Cedric Nunn: Riding the wave on the cusp of sweeping change

In the summer of 1989 four of us went on a road trip in pursuit of a story. It was life-changing in a way that we only realised much later. And it ­produced the evocative picture on the right by renowned South African ­photographer Cedric Nunn.

It was Nunn, who worked for the independent photographic agency Afrapix, Eddie Koch, who wrote for the Weekly Mail (now the Mail & Guardian), his friend from Canada, Annie (she was not a journalist and just came along) and I, who worked for the leftist Afrikaans newspaper Vrye Weekblad, taking the trip in Koch’s VW kombi to report on the apartheid state’s secretive missile testing in the sea off the coast of Arniston in the southern Cape. At some stage we decided to swing by the eastern part of the Cape to do a ­second story about forced removals.

It is this extraordinary photograph that is the centrepiece in a new book of Nunn’s work called Call and Response. We caught up again about our journey after the book’s recent launch in Johannesburg.

Although our trip was not exactly gonzo (we had irritations such as weekly deadlines and editors to consider), there were several absurd “only in apartheid South Africa” moments.

For part of the trip we were joined by Eastern Cape journalist Louise Flanagan and her German shepherd dog. In a meeting with “struggle” lawyers in King William’s Town, they strongly advised against us going to the Peelton “black spot” where a brave community resisted the state’s attempts to move them to the Ciskei homeland.

I stubbornly insisted that we go. Within minutes of arriving there, we got stopped by wary-looking homeland cops.

We realised that we were in trouble when we and the dog got detained by the notorious Ciskei security branch in their then-Bisho headquarters, where numerous activists had been tortured or even killed

We realised we were in deep trouble when we saw fresh bloodstains on our cell’s floor and splattered against the wall. “Do you remember the mysterious bloody boot mark high against the wall?” Nunn says, reminding me.

That is when we decided to confess during our interrogation that we were journalists. I do not think they ever believed that we were lost — I think my red Cosatu T-shirt was a bit of a giveaway.

Lucky break

We were released after several hours — we were lucky, because those thick-necked security cops were known to be brutal. Nunn never managed to take any pictures because they had confiscated his cameras when we were arrested. It was dark when they handed them back and we just wanted to get out of that shit hole.

In Arniston (aka Waenhuiskrans) Nunn fortunately managed to take lots of photographs to document the fishing community’s plight.

It was an infuriating story of the politically powerful pitted against the poor. Armscor had been testing lethal missiles, firing them over the sea. It meant that the black fishermen would arrive at the harbour only to find a sign informing them “no fishing today”. It seriously affected their only means of livelihood.

It was on a Saturday afternoon that Nunn took his beautiful photograph. We were doing interviews with the fishermen and their families. Nunn wandered off and found the village boys boogie-boarding.

“They were from a community rooted there. They owned the ocean in a way,” he says, remembering.

“The kids were more secure — there was no doubt of the ownership, even if it was dangerously not theirs with an South African Defence Force base in their backyard. The boys in that photograph were in some way oblivious to that. Their parents’ lives were very much interrupted — they could not go out on the sea to earn their bread.”

“Did you think it was an important image at the time?” I ask him.

“I don’t think so. I reacted to what I saw. It reminded me of when we were young and carefree, the never-ending summers. Yes, a sense of eternal summers, when days never ended.”

I was fortunate to go on several stories with Nunn in many parts of a seriously troubled South Africa during that era. Even though his pictures have always had a universality to them that still speaks to anyone looking at them today, his work was always political.

That trip was no exception.

“In a sense, those kids boogie-boarding was political. They were native to that surf. They were outside of the script of how we saw South Africa — black people not allowed to live, love or even swim where they wanted to. It was a most unusual sight.

“I saw the image after we returned from our trip and loved it. It was used in an Afrapix calendar, but it never entered the popular imagination … like some other images.”

The photograph won the FNB Art Prize last year, a new award linked to the hugely successful Jo’burg Art fair. “It is an important image because it reflects how people make sense of their lives, even in an abnormal ­society. For me, those boys affirmed our humanity. I constantly looked for those images …”

Left behind

I went back to the same village about five years later with a British TV crew. It was not the same. The man I had a long, fascinating interview with on our first trip, Oom Gert, had passed away. The Brits did not understand the small but complex community. Our quick trip was without the texture or the company of my first one.

Nunn tells me he went back again five years ago. “The people there are subjected to the challenges of freedom. The able and educated ones moved away — their contributions are no longer made there. The ones who stayed behind are struggling.

“It is the story of every township in every rural backwater — and you could see it there. People are being left behind; it’s the contradiction of progress versus a sense of helplessness.”

Our summer of 1989 trip was special for a variety of reasons. Nunn still remembers the fish I cooked on our first night in Waenhuiskrans. I remember how seasick I was when we went out with the fishermen, hanging over the side of a fishing boat fearing I could die, then hoping I would.

We laughed like the young men we were then, remembering how, on Koch’s insistence, we went to swim with dolphins, having to row far off the coast in a creaky little boat.

We never saw any damn dolphins, our pathetic oar broke and we had to be saved by a local fisherman in his motorboat. The whole community was standing in the harbour, roaring with laughter as the poor city slickers were towed back.

“It was a life-changing journey — no doubt, it shifted all of us,” Nunn says. “On that trip we had powerful experiences. The image and the trip come from a time of importance — major transformation was about to take place — yet one did not realise how important that moment would turn out to be. We were in a huge momentum, in an urgency of a current.”

Cedric Nunn’s Call and Response is published by Fourthwall Books

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