“What are you doing here?”

A South African photojournalist living in Johannesburg recounts a harrowing “close shave”  in his chilling exposé of  life in Soweto during the brutal days of Apartheid

By Ilan Ossendryver

(Photos by Ilan Ossendryver )

The day could be described as gray. Too gray. Wintry days take hold of a blueness, as though the ocean, turned upside-down and its cold hue of late afternoon, had begun to drip down on the location – but just that, it couldn’t make it – today, tomorrow. It was winter blue if you had a secure house in the northern suburbs away from that wretched gray. In fact, gray was seldom seen there; the awarded privilege when the sun decided to show face or slowly slip down in a multicolored dusk. Even the sun had been told to stay away from the confines of the location, never to please, make the grass grow, or allow the flowers to blossom. A visit to the land of emptiness.

The location’s coldness wrapped you in, in a strangling vice-tight hold, but at the same time, tried to squeeze you out, not wanting you, warning you to move on. I hated the streets but I had to be there, to report on a nation’s uprising.

The streets are cruel here, just muddy foot-thick strips of slush in the rainy season and suffocating dust in the dry season.

The pavements of cracking bricks, formed a wall continuing forever. They separate rows of prison-style houses that kept the residents of the location. There was no time here – I learned – unless someone died, when that house became different, an appealing gesture of difference, with the other houses of the accordion-shape formation squashing from both sides, inwards, towards the house that claimed death. It became a show of concern, to break the monotony.

Only then did time perhaps move on, in slow mourning, until death had become a forgotten drama, the accordion of houses slowly taking their previous pattern. Mass produced houses designed in minutes, thousands of on both sides of the strip, separated by another strip and another and another. In each, hundreds of thousands of Blacks coming and going, entering and disappearing, in and out of stark, white-washed houses of deceptive purity.

A young woman sits knitting. At her feet are bundles of wool, bright red with strands of blue. Her eyes gaze downwards to the silvery knitting needles speeding away, her mind wandering in deep concentration. No-one can disturb her hour. Her mind lost in fantasy perhaps, forgetting all, oblivious to the harsh surroundings in which she is confined.

On the same street a baby cries out, stops in a while as her mother leans forward, thrusting her nipple into his mouth. She smiles and begins a lullaby, beautiful but eerie, as though not fit for this place. A precious moment, a face of pride directed to her suckling baby, only. She has for this instant forgotten the future. It doesn’t exist, the hateful past, but only the wonderful seconds of present time; time that is only temporary. The baby falls asleep, satisfied; the lullaby lingers on for a few minutes more, and then silence.

She too fades into a sleep.

Further down another strip, I spot four men huddled together, trying hard to keep the cold air out, their mouths allowing for drifts of cold steam to wander while staring at the cards in their chapped shaky hands. As each speaks, a puff of cold misty hue clouds the air, as a steam locomotive would spit out in gaining power to produce movement. They too are deeply engrossed in what they are doing. There is a quick chuckle from the winner, a choir of despondent cries of disbelief from the losers. The next hand is dealt quickly, taken with a swig of the bottle and the lighting of homemade cigarettes. Then all is quiet in deep concentration until the next victory. The stillness, this quietness seems so false, so reassuring that everything here is fine.

I keep moving.

At the junction of the strips, stand two youths, one dressed in jeans, faded and ripped, his T-shirt bearing the initials UDF; the other in garage light brown overalls. Each stands like a newly-elected politician after a successful election campaign. But these teenagers are far from the avenues of a regular job, let alone important decision-making. Their existence in a racially classed country has reduced them to attacking the equally destitute who may have money in their purses at the end of the month. Someone who is too old to fight back, who will give in easily without defense. Blood will be drawn today, each day, the faces of those countless young, disappearing into rows of block houses, grinning with location achievement. They look at me with hateful eyes as I pass guardedly, knowing the passions of their minds.

I turn quickly into a new street. One with the attributes of a political catastrophe in the making, by a government ruthlessly bent on suppressing the black masses, shaping them according to its will.

