Platteland is literally
translated from the Afrikaans as ‘flatlands’
and refers to the South African countryside. The term implies
more than a description of its geographic character, its
expansive, often brutal, monotonous landscape. It connotes
a particular state of mind.
To the eye of the photographer the visual qualities of this
place are striking: there is an emptiness, a barrenness,
an expansiveness that is almost surreal; a strangeness of
light, an other-worldliness. So, too, is its psyche.
From the early seventies when I first frequented these parts,
circumstances brought me intimately into the life of the
platteland. Tentatively at first, and then with purpose,
I began a photographic journey which became a search for
aesthetic symbols that synthesized an essential character
of this place, its historical presence, its mythology.
For years I have been fascinated by the faded and crumbling
glory of the ‘dorps’ with their decrepit portents
of grandeur and remnants of unfulfilled promises. Initially
it was by chance, and then it was by choice, that I entered
this world. My fascination with this circumstance of people
and place came from a deep sense that what I was encountering,
the visual dramas I was witnessing, were more significant
than the events themselves; that in these ordinary towns
and everyday happenings there abounded an elusive quality
that, distilled into the photographic image, would reveal
an essential aspect of the tragedy that pervades this troubled
Fundamentally, what drew me to this subject was the profound
irony that despite half a century of political privilege,
here in the physical heart of White South Africa, even in
a system created to secure their survival, were archetypes
of alienation and immobility, victims of both political forces
and personal circumstances, defending themselves against
economic deprivation and psychological anguish in a hostile
and unyielding environment.
On abandoned farms, on the outskirts of towns, next to worked-out
mines I met protagonists in this drama. Some lived a nomadic
existence drifting from place to place finding work haphazardly,
others leased plots on which to grow maize or potatoes. Some
were diamond diggers hoping for a ‘stroke of luck’,
some were traders who filled their trucks with subsistence
goods bought from Asian shops to sell in tribal areas, others
were railway workers whose escapades had taken them deep
There prevailed a perceived glory of a past heritage, its
folklore and myth handed down by word of mouth from parents
and grandparents, a reference back to ancestors who, as pioneers
over a century ago, had crossed the African frontier, hunted
game and tamed ‘savages’. Those were remembered
as the days of the mass migrations of springbok, zebra and
wildebeest. Education came through the veld and Bible. Land
in ‘the good old days’ was free, and there was
mutual respect amongst all races. A man could kick the earth
and become wealthy; wherever one went there were diamonds
This legendary land has ceased to be. Paradoxically, the
people I encountered were surviving hand-to-mouth existences.
Many South African rural areas are faced with a crisis of
economic disorientation and decline. Jobs for unskilled people
have become increasingly scarce, and those who seek work
have to show a marked ingenuity or be prepared to accept
poor working conditions and low wages. Menial jobs such as
fixing cars and machinery, selling vegetables on the roadside,
peddling second-hand goods or collecting recyclable paper
and cans have become increasingly widespread. A fatalistic
impotence has taken over.
The tenuous economic circumstances that prevail are evident
in the conditions of the homes that I encountered. Houses
are rented cheaply or are traditional, old family homes.
Decay and dilapidation are everywhere. Building maintenance
is postponed and warped floors, cracked ceilings, peeling
paint, exposed electrical wires and broken plumbing are common.
Old car batteries are used to power light bulbs and TV sets,
plastic sheets cover broken window panes, and when pumps
break, hand pumps draw up underground water from wells. Heat
for cooking is often obtained from obsolete coal-burning
stoves, ignorance, dejection, apathy and a lack of ambition
result in unsanitary conditions. There is an all-pervading
smell of filth. Many homes smell distinctly of unwashed clothes,
and bed linen. Pests are uncontrolled except, on occasion,
by brown sticky paper dangling from above and copper wire
mouse traps lurking in dark corners. Basic provisions: white
bread, salt, tea, sugar, ‘Coke’, matches and
candles are staples in kitchens that smell of stale cooking
oil and paraffin. Mealie meal, cooked in large quantities,
stands around for long periods in a pot on the stove, to
be eaten with fatty meat cooked on an outdoor fire.
