Friday, 27 April 2007

The irony of Powertown, South Africa

Pin It I've often driven past this small informal settlement on my way to visit my father. But it was a long trip from my home to his place; all of a two day drive, so I've usually been too tired to stop. But I kept promising myself that I would. Finally, after some years, I did.

Powertown, as it is called, is a cluster of shacks and dwellings that surounds an old deserted power station, hence the name. The irony of Powertown is that, like the deserted power station, it has no power, or electricity.

That means that the poor families that live there rely on paraffin, candles and fires for their light and to cook. Quite often, I'm told, a house will burn down in the night because someone forgot to blow out a candle, or in a drunken state, mistakenly set fire to their house and possessions.

Powertown is a pretty OK place, as far as poor areas go. The old power station is used by the kids to play in, and despite being dangerous with big holes in the upper level floors, it's still a giant playzone. People are friendly and generally welcoming. Everyone has a story to tell, and they want it to be told.

People are really poor. Across the road there are two stores, a butchery and a bottlestore. At the bottlestore, people from Powertown spend their money on alcohol and get drunk; at the butchery, a collection is made for a weekly Soup Kitchen to feed the kids whose parents either cannot get work, or fritter away their cash at the bottle store. Life is filled with curiousities, contradictions and ironies, is it not?

By night, when the drink takes over, there are occasionally brawls, rapes and arguements and a flash fire every now and again in a house punctuates the darkness of night.

In the morning, all that's left of the house are the metal springs of a burnt out bed, and a pile of smouldering ashes.

By day, Powertown is pretty normal. The kids generally go to a free government school; the mothers wash and clean and cook; the fathers sleep off the night before, or talk idly in small groups.

When I next go back to Powertown, I'm going to take all these and more images, blow them up quite large, and stick them up in the Old Power station. That way, I'll give the people of Powertown a community exhibition of themselves -- no publicity, no pre announcement - I will just arrive with my tape and stick the images up.

Powertown was an important experience for me.. In so many ways its a microcosm of South African life today...Poverty, violence, joy, color, life...and the real hope of the new South Africa...children, always filled with big smiles, always happy, no matter the odds. Indeed, they are our best hope for a positive future.

Follow up - I went back to Powertown with a complete set of images as I had promised to do. That afternoon the kids of Powertown helped me hang the images in the original powerstation building. Adults began to stream in, and before long, there was a complete impromptu exhibition. I left, leaving the images behind, hoping that I'll get to go back there again to document this settlement a bit further....

Cameras Nikon D2X, D50


Hank said...

They are powerful, beautiful, and sad images. Your use of color, wide angle, and composition are extemely effective. Great job!

EneMan said...

Powerful words and photos. Love your work.