The Township as Spectacle

The South African township holds a curious appeal for many photographers, myself included. For all their talked-about poverty and crime statistics, townships are also home to a vibrancy and sense of community rarely found in the gated palaces of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs. People here pass their days in the public space; on streetside curbs, at friends’ stalls, forever milling and browsing. The hand-scrawled signs and labyrinthine incompleteness to the space lends photos instant production value. And for the outsider there’s never a shortage of places to explore.

Scroll down for selections from a morning spent in the Johannesburg East Rand townships of Katlehong and Thokoza.

Vanishing point / a morning commuter train to Vereeniging.

Minibus taxis prepare for the peak hour commute at the Thokoza taxi rank.

Transiting silhouettes at the taxi rank. Most of South Africa’s townships were originally built as labour pools for pass-carrying blacks who were employed in the cities but prohibited under Apartheid from living in them. In the absence of public transportation these cheap and reliable taxis became as much a fixture of township life as the sangorma faith healers and ubiquitous streetside vendors.

An informal spaza convenience shop peeks out from a landscape of shanty shacks.

Curious kids in a township crèche (pre-primary school).

A woman walks past graffiti’d reminders of the township wars of the early 1990s, when anti-Apartheid uprisings in Thokoza were violently suppressed by the state police force leaving thousands dead. The East Rand townships were also the epicentre of last year’s xenophobic attacks that saw 100 killed and over 100,000 displaced.

A streetside barber hangs his shavers up after a customer.

Shadow inconsistencies at a streetside salon.

Salon styles.

An enterprising spaza shopkeeper at his phone booth.


Power pole kings over a hawker market.

An interested buyer at a streetside clothing stall.

Busy hands at a sidewalk butcher.

Shopping bag.

Business hours.

Pedestrian traffic at a busy Katlehong intersection.

Flames and heat shimmer in an RDP neighbourhood. These one room houses are a common sight in the modern township with over 1.1 million built by the incoming ANC government in the early years after 1994.

Homeowners out front of their RDP house.

Living quarters.

The view out over the centre compound of a single-sex workers’ hostels. Formerly reserved only for pass-carrying black labourers, the hostels of Thokoza were notorious cesspools of crime and abject squalor during the dark days of Apartheid. Although most are still overcrowded and gang-ridden, this particular hostel retains little of its edge today.

Orange vendor.

Orange transport.

Orange delicious.

Diagonal kids / slide queue.


Tombstone Factory (and Kitchen Tops!)

Detritus and overflow from a burst sewage line.

Rusting, out of commission taxis at the taxi rank.

Long distance bus rank.

Salon shadows.

Sweeper’s shadows.


Austin Andrews is a Vancouver-based photojournalist and occasional filmmaker with a penchant for finding the fantastic in the everyday. Contact him at austin [at] disposablewords [dot] net


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