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Art, Culture

Still Existence

by Andy Davis / 11.06.2012

Entrepreneurship is the great movement of our time, here in South Africa. It’s the buzzword that aims to resolve all our social ills through the self-actualisation of the population, pulling ourselves up by our boot straps and creating our own jobs. Carving a living from optimism, hope and obstinancy. For many, entrepreneurship means selling loose cigarettes, Wilson’s Toffees and bananas on the roadside. Thandile Zwelibanzi’s exhibion, Still Existence, speaks directly to this subject.

There is something about the vulnerable and isolated spaza table that speaks directly to the knocksman’s experience. The intervention, the putting yourself out there, the certainty that if you don’t sell, you don’t eat. Not to mention the darkness that surrounds. A metaphor for the uncertainty. Born in the village of Gatyana (Willowvale to the mlungu) in the Eastern Cape and schooled in Kagiso, Thandile completed Foundation and intermediate courses in photography at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg and has worked as a course assistant at the Workshop ever since. Alongside the talents of Musa Nxumalo, Zanele Muholi, Nontsikelelo Veleko and Jodi Bieber, the Market Theatre Photo Workshop is playing a central role in uncovering new eyes on Africa. We spoke to the man, about photography, his first exhibition and the role of the spaza.

Mahala: How did you get behind the lens?

Thandile Zwelibanzi: I first became interested in photography when I was at primary school, looking at images was interesting. I would use visual information to understand the story that was in the book, newspaper, or magazine. When I was growing up, I wanted to take photographs like the ones I found interesting in the books or magazines, but I was only exposed to being a street photographer.

What do you like about taking pictures?

It’s more about the experience and sharing the information with others, sometimes asking questions, that’s what I strive for in my work.

Tell me about the Market Photo Workshop.

After completing grade 12 I decided to take my photography knowledge to the next level. I came to Market Photo Workshop to study photography in 2008 and did the Foundation Course. It then prepared me with the basic skills and opened my eyes to see in a different way from what I had seen as a street photographer.

Who inspired you?

Santu Mofokeng


He was also a street photographer before and now not only his photographs but also his writings mark an important and significant part of our history.

Tell me about the current exhibition. Why focus on the spaza?

It all started when I was around 7 years old, almost everyone I knew in the township talked about this city. It was referred to as “Jozi maboneng” in Sotho which simply translates to “Johannesburg in the lights”. I only ever saw the city at night, on our way from the Eastern Cape, traveling with my parents. The bus used to pass near Jozi going to Kagiso, my township. What used to be very interesting for me were those Jozi lights. The view would be very glamorous, seeing it from a bus window.

Later when I did eventually enter the city (the taxi dropped us in front of Noord street taxi rank), it looked completely different from what I used to see from a bus window. It was mundane, not beautiful. Packed full – each person on top of another. Too noisy. The sun was hot and people were all over the show, everything seemed crazy.

In 2008 when I was studying photography at Market Photo Workshop doing my foundation course, I started to come into the city almost every day. These traders were always in their space of business, from the morning when the taxi dropped me until late at night when it took me back to my place of belonging. I became interested in them and had small conversations with them, up to a point where I decided to photograph them in 2009. I wanted to explore their existence in the constantly changing Jozi landscape, with their temporary structures (plastic crates, card boxes, ironing boards etc) and seemingly insignificant goods like sweets and cigarettes.

Working outdoors in Johannesburg is not simple (for both traders and photographers alike), moreover during the day, around the Noord street taxi rank, where people are always in transit. The loud noise from the taxi hooters and sound systems, people shouting, and the hot sun also plays its part, in adding to this hectic situation.

At night, that’s when the city is taking a breather, life is getting settled. Everything becomes different, the environment, atmosphere and city’s feel and mode becomes completely different from the daytime. I wanted to photograph this too. It all came back from what I used to view when I was a kid on a bus looking through the window.

And these traders’ presence on the streets of Johannesburg is a definite claim of belonging, of ownership of space, however temporal and legally ambiguous. Their presence and the community they develop with other traders, local taxi officials, and the customers who buy from them regularly, create a specific network that spreads throughout the continent through trade lines and remittance flows. On a continent in which two thirds of the rural population will have moved to the cities, the rate of urbanisation threatens economic, environmental, health and social sustainability. The exhibition explores the ways in which individuals play their part in this mass migration, and how they maintain their social relationships, engage their historical ties, and renegotiate their spatial belonging.

*Still Existence is currently showing at the Bailey Seippel gallery.

**Still Existence was produced through the assistance of the Edward Ruiz Mentorship at the Market Photo Workshop in association with AngloGold Ashanti.

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