Soul-impassioned rhythmic beats of township jazz/gospel usually loud, blaring from decaying radios wrecked of age, has changed channel to sounds of trepidation. The number one song has been scored by many an oppressive government; deadly bullets slamming into human flesh with a thud of an old bass drum while others off their marks, zip into walls sculpturing violence. The added notes – cries of agony as whips come down, lifting sprays of blood into the air. The song is played over and over until its melody is memorized and sang out in nightmares.

The calmness on the other side of the strip seemed like an illusion, a front to turn back visitors seeking answers to questions. The vans spill out uniformed men in blue and brown, charging with ferocity, unleashing powerful terror on children, men and women who fight back the pain with cries of pain. They run with outstanding courage.

Others stand firm with dignity.

Many fall.

Houses are entered and the struggling dragged out, rammed forcefully into waiting vans – struggling men, women and children, the strong, the blind and the crippled dragged from their homes…struggling.

I am witnessing it, my eyes trapdoor shut, now only allowing for the sounds of repression to enter my mind. It is a reminder that I’m not supposed to see it; off limits to Whites. The truth is jailing me. I must hide.

The cops are closing in fast and when they see me, for seeing them, the knife will come down hard – slashing. “Can you hide me?

Sorry, there’s no room, you see it’s a tiny place I have here.”

But they will be here soon!”

I know, they always come eventually.”

What can I do?”

There is nothing to do but wait.”

Where can I hide this?”

You see the room is empty.”

The room is foreboding, empty of happiness. Only a few wobbly stools, a table and in a corner, an ancient oven. A bright clean cross hangs on a wall. The oven. I can put my camera bag there.

Where are they now Mrs. Batshala?”

Soon they will be here. They are in my neighbor’s house.”

The wait was short-lived. Four blues crashed inside. Catching sight of me brings them to a sudden halt.

What are you doing here?”

Where’s your permit allowing you to be in a Black area?” asked the other cop aggressively, leaving me no time to answer the first question.

We want an answer now!’

Please let me explain. My reason for being here is that I came to tell Mrs. Batshala here that her mother died of illness last night and that she must arrange the funeral. That is why I’m here.”

Ja, nee man, that’s okay. We thought you were one of those journalists who writes lies about our country.”

Me? Oh no Sir, I don’t even have a pen.”

The cops laugh and warn me to leave immediately. The calm resumes.

Nervously I turn to Mrs. Batshala. “That was close.”

Yes it was.” Nods Mrs. Batshala.

Mrs. Batshala, don’t worry, I’ll get the photos of the police murdering your daughter to the newspaper. Tomorrow the world will know.”

Outside life is slowly returning to normal as I make my way through the street. An old man with an evenly cut beard, a gnarled stick in one hand, his legs struggling forward, turns to stare at me. Children in a resumed game laugh loudly in pure delight. They stop, look at me and continue their laughter. Nothing can stop them.

No to Apartheid !

About the writer:

Ilan Ossendryver has been a photojournalist for over 35 years having covered international news events such as the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, the Gulf War, War in Lebanon, the Israeli Jordanian Peace agreement, the first meeting between Yitzchak Rabin and Yasser Arafat at Hosni Mubarak’s palace in Cairo and the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin.  He was one of the official photographers during the Ethiopian airlift operation missions – “Operation Solomon” and “Operation Moses”  – as well as documenting the mass arrivals to Israel of Russian Jewry. as well as documenting the arrival to Israel of the Russian Jewry.

His photographs have appeared in many international newspapers such as CNN,  New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Forbes, Der Spiegel, South China Morning Post, The Times of London, The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, Yedioth Acharanot, Maariv, The Star of Johannesburg and many more as well as magazines.

Widely published in books about Israel and South Africa, Ilan is currently the resident photographer in  Johannesburg of the South African Jewish Report and conducts photographic trips into Soweto where he helps local communities and supports a soccer team.


While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

Lay of the Land Weekly Newsletter- 23 January 2021

Unveiling the contours and contrasts of an ever-changing Middle East landscape

Reliable reportage and insightful commentary on the Middle East by seasoned journalists from the region and beyond


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While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).