Homes contain furniture inherited from family members or
acquired second-hand and a ‘make-do’ attitude
is apparent. Faded, perished and stained upholstery and curtains,
threadbare carpets, chipped and splintered timber are conspicuous.
Beds lack springs and sag in the centre, sometimes laden
with unironed, crumpled laundry. Handwork in the form of
embroidered or crocheted cushions, doilies and antimacassars
are proudly displayed as mementoes from anniversary celebrations.
Birthday and Christmas cards, dried flower arrangements,
and glass and china objects, considered to be precious, are
placed in glass display cabinets. Religious plaques, prayers
and philosophical comments such as ‘What is a Home
without Mother’ or ‘Home is where the Heart is’
are elaborately framed and hung alongside all manner of cheap
prints and picture-postcard calendars on walls. Tobacco packets
with romantic names such as ‘Rum Maple’, ‘Swan’,
‘Boxer’ lie on tables next to partially burnt
cigarettes rolled from newspaper. Gardens of homes are usually
dry, unkempt and overgrown with weeds, and often contain
evidence of attempts at the cultivation of some sort of vegetables.
It is against this background that I encountered my subjects
and interacted with them. Their stories and accounts of their
lives enhanced my understanding of this reality and I recorded
Johan du bit, a warm-hearted 23-year-old, lived in Groot
Marico with his mother, brother and two sisters, one of whom
had an illegitimate child, in a corrugated-iron house with
exposed wooden rafters and no electricity. He told me
I applied for work in this town as a hydraulic assistant.
There was no work for me. I didn’t have papers. Anyway,
the papers don’t do the work. I got a job over at the
mine last week checking vehicles before they were allowed
on site. They made me stand outside like sheep when it rained,
and would not let me go home to sleep. One day I felt so
tired I fell asleep by the gate. The mine manager, a big,
fat man, started kicking and cursing me. He ordered me off
the property, and said he would kill me if I came near the
A few years later I came across a more confident Johan.
He had become a trader, catering for the blacks in tribal
I fill my truck chock full of all sorts of stuff from cooking
pans to packets of yeast and chilli powder. I know the right
‘coolies’ so I get what I need at rock-bottom
prices. I have learnt where there are no shops in the native
locations. The blacks have plenty of money, plenty of cash,
hungry stomachs, and no shops.
Until recently whites who could not get jobs in the private
sector were guaranteed work in state companies such as the
South African Railways. It was not unusual to meet simple
and uneducated people who had secured employment with the
railways and who could describe exotic places in Botswana,
Zaire, Zambia, Namibia and Malawi where they had travelled
when they worked on the trains.
Mr Eric Stanely, who now lives in the Orange Free State
near the Lesotho border, casually told me:
I was a ticket puncher for the S.A.R. for thirty years. During
that time I travelled all over Africa. I know the blacks
better than they know themselves. I ate porridge with them
and tended sheep with them when I was a child. That was before
apartheid. Then my young wife died in the Congo, many years
ago, of fever. There were no drugs or doctors available.
I sat around helplessly staring and had to bury her when
she was gone. Africa is depressing. The whites brought some
civilization. They brought the trains, but were forced to
leave. Now things are going downhill.
A railway worker, recently made redundant as a result of
I hitched to Namibia, could not get work, I came back home
in the back of a truck full of sheep. Then I went to Zimbabwe
and got deported after, in a bar full of soldiers one night,
I called the president a ‘communist whore’. I
should have known better. It’s become dangerous now
in South Africa. If I can’t get a ride by the time
it gets dark I sleep in police cells. They don’t seem
to mind in the small stations so long as I give the policemen
a few beers and leave the next morning. Life was much easier
working for the railways. At least we had a uniform, respect,
and a roof over our head.
Some of the down and outers who have experienced failure,
most particularly in farming which is drought-prone, are
seized by the romantic notion of diamond digging. In the
vicinity of old river beds, thought to be filled with millions
of years of diamond-bearing gravels, I encountered this phenomenon.
