Unequal Scenes portrays dramatic scenes of inequality around the world from a drone’s perspective. Looking straight down from a height of several hundred meters, incredible scenes of inequality emerge. Some communities have been expressly designed with separation in mind, and some have grown more or less organically.
Discrepancies in how people live are sometimes hard to see from the ground. The beauty of being able to fly is to see things from a new perspective — to see things as they really are.
During apartheid, segregation of urban spaces was instituted as policy. Roads, rivers, “buffer zones” of empty land, and other barriers were constructed and modified to keep people separate. 22 years after the end of apartheid, many of these barriers, and the inequalities they have engendered, still exist. Often times, communities of extreme wealth and privilege will exist just meters from squalid conditions and shack dwellings.
My desire with this project is to portray the most Unequal Scenes around the world as objectively as possible. By providing a new perspective on an old problem, I hope to provoke a dialogue which can begin to address the issues of inequality and disenfranchisement in a constructive and peaceful way.
Papwa Sewgolum Golf Course is located along the lush green slopes of the Umgeni River in Durban. Almost unbelievably, a sprawling informal settlement exists just meters from the tee for the 6 hole. A low-slung concrete fence separates the tin shacks from the carefully manicured fairways. In a twist of irony, the golf course is named after an apartheid-era golfer of Indian descent, named Sewsunker “Papwa” Sewgolum. Papwa Sewgolum was an excellent self-taught golfer, with no formal schooling. He is famous for his reversed, cross-handed grip (called the “Sewsunker” grip even today). But he is possibly most famous for beating Gary Player and winning the 1965 Natal Open. The Natal Open was held at the Durban Country Club, which at the time did not allow non-whites into the clubhouse. Sewgolum won the tournament, the only non-white in a field of 113 players. At the time of the prize-giving, he had to receive his trophy outside, in the pouring rain, while the white players sat comfortably inside. The pictures of him in the rain were broadcast around the world, resulting in an international outcry and a number of countries imposing sanctions on South African sporting events. Just as his career looked as if it would take off, the South African government banned him from all local tournaments, and also withdrew his passport, preventing him from competing abroad. He died impoverished in 1978, at age 50, from a heart attack.
The story of Kya Sands is a story of ash, smoke, and broken promises. Search for the informal settlement on Google and you will find many articles relating to fires; including one that burned over 200 shacks in November 2015. Search a little more and you will find a list of protests and claims that formal housing that was promised but never forthcoming. A little bit more, and you’ll find accounts of the army being mobilized after xenophobic violence erupted. Across the street, among leafy trees, shady street corners and swimming pools, you find the middle-class suburb of Bloubosrand. A quick search on Property24 shows that many houses are worth over 1 million rand. Across the street, tin shacks with car tires on their roof extend into the distance. If you look even closer, the main thoroughfares in Kya Sands are actually drainages for the black, filthy water emanating from the nearby creek. Although there are many initiatives to better the conditions of people living in informal settlements, including electrification and housing upgrades, there is a massive influx of people coming every year to find work in South Africa’s economic center. Not all of them can afford housing, and many end up in informal settlements like Kya Sands. In addition, many of those living in informal settlements are foreign nationals, providing their own unique set of challenges to integration.
The Southern Cape Peninsula, about 20 km from Cape Town’s city center, is comprised of several idyllic, picturesque suburbs such as Noordhoek, Kommetjie, and Fish Hoek. Horse riding tours are common on nearby Long Beach. Surfing is a popular pastime. Sandwiched within the “Sun Valley” communities is Masiphumelele. There are approximately 38,000 people living there, many in small tin shacks. There is no police station, only one small day clinic, and it’s estimated that up to 35% of the population is infected with HIV or TB (Wikipedia + Masicorp). Fires are common in winter, which sweep through the shacks, sometimes displacing residents by the hundreds. Moreover, the entire community of 38,000 is accessed by only one single exit/entrance. Across a narrow wetlands, the community of Lake Michelle is surrounded by an electrified fence and accessed through a guardhouse. Current prices on real estate sites put their value at several million rands. On the day I flew overhead, several people paddleboarded in the choppy lake waters. I see the wetlands between them as a sort of no-man’s land; an area too scary to venture into from either side. I imagine both sides peer across at their neighbors with distrust and suspicion.
Sweet Home was primarily a dumping ground for builder’s rubble like bricks, which you can still see being recycled on the side of the road today near the south end of the settlement. Services and conditions are poor. Vukuzenzele, just to the north, was developed in collaboration with a fund to provide affordable housing to South Africans. The visual difference between the two is stark. The organic network of roads and dwellings to the south contrasts sharply with the orderly, geometric patterns of the planned community to the north. This means much more than simply representing a difference in wealth, writes Diana Mitlin. “Just as the community capacity-building element provides an essential legacy in being a social asset that will help enable the community to address its future goals, so the development of physical assets provides essential assistance. In this case, the physical assets incorporate secure tenure, access to adequate services and improved living conditions. This enables families to have access to healthy living conditions and offers them the opportunity to accumulate resources. However, the development of physical assets is also important for another reason; it provides the arena within which collective skills and capacities can develop.”
