register, as in Kally’s photograph of a peace rally where a handful of men are holding aloft a huge photograph of Luthuli—a photograph also taken by Kally.  It is perhaps fitting that Kally concludes Memory Against Forgetting with a facial portrait of a smiling Luthuli who never stooped to the level of his opponent while reminding his readers that “as we celebrate freedom, we would do well to equally remember the legacy of the other great man of peace, Inkosi Albert John Luthuli.  While Madiba taught us how to forgive, Chief Luthuli first taught us how to love.”

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Chief Albert Luthuli:  photograph taken of him in Groutville after he had been informed of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize.  Copyright:  Ranjith Kally

Ranjith Kally was 91 years old when he passed away.


Note:  I met Ranjith Kally thrice on my second trip to South African in November 2015.  I was keen on doing an exhibition of some of his works and arranging for him to visit UCLA.  But, alas, I was too slow in moving things along. Kally was kind enough to share with me high resolution images of some of his work; the photographs here are all under copyright with him and his heirs.  This part first of my tribute was published in The Mercury South Africa as “Photographer’s oeuvre a vision of urban black life” (14 June 2017, p. 7).







*Skin-deep in South Africa: Some Reflections on Anthony Fabian’s ‘Skin’

For a film on skin color and the politics of race in apartheid South Africa, Anthony Fabian’s newly released “Skin” goes, it seems, only skin-deep into what could have been a most arresting set of questions.  Sophie Okonedo plays Sandra Laing, a girl of colored appearance born to white parents in the South Africa of the 1960s, when apartheid reigned supreme.  Though classified at birth as white, Sandra’s “colored” looks incline the white community to treat her as a colored person rather than as one of their own.  At the onset of the film, we see Sandra and her brother Leonore being driven to a boarding school for white children.  Before too long, the headmaster summons Sandra’s parents and insists that she be taken back home:  she is too much of a distraction.  Her father, Abraham Laing (Sam Neill), is wholly resistant to the idea:  as she has been classified white, she must, in his view, be admitted to all the privileges of white people.  But, as the movie progresses, it becomes all too apparent that he is driven not merely by a sense of securing justice or privileges for his daughter.  Could it be, he wonders, whether his wife Sannie (Alice Krige) was unfaithful to him?  The rumors flying around furiously must be quelled.   The headmaster succeeds in having Sandra re-classified as ‘colored’, whereupon Abraham becomes resolutely dedicated to having her classification restored to ‘white’.

In a moving scene, Sandra and her parents are summoned before a racial classification board.  The race expert, if we may call him that, calculates the ratio of her hips to her waits, and with a ruler takes the measurement of the width of her forehead; putting a pencil through her hair, he asks Sandra to shake her head to determine whether the curls can restrain the pencil and prevent it from falling out.  All this passed for ‘science’, a holdover from the days when colonial regimes routinely deployed anthropometry and craniology to establish racial and social hierarchies.  Desperate to establish the white credentials of his family, Abraham Laing has the matter taken to South Africa’s Supreme Court, where a geneticist testifies that Sandra’s appearance can be explained through her ‘polygenetic inheritance’.  Indeed, says the geneticist to gasps from the white audience, nearly all Afrikaners have some black genes – nor should this be surprising, considering how, much as in the United States, where white slave-owners routinely bedded their black women slaves, white men readily took black women to bed while otherwise declaring that complete segregation between the races was the law of nature.  Abraham’s hopes are crushed when the re-classification of colored for Sandra is nevertheless reaffirmed; but the passage of Parliamentary legislation decreeing that children born of white parents must be classified as white eventually makes him declare victory.

