/ 27 March 2021

The Portfolio: [BR]OTHER by James Oatway and Alon Skuy

Brother 03 (1)
Law enforcement officers conduct random searches of pedestrians at a time when xenophobic unrest was sweeping through central Johannesburg. (Alon Skuy)

More than 12 years have passed since deadly xenophobic attacks swept unexpectedly through South Africa’s townships and informal settlements. The 2008 wave of violence left more than 60 people dead, hundreds injured and tens of thousands displaced from their homes, forcing them to find refuge in makeshift refugee camps, community halls and police stations. 

This was our first experience of photographing such brutal violence. As the years went by there have been “isolated incidents”, but it seemed that the chaos of 2008 was buried safely in the past. Until 2015. And then 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Now in 2021, xenophobia is still on the rise. Bouts of violence are becoming more frequent. South African social-media timelines are punctuated with inflammatory language steeped in hatred. These days the violence is often referred to as “cleaning” and refugees and migrants are called “cockroaches” or “locusts”. Migrants were attacked in Durban as recently as this month. What is being done to prevent this violence?

Many believe that the root of this problem lies largely in the belief (by South Africans) that migrants are solely to blame for South Africa’s economic woes. Poor South Africans are suffering under the yoke of poverty, unemployment and poor service delivery. Covid-19 has added even more pressure. We blame “foreigners” and direct our anger at them —not the government.

[BR]OTHER is a visual record of this turmoil. The foreword, written by former Constitutional Court judge, Justice Edwin Cameron, is accompanied by critical texts by Achille Mbembe, João Silva, Justice Malala, Koketso Moeti and others. 

Many of the photographs in the book are harrowing and confronting. It’s not for sensitive viewers. We took great care in how we presented these pictures, situating them among pieces of writing that provide context and understanding of the issues at the centre of this problem. 

In documenting these events, the book aims to draw attention to the dangers that lie in hatred, intolerance and indifference. It is an urgent call to action. As a society we must not ignore the warning signs. 

[BR]OTHER by James Oatway and Alon Skuy, which is published by Jacana Media, was made possible with the support of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung and the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre