Dorps: Small towns of South Africa
Roger Ballen, 1986

In many cases, there were only small sections of the towns that attracted me; sometimes only one or two buildings. Usually these places were visually and culturally anomalous, characterised by outmoded styles or eclectic paraphernalia. The discovery of such places meant that I would frequently return, drawn for no explicable reason whatsoever.

As an American and outsider, I perhaps saw these towns differently. I believe each dorp has its own personality. I have been to some dorps where people are friendly and interested in what I am doing, and they would invite me for tea or for some type of discussion. Some people would tell others about my being there, and I would actually spend a day or two in a place and get to know many of the residents. But there are other dorps, where, after a few minutes, I have met with antagonism and suspicious stares. This was part of the anxiety of going into these places: was the place a friendly place or not? And yet, it is impossible to understand why certain places are friendly while others are not.

In the main, blacks enjoyed the novelty of being photographed, and whites, although initially more suspicious, could be quickly reassured, and soon revelled in the opportunity of talking to a foreigner. Although I could speak neither Afrikaans nor an African dialect, the news of my visit seemed to quickly pervade town conversation.

There can be two ways of approaching a subject. Some photographers begin with a notion of the aesthetic and cram life into a frame to fit that notion; other photographers saunter into life and try to discover a visual experience. I would say that I work both ways.

With few exceptions, the dorps of South Africa were founded by people of either English or Dutch descent. Most places were developed according to what was known as the Voortrekker plan which initially comprised a central block with a grid system laid out around it. In the centre of the grid was the church with a large adjacent space to accommodate the farmers’ wagons.

As the town grew, shops and residential areas spread from the centre outwards. Many of these buildings incorporate trends of Victorian Cape architecture, but the essence of the style can be best summed-up in the Afrikaans expression” ‘n Boer maak altyd ‘n plan”, or “the countryman always has a plan”. In other words, buildings were adapted to meet the needs of their owners and are an expression of function and personality.

For a long time I wondered what it was about the verandahs and pillars that attracted me, and why I frequently photographed them. In America these elements have always represented long past grandeur, whereas in many cases, columns of the houses that interested me actually support verandahs that are quite dilapidated and unmonumental. Yet, ironically enough, there is a yearning for magnificence in them, though there is little of that left in most dorps. I guess that is what this book is about — a nostalgia for a distant unattainable splendour.

Tin signs with romantic faded pictures of colonial Africa are attached to the older trading stores that cater for the predominantly black customers. Shelves in these stores are full of basic goods like tobacco, sugar, bread and each trader has a few samples of desirable modern objects such as primus stoves and pink ruffly baby clothes. The smell of spice and old wood pervades. Many of these shops are owned by Indians and these places seem to blend Africa with Asia.

Various items, reflections on a person’s life, are collected and hung on a wall. I was not necessarily interested in homes that were saturated with what is known as ‘kitsch’. Alternatively, I sought to capture highly personal expressive taste and experience in the choice and arrangement of decorative objects. If many of the walls I have photographed could be transported intact to a museum they might be labelled works of art.

I met a man in the run-down Smithfield Hotel. It was his 85th birthday and he had travelled from his home in Bethulie, a distance of approximately 50 kilometres, to treat himself to a night at the hotel for the occasion. After I had photographed him in the hotel lounge, he gave me his address in Bethulie, and on my return journey I went to his house. The verandah, which was hung with an assortment of horns, was a place that I had noticed and had wanted to enter on previous visits.

This man had a strange collection of objects, prints from Egypt, old family pictures and a portrait of General Smuts that he had received at the end of the Second World war. Most fascinating were piles of pristine white pillows on various beds and odd pieces of furniture throughout the house.

When night falls, there is very little to do as a photographer. Often staying in a shabby hotel, all I wish for is morning and the light. Dorp hotels are very quiet. One isn’t disturbed by cars zooming past, people yelling in the halls, televisions blaring. I have never been to an hotel in a dorp that was full. Business is usually depressed.

The meals in these hotels are ritualistic and fulfill the repetitious spirit of the dorps. Tea or coffee is served in one’s room before breakfast, and meals are generally on set menus rather than a la carte. Breakfast begins with juice and cereal, followed by the main course and ending with tea or coffee. Dinner and lunch start with soup followed by fish, a selection of two main dishes (inevitably lamb or beef), custard or a steam pudding and ending with tea or coffee. Black waiters dressed in red uniforms with white hats and gloves will, on the slightest provocation, remove your dish and bring back the menu for the next order.

In these towns, church, television and work take up most time. Drinking and sports are popular, as is conversation about the weather; everyone also knows everyone else’s business and most people feel threatened by the changes going on around them.

Old mining towns dot the South African countryside. In the early part of the Twentieth Century, thousands of hopeful people flooded the empty space of Africa looking for gold and diamonds, leaving behind what is now a poxed landscape. The descendants of the few who remained are a strange mixture, reminiscent of the hillbillies of Appalacia, America, a group seemingly cut-off from the changes of the last half-century.

Most dorps contain a main street where a bank, butcher, petrol station and trading store can be found. For the most part, shops open at eight and close at five. After this time there is nobody on the streets except for an occasional black, and all shops are shut except the local cafes. These are usually run by Portuguese or Greeks, and have a constant stream of customers from early morning to late at night. They offer simple luxuries such as cold drinks, Sunday newspapers and fried foods.

Of particular note is Greylingstad in the Transvaal which begins and ends with a cafe. Between the cafes are a number of petrol stations, one of which still uses a hand pump. A picturesque black township overlooks the town from a surrounding hill. The cafes are run by two brothers who immigrated some time ago from Madeira. The cafe on the east side of the dorp was built in 1914; ornate orange wrought-iron columns support the verandah. Both brothers hired the same local artist from Bethal to paint a rainbow-coloured fish on their shop windows with the word “Chips” below. Both make most of their money from selling cold drinks and various foods to the African population. Pink sausages, yellow pig’s feet and oil-saturated potatoes are their specialities. Neither has taken a vacation as far back as they can remember and both work seven days a week. The larger brother, who could not keep his shirt tucked in because of his protruding stomach, said repeatedly to me in broken English, “Eat something, food is good. Eat something”.

Light is the essence of photography; you can go back to some places which had seemed interesting and find there is nothing there at all. Conversely, with the progression of daylight things can evolve from the ordinary to the magical.

One of the great tragedies of South Africa is the zeal with which traditional structures have been torn down. Places that were once dominated by small businesses have been replaced by enormous chain stores.

Old buildings have been casually demolished to make way for modern edifices. Cafés, trading stores and other mundane elements of the dorps are becoming rare. In the three years that I have worked on this project, many of my favourite haunts have disappeared. Shop owners are talking about the profits made in fast food franchises.

The sense of balance is no longer with us, and this, not the fact that we are living in the Twentieth Century, is what I find disturbing; within a short period of time, centuries of culture can be easily extinguished.

I have tried to depict what I believe to be a disappearing South African aesthetic. With each year, the anonymity of the present further transforms the character of these places. In many ways I feel as if I have recorded the elements of a dying culture. I photographed these towns in the hope of ‘freezing’ time and arresting the utter extinction of the South African dorp.