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Homes to policing: Lockdown photos document South Africa inequality

by Kim Harrisberg | @KimHarrisberg | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 19 August 2020 11:24 GMT

Mohamed Suhail Sobhey, an paramedic, prays the afternoon prayer at a Johannesburg mosque, South Africa. 9 May 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/ Handout via Ghulshan Khan

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Coronavirus lockdown exacerbated the everyday inequalities one of the most unequal countries in the world, photographer Gulshan Khan shows

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By Kim Harrisberg

JOHANNESBURG, Aug 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A security officer holds a shotgun against his body in inner city Johannesburg, eyeing a homeless man carrying a bag of food on his shoulders as he vacates the area.

The photo captures one of a multitude of everyday inequalities that South African photographer Gulshan Khan has been documenting during the coronavirus pandemic.

From heavy-handed policing to abandoned buildings-turned-homeless shelters, Khan is using her online following and recent international awards recognition to spotlight the spatial and racial divide across the country.

"Race classification and segregation under apartheid demolished so much of our rich heritage and my photography interrogates the normalisation of this," the photographer told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"These injustices affect poor, Black people the most," she said in a phone interview.

More than two decades after the end of white minority rule, South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, according to the World Bank.

One of Khan's photo series spotlights a fire that ravaged a Johannesburg township after an electricity pylon collapsed on crowded shacks.

"Twenty five years after democracy, South Africa still struggles with basic service delivery and housing... the lasting impressions of colonialism and apartheid" she writes alongside the series on her website.

The recent lockdown has exacerbated these inequalities, said Khan.

An armed security officer eyes a homeless man walking past with a bag of food on his back in inner city Johannesburg, South Africa. 8 April 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/ Handout via Ghulshan Khan

When South Africans were told to social distance and wash their hands to stem the virus, rights groups pushed back, noting this was near impossible for those living in crowded townships.

Police presence in those neighbourhoods has also increased during the recently eased lockdown, said Khan, who encourages her social media followers to document official abuse through C19's online violence tracker.

The C19 People's Coalition, an alliance of local rights groups, has documented hundreds of cases of alleged police brutality in low-income areas around the country, pointing out that wealthier neighbourhoods have been largely left alone.

"Our cities, and apartheid-style policing in them, remain largely untransformed," Khan said.

"Photography is about getting rid of the foot on our psychological necks. It is about bridging gaps, listening to one another and rising above these historical divides."

Police spokesman Vish Naidoo declined to comment but had previously told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that "there is a difference between the use of force and police being brutal" and that investigations into alleged lockdown violence are underway.


It was Khan's focus on South Africa's diversity and human rights issues that won her the coveted National Geographic Explorer Award in February and the Emerging Person in Photography prize for the Hamdan International Photography Award in May.

Khan will use the National Geographic grant to continue with her long-term project 'The Things We Carry With Us' which documents contemporary Muslim life in South Africa.

In another one of her photos, a paramedic taking a break between shifts during the pandemic stands alone inside a Johannesburg mosque, his head tilted downward in prayer.

Despite the hardships the pandemic has heightened, the renewed conversation and intensified spotlight on inequality and police brutality give Khan hope.

She is determined to photograph stories of resilience that offer snapshots of the "multicultural, thriving, equal" cities she envisions as possible in the country.

Her "utopian" city is one with "fewer spatial and social divides, accessible public transport, decent housing and dignity for everyone," she said.

"I want to show that South Africans are surviving in spite of all of these challenges. Suffering is not the only story to be heard."

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(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @KimHarrisberg; Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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