They leave behind all their possessions and live frugally
in portable zinc-sheeted houses. It is common practice for
an entire savings to be gambled on the chance of finding
the ultimate stone. Suspicion, jealousy and thievery are
prevalent, and ‘claim jumping’ is common. Rumours
of ‘big finds’ and ‘lost fortunes’
abound, and sensational news spreads like wild fire. Euphoria,
disappointment and disillusionment are the stuff of the lives
of these weather-beaten people.
Year upon year of political instability, cultural boycotts
and sanctions have created an inward looking isolationism
that has pervaded all levels of South African society. In
the extremely insular platteland, esoteric religious beliefs,
tradition and folklore are intricately woven into the fabric
of everyday life. The Bible is revered and often quoted.
Valuables are kept in metal boxes, and buried in secret places
in the ground. Beds are elevated on cement-filled paint tins
or on old bricks to keep evil spirits away at night. So as
to be prepared to shoot an intruder, a common practice is
to sleep fully clothed with a pistol close by. People sometimes
store planks for prospective coffins.
Generally, sex is considered taboo, not to be discussed.
Charlene van der Westhuizen, a divorcee who spends most of
her time either looking after her retarded son or working
in the local candle factory, confided:
I got married when I was nineteen. My father was very strict,
and I grew up on a farm far away from anything. Before I
got married I had never been to a cinema or even a dance.
Not until I had my first baby did I realise what it was all
about. I thought children were born by a man putting his
private parts on a woman’s navel.
The repressive nature of the apartheid system pervades all
sexual matters. The immorality Act prohibited sexual relations
between members of different races and the system of censorship
banned all material perceived to be sexually provocative.
However, an overt preoccupation with sexuality is conspicuous
in the display of nudes on the pages of local publications
that I saw unselfconsciously and immodestly hung on the walls
of living rooms of many platteland homes. In fact, I noticed
growing prostitution and increased promiscuity. There were
casual relationships between whites and blacks in the very
midst of mainstream ‘conservatism’.
Mr Le Roux, a pensioner who once worked for the Department
of Mines and now has trouble walking as a result of being
hit by a bulldozer, was outspoken about his activities:
The ‘kaffir girls’ in the platteland are cheap.
All they want is beer and meat and a bed to sleep in. White
women just give you problems. A black woman costs you five
smackeroos a week, a white one, over three hundred.
The people here hate my guts. My neighbours saved up and
bought my last house I was renting. I then bought another
place around the corner and brought my girl-friends with
me. The same monkeys are trying to get rid of me again, but
now that the Group Areas Act is gone they can stew.
Mr Le Roux rambled on about starting a ‘striptease
joint’ near the goldfields in the Orange Free State,
but recognized that he did not have the kind of courage it
would take. He thought he might be ‘tarred and feathered
like the niggers in America’
A middle-aged, gaunt Mrs van der Westhuizen who had spent
long periods of time alone due to her husband’s job
as a locomotive driver for the railways, told me:
I don’t like it here. People talk about each other
all the time. They spread lies and rumours. The townspeople
accuse me of sleeping with black men and hoboes, of being
a witch. The neighbours’ children are often throwing
dead black cats on my front lawn:
People here just have nothing better to think about.
Yet a strong sense of kinship is apparent in communities
that I encountered, and it was often difficult to distinguish
between family members and mere associates. In more disadvantaged
circumstances interbreeding often occurred due to naivety
and the fact that limited living space resulted in close
physical proximity between family members. As a result, incidences
of congenital disease, deformity and retardation occur within
particular communities. In the more remote areas of the country,
especial in the Karoo, interbreeding has occurred over decades
and even centuries.
In many families, feuds and squabbles persist and gossip,
rumours and intrigue occupy much time. Recollections and
discussions of misfortune predominate.
