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The Portfolio: Deseni Soobben



I was privileged. I had a home. Yet, right before me, people’s homes were burnt to cinders. Right before me was a wasteland. People were slowly picking up the pieces and leaving. There was silence. Nobody was screaming or talking or shouting. The land was burning … There were not many men. The women were sitting, with children, waiting for their families to come home from work. They had nowhere to go. Some women continued with their menial tasks, bathing their children in the open. Some comforted their young ones; some just sat and stared into the unknown. Where to go? What to do?

Grandmothers who could not walk sat on beach chairs, waiting. It was the forced removals. Everything moved in slow motion, almost dream-like, yet this was no dream —this was their nightmare. Mattresses were burnt, however, the springs and iron structure of the bed could still be used. One man was carrying a bed on his head. Others looked hopeless, as if they didn’t know which way to turn. One woman was bathing her son, probably carrying on with the usual tasks of the day. When photographs jog your memory, this evokes senses and sounds.

I always felt awkward photographing people in desperate, unfortunate conditions. What do you say? How do you comfort? Is “sorry” ever enough? Yes, these pics were important and sought-after by our photographic agency, Afrapix, for the overseas unionists and activists. The photos encapsulate memories of the endless funerals of activists; the bullet-ridden, blood-stained rondavels on the South Coast; desolated homes in Imbali, amid the beautiful lush landscape of the Kwazulu-Natal Midlands. How can such a beautiful country have such stark, awful conditions?

Thirty years later, in democratic South Africa, we still have forced removals. People still do not have homes. Whatever happened to the promises that every citizen will have a home, clean, running water, lights, food — after all, shelter is a basic human right. Thirty years later, I am still privileged. I still have a home.

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Deseni Soobben 1
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