These were the words that appeared on a makeshift poster attached to a fence in Ventersdorp, South Africa, last Friday. The occasion was the funeral of Eugene Terre’Blanche, the country’s most famous white supremacist who was hacked to death on his farm. Everybody at the funeral knew what the poster meant: Julius Malema, the president of the ANC Youth League and singer of the Kill the Boer song, had recently booted a BBC reporter from a press conference, accusing him of “white tendency” and calling him a “bastard”, but his supporters were capable of far worse.
There were other posters that supposedly spoke of the renowned hospitality of South Africans. “Come to the World Cup and bleed at the hands of black racists,” for instance. Still, the only racists at the funeral were white, and they bore the symbols of their cause — flags of the old apartheid state, flags of the first Afrikaner republics, flags modelled on the Nazi swastika.
Greg Marinovich, one of two surviving members of the Bang Bang Club, a group of South African photographers who framed the most visceral images of the violence of the early 1990s, was at the funeral with me. I saw him standing near the trunk of the gaudy, gold-embossed hearse. He was rooted to the ground, unmoved by the heaving crowd, focused on his viewfinder.
“It wasn’t anywhere near as aggressive as it used to be,” he told me a few days later. “Back then, you were the target of absolute aggression.”
In the bad old days, when Terre’Blanche’s far-right movement was a genuine threat to South Africa’s democratic transition, Marinovich knew that his life was in danger. The Boers really wanted to kill him. And he, in turn, wanted to kill them back.
He directed me to his blog, where he recorded his impressions of the funeral and the memories they evoked. “Vivid memories of bearded and heavily-set men wearing their firearms like a phallus, and mean-eyed yet sexy boeremeisies in khaki skirts giving me a look that went way beyond political disdain.”
Sex and death. Marinovich admitted that 20 years ago he had fantasies of sacrificing himself in a “suicidal attack on Terre’Blanche,” after which he’d make violent love to “one of those comely Nazi hussies”. He didn’t get to kill the leader, of course, yet for a while the sex angle seemed even more sordid than he could imagine – this week, allegations emerged, and were then withdrawn, that Terre’Blanche sodomised his alleged attackers on the day that he died.
Had these allegations been true, they might have made a fitting end to a strange and terrible tale, a story as bizarre as the country itself. What other nation on Earth could draw a fashion photographer like Rankin, a man more at home among wasted models and wind machines, to enter the universe of documentary film-making?
South Africa in Pictures, a one-hour film being shown on BBC Four, follows Rankin as he encounters, interviews and learns from South Africa’s pre-eminent photographers: David Goldblatt, Alf Kumalo and Greg Marinovich among them. The film is one more example of a renewed media interest in South Africa; an interest brought on by the World Cup in June, and exacerbated by the recent extremist grandstanding.
Rankin visited the country in January, so he missed the excesses of the last month. He knew nothing, he told me, of the killing of Terre’Blanche, nor of the inflammatory chanting of the ANC’s young demagogue Malema. He had been busy with other matters, he said, and because he was on the phone to me from the back seat of a Paris taxi, I believed him.
To his credit, though, Rankin knows that he knows very little about South Africa. “I get that there’s violence, I get that it’s a very difficult place to categorise,” he said. He also said that while he was visiting, he never once felt threatened; not when Marinovich took him into Johannesburg’s townships, not when he was walking on the city’s downtown streets.
For a South African, these are pleasing words to hear — particularly because a lot of the time they’re true. Also, Rankin is far from naive about the wealth divisions in the country. Can photography do anything about the vast inequalities that fuel our social ills? “I don’t think so,” he offered. “But Joao Silva [the other Bang Bang Club survivor] said if it changes one person, then it’s good.”
Alf Kumalo, to whom Rankin referred as a photographer of “great charm” — a well-worn explanation for his access to the likes of Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela, and the incomparable portraits that resulted — is a South African who is able to look at current events through the lens of witnessed history. Kumalo was at the treason trial of Mandela, he was present at many of the mass uprisings against the apartheid state, he was even on the scene in 1993 when Terre’Blanche’s paramilitary thugs stormed the building where negotiations with the ANC were taking place.
“I was the only black photographer there,” he recalls, from his home in Johannesburg. “I appear in all the footage. It was terrible. They were chasing me, they wanted to eliminate me.”
The situation now, said Kumalo, is nowhere near as serious as it was then. “It’s just a coincidence that Malema said what he said [before Terre’Blanche was killed]. That was no more complicated than a robbery.”
In London this coming week, there will be more South Africa-focused events, and the above issues and questions will be refracted through the collective prism of the country’s writers. South Africa is also the focus country at the London Book Fair, where established literary names such as Antjie Krog, Andre Brink and Zakes Mda will be taking part. There will also be the younger writers, people such as Siphiwo Mahala, who will be appearing with me and six other South Africans to discuss “What the 2010 World Cup means to the home team”.
Mahala’s attitude to that debate is clear: it won’t be about the World Cup fans or visitors, most of whom will be safe and well taken care of.
“It is the duty of the writer to scratch the surface and look at what is not in the public eye,” he says when I talk to him as we prepare. Such as? “Such as the fact that the tournament may not in any meaningful way benefit the country’s poor.”
South Africa in Pictures is on BBC Four at 9pm on April 27 as part of the Wonderful Africa season; RANKINJOZI is at the Annroy Gallery London NW5, from May 7, rankin.co.uk; Kevin Bloom’s Ways of Staying is published by Portobello; the British Council South Africa Cultural Programme “One Nation, Many Voices” runs to April 23, www.britishcouncil.org