When it was first published in the United States in 1967 and in Britain a year later, House of Bondage was the most comprehensive document of apartheid. Sure, there had been photojournalists from Life or Magnum who visited South Africa and came back with absurd and hallowing photos of segregation, but here was a book, by a black South Africa who lived through its incipient days.
Born in 1940, Ernest Cole was ten when a series of laws — on population registration, on miscegenation, on mixed race settlements — codified Apartheid. In 1953, when bantu education act racially separated educational facilities from missionary schools to universities, Cole left school — his education forever pigeonholing him as an “unskilled labourer” who could only work as in low-paid jobs.
In a time when a black man holding a camera was viewed with great suspicion, he became a photographer for Drum, documenting the pantomime life in segregated South Africa — poverty, binge drinking, overcrowded and dirty black townships, syncretic religion, and bantustans. This was a time of inhumanities. Benches read “Europeans Only”, and there were no benches for “Blacks” as they were supposed to sit on the ground. Trains and train platforms were divided in two — only a small section for “Non-Europeans”. Black hospitals were understaffed.
Absurdities permeated throughout. At drive-in theaters, wooden walls cut through the middle of the field, separating the blacks from the whites. Since non-whites are not allowed to see some films restricted to whites only, the ushers — who were predominantly black — were asked to avert their eyes and watch the floor while ushering in patrons. Shakespeare’s Othello — subtitled The Moor of Venice — was not allowed to be played by a black actor. Black Beauty, a novel about a horse in Victorian England, which didn’t even include any black people, was banned because the censors read the title and assumed that it was a black rights novel.
But the worst conditions were in the mines — in whose strict patriarchal divide between white overseers and black laborers began the seeds of Apartheid. Cole sneaked his camera into these mines in his lunchbox, and took pictures. In his book, Cole wrote, “twenty-four hours a day, six days a week, half a million Africans are at work in the earth.” The pay was low, and the condition dire (the mines were not unionized until 1982) but the lure of riches was to draw other Africans into the miasma of apartheid. They came from all over South Africa and from Zambia, Mozambique, Angola and several other neighboring states.
Soon his work and connections became too controversial even for trailblazing Drum. After he was asked, and re- fused, to become a police informer, he left for exile in the West. When his book was published, he became an instant persona non grata and his book joined Black Beauty on the banned list (but was secretly circulated). He never returned to South Africa, and died penurious in Manhatten in 1990, even as the Apartheid regime was crumbling.
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