Several years have elapsed as the film moves into the next sequence of events.  Sandra has matured into a young woman and is now back home, awaiting the appearance of a suitable suitor.  Abraham Laing’s repeated attempts to match Sandra to a white man are the desperate gestures of a man whose attachment to whiteness is assumed by the filmmaker, but never probed.   What is there to be probed, one might ask:  is it not evident that ‘whiteness’ confers privileges, and in a profoundly hierarchical society is the principal passport to security, sustenance, and comforts?  Sandra, however, has set her eyes on a black man, a mere vendor of vegetables and busboy.  One senses that the immense struggles to claim whiteness have taken their toll of Sandra.  She has certainly been transformed to the point where her father can no longer recognize her.  Returning from a sexual rendezvous with her lover, she is discovered in the act and confined to her room.  Throughout, her mother has been the emotional bulwark of her life; but now, facing the fury of the law of the father, even Sandra’s mother reprimands her for her unconscionable behavior.  Many a film has gone that way:  the father represents the harsh customs of patriarchy, the mother strives valiantly to soften the blows inflicted by the father and cushion her children from the corrosive effects of the relentless display of a domineering masculinity.  Sandra elopes; the lovers are hunted down; thrown into jail, Sandra is released into the custody of her parents but rejects them – when her father pleads with her to return to them, she asks if they will accept the baby she has had with her black lover, Petrus Zwane (Tony Kgoroge).  Her father moves away dejectedly, and she leaves with her lover.  Their baby is born, but Petrus soon shows all the marks of the possessive husband.  There is no Iago scheming fatally to alienate Othello against Desdemona:  no such histrionics are required, since Petrus is little more than a small-minded lazy native.  A second baby comes along, but by this time Petrus is well on the way to spending much of his time with the booze bottle.  Years later, Sandra will walk away from her abusive husband, as she walked away from home:  as she climbs up the hill, her two adolescent children in tow, dawn breaks upon Johannesburg.

Just what is the heart of whiteness?  Where is the heart of the whiteness that has no heart?  And, yet, sunk in its darkness, whiteness is still inescapably desirable to others.  We all have heard of creams to lighten the skin color, and there are innumerable ‘home remedies’ to scrub away the darkness.  One such remedy, a poisonous concoction of chemicals and cleansers, makes Sandra’s skin erupt into boils.  This is the nearly ineradicable poison wrought by apartheid and racial ideology.   One of the many pillars of whiteness in South Africa was the Byzantine system of classification, enforced through a maze of written and unwritten laws.   Though white and classified as such, Sandra is reclassified as colored at the instance of the school headmaster, and her father wages what purports to be a heroic struggle to reclassify her yet again as colored.  His success is short-lived:  seeking acceptance among black people, Sandra seeks — shockingly, valiantly, inexplicably — to undo her privileges and seeks reclassification as colored.  A visit to the government office charged with such matters reveals that Sandra cannot will herself into extinction as a white person.  That the state should find objectionable the efforts of colored people to prove themselves white comes as no surprise, but perhaps even more objectionable, in principle, is the apostasy of those who disown the ancestral privileges of race.  Perhaps there is enough in the film’s scenes to point to the filmmaker’s recognition of the oppressive ostentatiousness of classificatory schemes, but nevertheless I had the feeling that the politics of classification is insufficiently probed in “Skin”.

In the aftermath of the end of the apartheid, the film moves to a closure by reuniting Sandra with her mother.  Her father has long since been dead; for some twenty odd years, Sandra has been separated from her mother.   Women are the only strong characters in “Skin”:  the men are morally crippled by patriarchy, energized only by authority, and confined in their actions by a maze of laws and the force of custom.   Everyone’s focus will perhaps be riveted upon Sandra’s father, but there is no more pathetic creature than her older brother.  Protective of his sister, he turns, suddenly and ferociously, against her when their father tries to hunt her down after her elopement.   Abraham and Leonore make a huge bonfire of everything that might remind them that Sandra is part of the family.  Fire is cleansing and redemptive, and men are incapable of moral reflection. The film makes the attempt, but only inconsequentially so, in putting forth the idea that the authority of the state and the paternalism of the father are born of the same seed to dominate.  No new ground is being tread here, and even the idea of the quiet but strong and determined woman, whose inner strength prevails against all odds, who knows no end of oppression, has now been encountered often enough to constitute a predictable trope of what might be called movies in the ‘inspirational’ mode.  Sandra has weathered many a storm, and the viewer feels relieved at what is evidently her quiet triumph.  One wishes only that the story of the new South Africa were more congruent with this flash of inspiration.