Photographer Robert Frank is quoted as saying that, “There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment.” Using Sam Nzima’s iconic photo of the 1976 Soweto uprising as a point of departure, Executive Producer ASHRAF JOHAARDIEN contemplates the power of images in the work of photojournalist TJ Lemon on show at this year’s National Arts Festival.

“I saw a child fall down. Under a shower of bullets I rushed forward and went for the picture. It had been a peaceful march, the children were told to disperse, they started singing Nkosi Sikelele. The police were ordered to shoot.” − Sam Nzima

Hastings Ndlovu. Khotso Seatlholo. Tsietsi Mashinini. Mbuyise Makhubo. Hector Pieterson. Antoinette Sithole. Do you recognise those names? Perhaps Hector Pieterson rings a bell? But what about the others?

Hector is the dying 12-year-old being carried by the other boy in Sam Nzima iconic photograph of the 1976 Soweto youth uprising. The other boy’s name is Mbuyise Makhubo. Running alongside them is Antoinette Sithole, her mouth contorted like the central figure of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Fifteen-year-old Lesley Hastings Ndlovu is the first child shot and killed by police on that day. Seatlholo and Mashinini are not in the frame of Nzima’s photograph. Perhaps that’s why so many have forgotten their names. Both were leaders of that fateful June 16 youth rebellion which would go on to change the history of this country. They did not die that day but they too died young …

In a way that words are simply unable to do, collectively, the powerful and compelling photographs of TJ Lemon along with his peers such as Louise Gubb, Themba Hadebe, Alf Kumalo, Peter Magubane, Greg Marinovich, Gideon Mendel, Santu Mofokeng, Sam Nzima, Ken Oosterbroek, Jurgen Schadeberg, Joao Silva, Guy Tillim, Paul Velasco, Paul Weinberg and Graeme Williams document a history of South Africa from the harrowing moment on 16 June 1976 captured by Nzima to the dawn of the democratic South Africa.

Having worked as a photojournalist throughout the South African struggle, Lemon developed the skills of performance photography and an eye for aesthetic detail and intimate moments in the midst of documenting violence. His exhibition for the 2018 National Arts Festival titled, COMRADES, WARRIORS AND VOLKSTAAT KOMMANDOS celebrates that unique skill.

Lemon explains: “Pre-1994 South Africans took to the streets in their thousands. They showed improvisation in their artistry of song, dance, and use of military icons. Marches and rallies held by the ANC, Inkatha and the AWB was innovative expression. This work has been described by one critic as ‘the theatre of politics’. The ANC youth, wielding guns sculpted from junk, dancing the toyi-toyi, a tribute to their victorious MK. IFP, sons of Shaka. Proud Zulu warriors. Their culture alive in rural homelands and migrant worker hostels. Aggressive and feared, impis advanced battle style through the streets. Beating shields rhythmically they carried knobkerie and spears. AWB assumed a mix of Nazi culture and the Afrikaaner voortrekers. Former SADF conscripts in army browns displayed formal marching. The AWB’s three legged swastika on banners and on arms. Khaki-clad horsemen in felt hats led a human-pulled oxwagon. The driver making Nazi salutes whilst steering his passengers of children and the elderly along the street. Sadly not all was posturing. Some real conflict has been included for context.”

According to Lemon, the exhibition explores an overlooked aesthetic of South African history: “Free from apartheid legislation that banned gatherings, people now marched. Free from oppression they expressed themselves. Creative costume, performance and open display of party colours was a new experience and was celebrated. Some style was formal, others innovative reflecting individual creativity … The work is unique and to be seen apart from the familiar images of conflict photography from that time. A new political climate in South Africa has brought people together again. They are massing and protesting. This work provides an insight into the culture of mass gatherings 25 years ago, a time many will not have seen.”

As the voiceless stare back from moments captured in history we are reminded this Youth Day that we should never again be silenced, nor should we fear the shouts of a country making its own struggles heard.

  • Lemon is an award-winning photojournalist based in Johannesburg. He has an interest in unique South African cultures. He has won a World Press award for Oswenka – The Jeppe Hostel Swankers and has just exhibited work from the book Dust of the Zulu – Ngoma Aesthetics After Apartheid at Duke University.
  • Join TJ Lemon on 30 June, 3 July and 7 July for a walkabout of his exhibition in the newly refurbished Atherstone Gallery in the Monument. BOOK NOW

This article was first published by TimesSelect on 19 June 2018