Photographing Resistance to the Menace and Alienation of Apartheid Transport – Santu Mofokeng’s ‘Train Churches’ (1996)

#1, From Train Church, 1986

By David Alvarez, excerpt from Alternation, 1996

I think that particularly in a country like South Africa where for centuries and particularly in the last four decades or so there has been an overt attempt to remove people’s identities or to make them something other than what they are there is a huge potential there for using photography in a way that could actually, in some small measure, get people back to their identity, get people back their control of identity’ (Cedric Nunn, 1993)

To extend leftist discourses about political economy and the state to a discourse about capitalist civilization is to accent a sphere rarely scrutinized by Marxist thinkers: the sphere of culture and everyday life. And any serious scrutiny of this sphere sooner or later must come to terms with religious ways of life and religious ways of struggle (Cornel West, 1984).

Cedric Nunn’s call for a photography that would help restore a people’s identity and Cornel West’s insistence on the need for progressive thinkers to engage the sphere of religious ways of life and struggle are simultaneously concretised in a photo-essay entitled ‘Train Churches’, by the documentary photographer Santu Mofokeng. Published in a 1987 special issue of the North American journal Triquarterly devoted to new writing, photography, and art from South Africa, ‘Train Churches’ photographically documents an instantiation of De Certeau’s (1984) notion of how

a practice of the order constructed by others redistributes its space, it creates at least a certain play in that order, a space for manoeuvres of unequal forces and for utopian points of reference

The order here is that of the commuter trains transporting African workers in the service of the apartheid economy; the practice is that of improvised prayer meetings through which some commuters attempt to overcome the menace and alienation of apartheid transport.

In this section I examine ‘Train Churches’ as a text which frames and valorises certain everyday practices of resistance grounded in religious ritual. Since I am dealing here with a textual representation that mediates everyday life and not with a transparent window onto a quotidian South African reality, I devote some attention to the questions raised by the complexity of the photo-essay form. First, however, I offer a brief overview of the trajectory of oppositional South African documentary photography and of Mofokeng’s relationship to it.

In his 1987 reflection on documentary photography’s role in the struggle against apartheid, photographer Paul Weinberg claims that South African practitioners of the genre can be divided into two generations: the pre-1980s generation, characterised by the figure of the dogged and solitary photojournalist (best exemplified, perhaps, by Ernest Cole, and the generation which came of photographic and political age in the 1980s. While there is some continuity between the two, the work of the 1980s generation is in Weinberg’s view largely the product of collective endeavour. Mofokeng belongs to the 1980s generation, one which in a later piece Weinberg dubs the ‘Taking Sides Generation’. This generation created a number of photography collectives, one of the most active of which was Afrapix, formed in 1982.

The work of Afrapix was motivated by two broad objectives: on the one hand, to function as an agency and as a picture library; on the other, to foster the practice of documentary photography in alliance with the mass anti-apartheid organisations which emerged in the early 1980s. Afrapix photographers exhibited and published their work collectively, abroad as well as in South Africa. Most of this work attempted to record the ongoing struggle against apartheid from an openly partisan perspective. For instance, ‘On the Front Line: A Portrait of Civil War’, another photo-essay published in Triquarterly, consists of images produced by four Afrapix photographers which document scenes of repression and defiance from the State of Emergency of the mid-l980s.

Considered seditious by the State, the work of oppositional photographers was often banned, confiscated, and destroyed throughout the apartheid years. A plethora of legal restrictions severely curtailed the efforts of photographers to document social unrest and opposition to the State. In addition, photographers themselves were regularly harassed, banned, and imprisoned.

Significantly, the clampdown on press freedom during the mid-1980s State of Emergency led photographers to turn their attention to what Weinberg (1989) describes as ‘more in-depth community photography and more personal searches in the community of the photographer’. In so doing, Afrapix photographers like Mofokeng shifted their gaze from the spectacle of head-on struggle to less dramatic scenes, away from the conflict-ridden streets of the townships. Writing in 1991, two years after the lifting of the State of Emergency and a year after Mandela’s release, Weinberg (1991) argued that documentary photographers should create a photographic practice that could go beyond the limitations of protest photography:

The momentum we flowed with has gone. We now have to create our own. Our photography is faced with that challenge. We need to go beyond politics or maybe redefine what politics is. Maybe we should start by recognizing that it is people out there that make this struggle. It is people that make those statistics. It is time for photography to shift its focus. People make the struggle and it is not simply the politicians, the press conferences and the talking heads that are important. ‘News and politics’ both so critical in our highly politicised country have made the rendition of imagery superficial and limited.

