“Massive poverty and obscene inequality are such terrible scourges of our times — times in which the world boasts breathtaking advances in science, technology, industry and wealth accumulation — that they have to rank alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils…Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”
—Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)
In 2011, South Africa replaced Brazil as the most unequal society in the world — the country with the widest gap between the poorest and richest individuals. Johannesburg, South Africa’s financial capital, has the most luxury German cars per square meter in the world. It seems that the country is no longer divided by race, but by wealth.
It is with these words in mind that I read photographer Per-Anders Petterson’s new book, Rainbow Transit. Over the past two decades, Pettersson has explored the country, the ‘Rainbow Nation’, questioning the complex realities of daily life. It turns out that democracy brought both rewards and new struggles: a soaring violent crime rate, disease, poverty and massive unemployment. Still, the country’s policies resulted in astonishing wealth for a new black elite, and saw the rapid emergence of a black middle class. The energy with which these so-called ‘black diamonds’ embraced capitalism was one of the most striking features of the transition. Their success occasioned a frenzied aspirational spirit amongst the poorer urban classes. Yet as wealth began concentrating in a few hands, the country’s initial burst of aspiration was smothered by a second decade of greed and disillusionment.
Pettersson tries to represent this complex country as broadly as he can. He photographs whites-only Afrikaans communities, the bourgeois life of the ‘black diamonds’, poor, urban life in the country’s endless ‘townships‘, and even scenes from tradition-bound Xhosa tribespeople. The results document how the country has changed: self-isolated Afrikaaners now live hard-scrabble lives on the fringes of society. Meanwhile, aspiring blacks sip from martini glasses at the club while others, not so far away, scoop their dinners out of tin cans. There are moments of integration but these stand out because of their rarity rather than their prominence. And there are signs of economic progress but they are marked more by inequality than anything else.
And yet, all hope is not lost. As Barack Obama said at Mandela’s memorial service: “The questions we face today — how to promote equality and justice; how to uphold freedom and human rights; how to end conflict and sectarian war — these things do not have easy answers…[yet] Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done.”
Editor’s Note: See more images from “Rainbow Transit” in our book reviews section.