A journey to the Eastern Cape in search of Mandela’s legacy
by Kim Ludbrook
The wall of flowers outside Nelson Mandela’s house in Houghton, Johannesburg growing bigger every day is a memory still vivid on my mind: Thousands of people from all walks of life had taken time out of their days to lay flowers, write a poem, leave a card, a photograph or simply stand and look on as each in their own way paid respect to a great soul, leader and human who had died in the house days before aged 94 on 5 December 2013.
The burial of Mandela took place in his home village of Qunu. There was very little accommodation to be found in the area at the time as innumerable guests, security personnel and media representatives had occupied the “normal” rooms in town. So the epa coverage team decided to rent a hut from the Zenani family on a ridge very close to the burial site of Madiba.
With the Zenani family in mind I decided to return to Qunu and the Eastern Cape almost exactly a year later. The idea was to shoot a portrait series on the normal men and women in the poor rural communities of Rhodes, Hogsback, Coffee Bay and Nieu-Bethesda and to find out how they remembered Mandela one year after his death. I wanted to touch base with the heart and soul of the area Mandela originated from and which he had once described as “the sweet home where I had spent the happiest days of my childhood.”
What ensued was an amazing 3000 km journey of discovery of my own country.
Using a Canon 5D Mark III, 35mm F2 lens and a hand held LED lighting system, the images where all shot hand held aiming to show the environment as much as possible in these portraits. Working in rural Africa often means hiring a ‘fixer’ or helper not only to find the people you want to photograph but most importantly to translate from local Xhosa tribal language into English. South Africa has 11 official languages.
The basic framework of the story was to ask one identical question to all the tribesmen and women: ‘What does Nelson Mandela mean to you…”
What I found was an incredible love for Nelson Mandela that runs deep in the veins and souls of every person interviewed. The exact answers can be found in the captions of the series here.
One of the barriers that needed to be overcome while on this assignment was the cultural difference between ‘western’ views and that of local Xhosa tribes people. For instance before walking in the huge mud huts that are the norm in the area around Coffee Bay, one has to take off ones shoes and leave them outside the hut. Men have to sit on the right hand side of the hut and women on the left.
Most of the time, as soon as they heard my story and the idea behind the portrait series, they would start to talk and give me their life story from the bottom of their hearts.
Many people here had never been photographed or seen themselves in images before. Hence, it is not surprising that a camera looking at them often leaves them very nervous and ‘stiff’ in the portrait. In order to overcome this initial unease, I just kept trying to make them feel good and showed them their images as soon as I had shot a couple of frames. Most of the time this worked wonders and they were overjoyed to see their own pictures.
Mandela brought a ray of light to my country at a time when a full blown racial civil war was a possibility. I hope these images can in some way bring the memory of the great man in the forefront of our minds as well as provide a moral compass for us all on how to live our lives: forgiving, loving and sharing.