This dissatisfaction with ‘superficial and limited’ imagery was also expressed by another member of the Afrapix collective, Cedric Nunn. In an interview in which he argues for empowering people to become active, critical consumers of images from the multifarious social text of late­-capitalist South Africa, Nunn (1993) charts the transformation in his aesthetic and political concerns:

Certainly I became a photographer and many people in Afrapix became photographers, because we wanted to make some sort of political intervention. A lot of us have moved, in that process we have come closer to seeing photography as art-form, as a creative art-form… And that removes it from the arena of hardcore politics, if you want, but I don’t think that that diminishes it in any way because it then takes on a creativity of its own.


#2, From Train Church, 1986

 #4, From Train Church, 1986

As the quotations by Weinberg and Nunn make clear, in photography (as indeed in literature), a tactical shift was underway in the late 1980s from the overtly political to realms often dismissed as apolitical (and therefore not ‘relevant’) by leftist critics. I want to argue that in the terms of Njabulo Nljebele’s critique of protest writing, the shift entailed focusing on the arena of ‘the ordinary’ and on the ‘infinite number of specific social details’ of people’s lives (Ndebele 1989) of which the ordinary was composed.

Mofokeng’s work shows an abiding concern for depicting ‘ordinary black South Africans going about the day-to day business of living’ (Mofokeng in Holst Petersen & Rutherford 1992). In ‘Train Churches’, published in the same year as Nunn’s interview, Mofokeng records the activities of railway commuters taking part in prayer meetings, a common feature of urban train travel since the early 1970s.

Mofokeng’s introductory text, ten photographs, and three captions capture moments in the rituals of the urban railway expressive culture of the ‘train churches’. The essay’s introduction deftly summarizes the characteristics and significance of this assemblage of performative railway practices, keyed on religious faith:

Early-morning, late-afternoon and evening commuters preach the gospel in trains en route to and from work. The train ride is no longer a means to an end, but an end in itself as people from different townships congregate in coaches-two to three per train-to sing to the accompaniment of improvised drums (banging the sides of the train) and bells. Foot stomping and gyrating-a packed train is turned into a church. This is a daily ritual (Mofokeng, 1987)

Comaroff notes that ritual is a key element of the everyday forms of protest of marginalised peoples. Such forms of protest are often imbricated in what Cornel West calls ‘religious ways of life’ and ‘religious ways of struggle’ in the ‘cultural life-worlds of the oppressed’. In ‘Train Churches’, Mofokeng’s camera has recorded a few moments of the everyday expressive religious culture of the oppressed.

Upon a first viewing, Mofokeng’s photographs jar with an outsider’s mental archive of images of South Africa in the 1980s. Absent from these photographs are the toyi-toying comrades, the burly, sjamook-wielding policemen, the billowing clouds of rubber-tyre smoke, and the ominoud Casspirs which long dominated photographic imagery of that decade produced for international consumption. Instead, in ‘Train Churches’ we encounter images of mostly middle-aged African women dressed in everyday work clothes who have been photographed while performing various practices such as singing, clapping, healing, praying, preaching and dancing. Surrounded by other commuters who are photographed looking on bemused, reading, or dozing, the framing of the worshippers in these train churches suggests that they are transported by religious fervour.

If the ethnographic arguments of anthropologists like Jean Comaroff are accurate, such fervour is the expression of an assemblage of practices which enable worshippers to mediate the profoundly alienating character of urban railway travel, itself a manifestation of a larger order of alienation, that of industrial capitalism in its South African form. In addition to describing what the photographs reveal of that mediation, I want to consider the work they do as images assembled in a photo-essay. Before assessing the character of Mofokeng’s photographs as representations, however, I want to consider briefly the nature of the practices which they represent.