A small fine-boned woman from the Groot Marico district,
whom I have come to know well over time, recounted how the
first husband she had married, a close friend of hers, had
absconded with all their possessions a few months after their
wedding; her second husband, a brother of this fugitive,
had died a heart attack the day of their wedding, and how
she had recently lost a third husband to suicide a week after
Another woman, Mrs Davis of the Western Cape, at first bashful
about being seen with curlers in her hair described to me
how, returning from her father’s funeral, she had found
her childhood home bulldozed to the ground by her son, a
machine operator in a construction company Her son had been
ashamed of the home in which his mother and grandfather shared
a bedroom. Having nowhere else to go, she had moved into
what had once been the ‘servants’ quarters’
which was the only edifice left standing on the property.
Then her son managed to escape from the local jail where
he was being held as a result of the first deed and, finding
her alone, tied her up and began systematically to dismantle
what was left. He even went as far as to saw down a centuries-old
poplar which, at one time, had provided shade from the hot
Kalahari sun. The newly felled timber and dehydrated leaves
were left on what had once been the front lawn.
As a result of the scarcity of doctors and prescription
drugs in the past, numerous home remedies have evolved for
common ailments, for heart and circulatory problems, including
high blood pressure, liver disorders, conditions of the respiratory
system and depression and anxiety. Herbs and home¬grown
vegetables are mixed with various concoctions of animal blood,
urine and crushed ants. In some parts of the country, particularly
in the Western Transvaal, mampoer, or whisky made from a
wild fruit relished by elephants, is a cure-all. Some medicinal
preparations (readily available in cafés and concession
stores) such as Vaseline, Vicks and Grandpa headache powder,
an Aspirin derivative, are used as remedies for almost all
conditions. For toothache, brushing one’s teeth with
petrol has been found to relieve the pain. If all else fails
traditional witchdoctors are consulted to ‘suss out’
evil and counteract bad influences.
Mrs L Oosthuizen who has become bedridden, stated:
I hear voices from close by and far away The rats in my
roof drive me mad at night. Last
night I felt so sick that I went to see a witchdoctor. He
gave me muti, a green powder to mix with milk. It made me
so sick that I thought I was going to die. I feel like I
am going to go mad, mad in my body and in my heart. My son,
Hank, and I argued not long ago. He left angrily and wasn’t
seen for weeks. He was found by Bushmen at the bottom of
an old mineshaft, dead.
My neck does not stop jerking, whatever the time of day it
is; it’s uncontrollable. I’m sure the coloured
man is back by the willow tree hitting frogs. I must go and
see a witchdoctor today to break the spell.
A woman who had been told she could not have children eventually
bore two in close succession. She called them Charles and
Diana, after the British monarchy because she said they were
so precious that they were her prince and princess. She told
me that she had been so scared that the children would fall
prey to a witchdoctor that she had moved away from the platteland
to Johannesburg. Her ex-neighbour’s baby had disappeared
one day, and was found headless and limbless in the caves
near the farm she lived on.
Psychiatric help is almost unheard of in platteland communities.
In most regions, there are a few so-called social workers
who visit individuals unable to help themselves. They are
usually concerned with seeing to it that ‘unbalanced’
people have basic foodstuffs, that their government compensation
cheques have been received and cashed, and that they are
not a danger to the community.
Selma, a single mother living in a rundown shack next to
the Orange River, was partly ignored, partly pitied by her
neighbours. A local shopkeeper spoke about her:
Selma? She’s mad. Her house looks like a bomb hit
it. There are spider webs and dust everywhere you look. She
collects old junk from the diamond diggers and stores it
all over her house and in her garage. The fence around her
house is made from the bumpers of cars. Bones from her meals
are buried all over her lawn. She has twelve cats in her
house that never go outside. Even the social workers avoid
her. Once she starts talking nothing can stop her. She is
like a machine gun shooting off. When she gets irritated
she climbs on top of her corrugated iron roof and bangs on
it. Sometimes she lifts up her skirt to all who walk by.
