The structures that David Goldblatt values

At his home in Johannesburg, photographer David Goldblatt discusses his recent work Structures of Dominion and Democracy – an update of his book of photographs taken between 1983 and 1993: South Africa: The Structure of Things Then.

“I’m now looking at what has emerged or what is beginning to emerge since the advent of democracy, in much the same way as I did before,” he tells me.

Old monuments are remarkably current of late and we discuss the moves by students to have statues like that of Cecil John Rhodes removed.

“I applaud the sudden awareness that lies behind this, that statues actually have significance. They are not simply blocks of stone, granite or whatever,” says Goldblatt.

“But I am totally opposed to the kind of direct action that was taken in Cape Town and now in other places. It precludes discussion and I think a democracy is based on the idea that when you have differences you can talk about it … it’s fundamental.”

Creating history
I question whether removing statues of people like Rhodes and other colonial- and apartheid-era figures, is not merely par for the course, but he is having none of it. “The fact that they were not democrats doesn’t in my opinion in any way minimise their importance historically.”

He points to the University of the Free State, where monuments like Willem Boshoff’s polished granite sculpture, Thinking Stone, were commissioned to try to heal divisions on campus. A photo of this is included in Goldblatt’s update to Structures.

“I think that’s the answer to Cecil John Rhodes if you like. It’s possible in sculpture, if that’s what we’re talking about, to have other things, to have other ways, other ideas, expressed and made concrete, or made manifest.”

His new work on structures is not just about democracy. “I’m looking at everything that I can. That I find significant,” he says. “It’s more about the way the history is being created, rather than their ethical basis. Their importance lies in telling the story itself, rather than their validity.”

Cecil Rhodes statue David Harrison

Goldblatt’s new photographs show pavements ripped up by copper-wire thieves, RDP houses, mosaic cows in Doornfontein, women’s monuments, memorials to children and miners.

“Each piece, if it was seriously made, has its own validity. And I think it’s very important to take cognisance of that validity if you like, or of what lies behind it and to respect it as the effort of somebody, somewhere, sometime to express that. And to grasp its meaning in the broader scheme of things.”

What is the value?
Goldblatt describes what he looks for in his photography. “I’m interested in the values, in human values,” he explains. “And embedded in these things are our values, or the values of the person who built it and used it. This to me is the significance of these structures in Dominion and Democracy.

“That students threw shit over Cecil John Rhodes is a very important and significant event. The significance lies in asking what ­values were they expressing in those actions. Get to grips with those and I think you’re beginning to understand some of the forces at work in this country.”

He then shows me one print from the original series, reflecting triumphalist monuments to the old republic in the modernist totalitarian style. The composition is dominated by former apartheid prime minister JG Strijdom’s grotesque disembodied head. In 2001, on the 40th anniversary of Republic Day, Strijdom’s bust fell through the floor to the parking garage below and shattered.

“There was no sabotage, two homeless people were slightly injured,” he recounts. When I ask whether it’s okay if a monument is toppled by an act of God, Goldblatt chuckles.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Advertising

READ IT IN FULL: Ramaphosa’s address on the extension of...

This is the full address given by President Cyril Ramaphosa on April 9

Meet the doctor leading Africa’s fight to contain the coronavirus...

Dr Matshidiso Moeti’s father helped to eliminate smallpox. Now she’s leading Africa’s efforts against the coronavirus

Stella set to retain her perks

Communication minister will keep Cabinet perks during her two months of special leave

Covid-19 grounds Nigeria’s medical tourists

The country’s elites, including the president, travelled abroad for treatment but now they must use the country’s neglected health system

Press Releases

Rahima Moosa Hospital nursing college introduces no-touch facial recognition access system

The new system allows the hospital to enrol people’s faces immediately, using artificial intelligence, and integrates easily with existing access control infrastructure, including card readers and biometrics

Everyone’s talking about it. Even Kentucky

Earlier this year South African fried chicken fast-food chain, Chicken Licken®, launched a campaign for their wallet-friendly EasyBucks® meals, based on the idea of ‘Everyone’s talking about it.’

New energy mix on the cards

REI4P already has and will continue to yield thousands of employment opportunities

The online value of executive education in a Covid-19 world

Executive education courses further develop the skills of leaders in the workplace

Sisa Ntshona urges everyone to stay home, and consider travelling later

Sisa Ntshona has urged everyone to limit their movements in line with government’s request

SAB Zenzele’s special AGM postponed until further notice

An arrangement has been announced for shareholders and retailers to receive a 77.5% cash payout

20th Edition of the National Teaching Awards

Teachers are seldom recognised but they are indispensable to the country's education system

Awards affirm the vital work that teachers do

Government is committed to empowering South Africa’s teachers with skills, knowledge and techniques for a changing world