Vusimuzi settlement is in an interesting position. It protrudes like an isthmus between a fetid stream, a huge cemetery, and two slightly wealthier suburbs. High above the shacks, high-tension power lines carry electricity to other areas of Johannesburg, but not Vusimuzi. As one resident put it (in an article written in 2013), “Electricity flows above, but not below”. Between Ehlanzeni and Vusimuzi, there are over 30,000 people living in approximately 8,500 shacks, on the margins of the former township of Tembisa, Gauteng. Service delivery, including sanitation, electricity, policing, and education, is extremely poor. Contrasted to the greater province of Gauteng, Vusimuzi is an anomaly. Gauteng is the richest province in South Africa, and Johannesburg is the richest city. Gauteng contributes almost 1/3 of South Africa’s total GDP, and is rapidly modernizing into a world-class city. Yet the image speaks for itself. On the day I was there, a wind whistled through the power lines and the faint drone of a jet, high above, were all that was audible. The graves and the shacks, side by side, were extremely eerie to me. I imagined that the ghosts of one haunt the ghosts of the other.
The story of Alexandra and Sandton is a story of the most stark divide of wealth in South Africa. Sandton, as all South Africans know, is a name synonymous with wealth, opulence, finance, and white flight. The Johannesburg Stock Exchange is located here, as is Sandton City shopping centre, Sandton Convention Centre, headquarters of various companies, a polo club, and a residential heart that purports “Manhattan-style living”. Sandton benefited from the urban decay of central Johannesburg during the 1990s. It became an alternative, attractive, and safe area for business to operate, and is now considered the financial center of South Africa, and therefore, one of the major financial centers of Africa. Less than a kilometer away, across the M1 highway, sits the former township of Alexandra, an icon of apartheid-era urban planning, and former home to several famous struggle heroes including Nelson Mandela. From an aerial view, Alex appears as if carved from stone. It’s almost treeless, contrasting sharply with the leafy parks and avenues of Sandton. The streets are laid out in a perfect grid, but within those grids, shacks fill every gap, every contour. Huge hostel complexes, once proposed to house all of Alexandra’s inhabitants, now loom like megaliths within the urban structure. The township itself is almost a perfect square, blatantly visible from any map view you choose.
Hout Bay is a picturesque valley about 15 km south of Cape Town, situated between several mountains. There is a protected harbor at one end of the valley, which is one of the busiest fishing harbors in the Western Cape, along with several wealthy housing estates, hotels, and small farms. Nestled between two of these affluent housing estates is the suburb of Imizamo Yethu. Imizamo Yethu (IY) is comprised of both a designated housing area and an “informal settlement” area, which is largely comprised of small shack dwellings which stretch up the steep slopes of the mountain behind it. The shacks in this informal settlement reach right to the very edge of the demarcated area, in a densely packed jumble of tin roofs. In fact, even though the total area of IY is much smaller than the whole Hout Bay valley, the two have roughly the same population, 15538 vs. 17329. (City of Cape Town Census 2011.) Although there are services that exist in IY, including schools and a police station, statistics for service delivery are hard to find. However, the striking visual dissimilarities between the richer estate to the north, Tierboskloof, and IY are immediately apparent when viewed from the air. The line of trees which divides the two hides what I can only assume is a heavily fortified fence. In some cases, the houses (some with swimming pools) are just a stone’s throw from the shacks.
Morningside is one of Durban’s richest suburbs, and for good reason. The location is spectacular. High-rise apartment buildings tower over cliffs above the Umgeni River, with beautiful views of the spectacular Moses Madiba soccer stadium, Durban Country Club, and Indian Ocean. Even President Jacob Zuma has an official state residence there, one of three around South Africa. However like many cities around the world, the rich find themselves at the top not just financially, but geographically. Several roads lead down from Morningside to the Umgeni River. Along these winding roads, following the steep topography of an ancient river bank, are hundreds of shacks housing thousands of people. These shacks are constructed in narrow drainages, perched one above the other in a series of descending contours. Durban’s torrential rains can play havoc on the residents, as can the ever-present threat of fires. This is of course coupled with pervasive unemployment, poor service delivery, crime, and disease.
Nomzamo/Lwandle is a township bordered by the communities of Strand and Somerset West, about 40 km east of Cape Town. Originally it was conceived of as an area to house “single male workers” during the apartheid years, in a type of accommodation known as “hostels”. The actual hostel structures were built in 1960 to accommodate about 500 male migrants who mostly came from their former homelands in the Eastern Cape such as Transkei and Ciskei, where they were working in farms and the fruit canning industry and other surrounding areas. (Wikipedia). In the intervening years, the township grew and is now a quite sizable suburb with a population of over 60,000 people (2011 Census). Within this suburb, there are a variety of types of houses, including government-funded RDP homes and also “shack” dwellings. In 2014 the City of Cape Town forcibly removed many people from their shacks along the N2 highway in a violent confrontation, but then soon changed course, and rebuilt some of the shacks on another plot of land. A portion of the rebuilt shacks can be seen in the photos below.
This work was awarded a special Juror’s Pick in the LensCulture Emerging Talent Awards 2016. Be sure to see more of Johnny Miller’s impressive and massive project from locations all over the world at his Unequal Scenes website. And read a compelling interview with the photographer at Vignette Interactive.