Children with problems are usually sent by social workers
to special schools in the larger towns. Most parents blame
their children’s disabilities on fevers, knocks on
their heads during childhood, or on ill¬defined diseases
labelled meningitis, encephalitis or tickbite fever. Meisie,
the wife of a woodcutter located near Knysna, commented about
Tani got encephalitis from bad water when she was five.
Next year she will go to school far away from here. My Tani
is a slow learner, but once she learns something she never
forgets. She knows everyone’s birthdays - all the aunts
and uncles, cousins, sisters and brothers. She’s special.
She can put her body in all sorts of inside-out positions.
The circus wanted her, but my girl’s too young and
the pay is bad, and she would always be travelling.
In the past few years, Satanism as a form of worship has
become more than just a peripheral movement as traditional
values centering around church and family erode. Whilst one
reads of occasional incidents of human sacrifice, most bloodletting
is confined to rituals involving chickens, goats, and sometimes
dogs. I have seen people smear themselves with animal fat
or blood, put mice in their pockets and, dressed in black,
go to graveyards and dance around tombstones. Oaths, signed
in blood, pledge loyalty to the cult. On one particular occasion,
I happened on a house of a satanic leader in a small semi-deserted
town in the northern Cape near Namibia. The main bedroom
contained a complex music system with numerous speakers painted
dark pink. Nailed onto the walls were dolls of different
hair colours. Needles were inserted into various parts of
their bodies. In the middle of this same bedroom was a cracked
A young woman whose nails were almost as long as her fingers
and painted black, and who claimed to be the daughter of
a satanic priest, spoke vividly of her memories.
From the time I was small, I remember being carried from
my bedside in the middle of the night. I always felt cold
and scared. My father, a satanic priest, wore long shiny
purple robes. After driving on dirty roads, we usually ended
up at a big barn where a large fire was burning inside. Many
of the people were dressed as gladiators, with leather leg
straps, long knives attached to their belts, and funny hats
sometimes with horns on them... Soon, there was blood all
over. The sacrificed animals were put on a candle-lit table,
and everybody would take turns stabbing the helpless beasts.
Then after some time the group, chanting, would take the
mutilated carcasses to shallow earthen pits. By the end of
the night, whichever animals were not yet dead were tossed
into one of these pits and then buried alive.
Crime and violence are increasing in the countryside. Many
pensioners literally bar themselves into their homes, and
farmers have banded together to form makeshift armies. The
ownership of automatic weapons has proliferated. Farmers
such as Mr R van der Vyfer, living in an isolated area near
the Transkei, feel particularly vulnerable.
Last month a ‘burglar’ broke through the kitchen
window and stole our radio. I tried to shoot him, but I missed.
There are no other whites living around here. We called the
police, but they never came. I think they are scared themselves.
They, too, fear for their lives. My ‘boss boy’
informed me that radical blacks from the Transkei are trying
to force us off the land. They say it is their ancestors’
land. I say it is mine ‘cause I was born here. I say
it was theirs fifty thousand years ago when there were no
Europeans in Africa. I have nowhere else to go. To get me
out of here they will have to get at me and my wife.
Until recently the platteland mentality assumed that supremacy
was the natural providence of whites. They were protected
by a legislature that granted them power, freedom and exclusive
franchise as a birthright of being white. The political and
social transformation that is occurring here brings with
it spates of uncertainty, fear, anger and insecurity.
While militant whites have become vocal in their sinister
aim to resist majority rule, I found that generally there
was acknowledgement that change is inevitable. Mr P Streicher,
an old man who remembered the Boer War at the turn of the
We are now at the crossroads. It’s obvious. For us
whites it looks like the end of an era. It is too late to
stop change. The whites were on top for a long time. South
Africa is part of Africa. It is a mistake to expect it to
The ‘poor whites’ had always relied upon the
protective paternalism of the apartheid regime which enabled
them to get by somehow. But the regime is dead, leaving behind
a legacy of economic recession, isolation, repression, ignorance,
social bigotry, political and racial disarray. So, too, has
the mantle of assumed glory of white superiority fallen from
their shoulders. They may well become another fragment of
human detritus of the new South Africa.