/ 8 May 2020

What is this place?: The visual simulacrum of South Africa in the Covid-19 lockdown

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Covid patrol: Soldiers with a homeless person in Yeoville, Johannesburg. The military health services plan to reinforce, regroup and strengthen its medical capacity in the wake of Covid-19. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)


The photographic coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic in the international news publications that I turn to in times of crisis have left me with the sense that I live in no place on earth. When I look out of the window at the empty streets of Cape Town under lockdown, with a view through my rampant bougainvillea I wonder if I am imagining the highway, the sleepy homes, the park, the apartment blocks, the punky coffee shop, Amazon, the stands of umbrella pines and eucalyptus, the Art Deco-era fire station, the highrises downtown, and the cranes with their red and white chevrons fringing Table Bay. 

It all looks real enough, yet photographs in the most trusted of centre-left media online show a South Africa in the throes of lockdown so unlike the visual panoply of the country I am familiar with, that I have to wonder. I consider the photographs and whether they might exist in the South Africa beyond my window, and yes, there I do see settlements of tin and canvas stretching for kilometres, guys dressed in rags with hungry looks on their faces, a guy in a filthy hoodie sleeping in a wheelie bin, another bunch of guys hungrier than the first gripping each other as they teeter from grumbling tummies, guys in traditional feathers mooching about catching their breath between dances as tourists cycle by, lions sleeping on empty roads, other lions and hyenas indulging in a bit of sabre rattling on a misty golf course, two soldiers hustling a nice old lady dressed in a bin bag through the streets of Johannesburg, another soldier with his finger creeping ever closer to the trigger as he tries not to stare down the (hungry looking) people queuing outside a supermarket, cleaning ladies waving essential worker permits as they beseech masked police to let them board that minibus taxi, and that squad of balaclava-clad cops with shotguns at half mast as they saunter past a modest suburban home. 

What’s going on, then? It’s not like the online vision of the left-leaning media stalwarts are wrong. Their vision of South Africa is one I could find, presuming I could burst out my front door (or maybe back door as the cops are manning a roadblock more or less at my front door) without being arrested for violating lockdown.

But I am still left with a teetering sensation… cliff-edge, bottomless abyss teetering. 

If you accept that online image as South Africa you have to agree that the place is done for. It’s a basket case, no question. There is nothing there but guys in rags, desperate women who could only be cleaning ladies, cops and soldiers everywhere not only armed to the teeth but with faces hidden behind masks to better facilitate the gleeful use of force. Once the armed bunch mows down the unarmed bunch, the lions at least will be able to sleep in peace on the highway. 

With most of the world’s population confined indoors, relying on the internet to exist in the world outside, what Jean Louis Baudrillard showed decades ago — that media images have become more real than the real — has perhaps come to pass. With no way of going out to collect real images, I am left only with the simulacrum of South Africa erected by the online news media. 

Yes, I shrugged, at first viewing the map does supersede the territory, the South Africa I know is dissolved and this bewildering Bruegel painting online becomes the real territory.  And yet, when I step into that simulacrum, I can only murmur: “What is this place?” as though in a Terrence Malik movie. 

I tried it the other night, lying in bed during my 15th insomnia attack of lockdown: I stepped into the photographs. Yet I was ejected every single time! It seemed there was no place in those pictures for me. I could hear the concerned readers frowning for that millisecond at what must be a San Francisco hipster accidentally photoshopped in before the simulacrum bounced me out and left them with a clean image of starving guys in rags, trigger happy soldiers, (hungry-looking) dignified women in turbans beseeching for their right to work as cleaning ladies, and sleepy lions. 

My experiment worked on another level, though. It showed me that the online visual landscape has been sanitised of all elements that would render a comprehensive, expansive vision of South Africa. I was struck by another finding. There is another element to these images that must be kept outside the frame, all the more vivid for the exclusion: the shadowy other end of the spectrum which has made South Africa the most inequitable place on earth.

I tried to visually render this unseen element: glistening highrises in Johannesburg that house the headquarters of merchant banks and finance houses, the concrete and glass lairs of mining magnates, immense industrial districts presided over by CEOs churning out bit and bobs, fleets of trucks charging along superhighways to stock shopping malls with said bits and bobs, and well-tailored and groomed millionaires stepping out of low-slung roadsters to buy them. I sense that the  traditional centre-left online news media want me to visualise these images at the edges of the frame. 

Yet even visualising this unseen element, I could not recognise this version of South Africa. What about the images of scientists in laboratories working away at developing a vaccine; a woman in protective gear taking a swab at a drive-through testing station; a beaming couple on their balcony as their kids peer through the lounge window framed by lockdown countdown dates drawn in crayon; the void shopping malls with just that one young woman hurrying along; the lone surfer jogging along the sodden promenade; the leaf-strewn high street empty but for that one shopper; the windblown beaches with not one swimmer; the panic buying shoppers with trolleys a jumble of produce and toilet paper; the lone homeless person hunkered down under a plastic tarp beneath an oak tree sculpting wood; the kid hurrying behind his mother as they make for the supermarket; the cop giving a good natured wave to a motorist at a roadblock. 

This third set of images, in the same traditional online media, depict lockdown scenes in countries other than South Africa — countries named as advanced. Yet I have seen identical images depicting South Africa in the local online media. I have also seen their equivalent in person and wished I had taken my camera along on my harried lockdown shopping. 

Why will the left, liberal media publications that I rush to for solace not depict this third set of images? Why the need to truncate the visual landscape of South Africa? The same goes for other countries named as inequitable —  the Gini coefficient squad: Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and pretty much every country in sub-Saharan Africa, where there is certainly somebody like me glowering at the laptop screen asking: what is this place? 

Perhaps it is because this third set of images, the expansive ones reserved for advanced economies, depict each country as very much like another, all grappling with their humanity and fear of extinction in similar ways. It might be that this visual narrative of a fluid sameness to the experience of crisis is far too threatening. There is, after all, a calming stability to a visual landscape in which there exist fair countries with advanced economies where poverty is an anomaly ranged against inequitable countries with a parasitic elite lording it over ragged unfortunates. This is the calm of knowing that all might not be well here but at least we strive to be humane, whereas there is where the horror of the inhuman lies. The sameness of images of mass graves on Hart Island and those in Tehran, the ice rink morgue in Madrid, the shacks of the homeless in Los Angeles, nurses in the United States and the United Kingdom wearing bin bags as protective gear —  these images have proven that restricting the indictment of inhumanity to the Gini coefficient squad is something of a collective projection.   

Depicting inequitable countries such as South Africa with a comprehensive photographic vision will reveal that extreme wealth disparities exist everywhere, as do islands of innovation, progress, everyday courage and humanity jostling with urban degradation, injustice and the collapse of well-being. The kind of  photographic sweep that will allow fragments of, say, California to look much like fragments of the Western Cape across the spectrum from ruin to hope will show that a global visual landscape cannot be rendered as a national one except through the most narrow and contrived lens.