In his 1972 study of Zionist rituals on commuter trains transporting Black workers between the township of Kwarnashu and white-dominated Durban, ethnographer J.P. Kiernan (1977) noted that while the people of the township accepted the train as part of everyday living, it was a constant reminder of their economically and politically dependent status. Further, in view of the sometimes disastrous accidents which took place on the African routes in the major urban areas and of the rampant violent crime on board the trains and at the stations, the train not surprisingly represented menace (Kiernan, 1977). Kiernan shows how some commuters chose to contest their subordinate status and the menace of the trains through the enactment of religious rituals practised by Zionists (not all the subjects of his study were in fact Zionists).

While Mofokeng’s essay does not specify what denominations the commuting worshippers belong to, their singing, improvised drumming, foot stomping and dancing suggests that they are adherents of the various charismatic sects of either the Independent or the Zionist churches of Southern Africa. Jean Comaroff (l985) explains that the dynamic system of religious signs and practices of the Zionist sects is centred on ‘the ritualized attempt to reform the body and the location of the person in the world’. Reforming the body and re-centering the person are symbolic responses to the sense of alienation and of loss of cultural identity generated by capitalist socio-economic structures in a racially segregated order. Just as the body is at the centre of Zionist ritual and belief, bodies (and especially faces) occupy most of the photographic space of Mofokeng’s frames.

In the remaining paragraphs of this section, I attempt a close reading of the photo-essay. I hope to show that in an essay consisting of only a one­ paragraph introduction, ten photographs, and two captions, Mofokeng has managed to convey a sense of the resilience of African workers condemned to undertaking the same dreary, dangerous journey day after day. Commencing with three ambivalent pictures of solitary worshippers surrounded by indifferent commuters, and proceeding with a series of five portraits of worshippers in varying states of transcendence, the essay concludes with two collective portraits of exultant commuters continuing their perfonnative practices on the platforms of the railway station.

Before commenting on the photographs individually, I want to under­ take a brief reflection on the relationship between myself as viewer/critic and Mofokeng’s essay. John Berger (1982) observes that when we find a photograph meaningful, ‘we are lending it a past and a future’. Despite tbe verbal contextualization of the photographs through the medium of a prefatory paragraph and two captions, providing ‘Train Churches’ with ‘a past and a future’, is not an altogether straightforward proposition.

While ‘Train Churches’ is not a ‘pure’ photo-essay, most of the photographs in it lack the most minimal textual features that conventionally accompany a photo-essay: captions, legends, dates, names, and locations. Much about the photographs remains ‘unreadable’. We are not told, for instance, why Mofokeng chose to document this particular aspect of quotidian South African urban life. This alone generates questions which the photographs cannot answer. What, for example, is the relationship between the photographer and his subjects? What relationships do his subjects have among one another? Were the photographs taken on different occasions among different groups of congregants? If so, why? What practices are the congregants engaged in precisely?

More intimate details about the photographs are also unavailable to us. What are the names of the people in the photographs? What do they think about their being photographed? The unavailability of answers to these and other questions reinforces the ambiguity inherent in the photographs. In what follows I intend to supplement the weak intentionality of the individual photographs with a narrative pieced together from the clues given to us both by the essay’s verbal components and by the arrangement of its visual information. This narrative is perforce fragmentary and much about the photographs remains ineffable. But if John Berger (1982) is right in arguing that photographs placed sequentially are restored to a context of interpretable experience, then the ambiguity of ‘Train Churches’ yields polysemic meaning and not a frozen iconicity.


 #5, From Train Church, 1986

#9, From Train Church, 1986

‘Train Churches’ opens with a half-body shot of a woman singing, clapping, and swaying her shoulders in the midst of a crowded train carriage. Although the woman’s face is the photograph’s focus, she is not gazing straight ahead but is looking instead in the direction of somebody in front of her and to her right who appears as a blurred arm in the bottom left part of the frame. The woman’s face is the only one we see clearly in this photograph. We can only see partial profiles of the two figures behind her and of the seated woman in the bottom right hand comer. There is an odd tension in the photograph between the fast movement which the woman’s blurred hands and body posture convey and the stillness and manifest uninterest of the figures behind her. That tension is further enhanced by the distribution of the light and dark tones. The light streaming in through the window in the right-hand third of the frame is bright and diffuse, evoking newness and illumination. That sense is offset, however, by the predominantly dark tone of the left third of the picture. The overall impression conveyed by the photograph is one of disconnection and engagement. Apparently disconnected from the commuters behind her, the woman sings on regardless, her countenance only slightly less impassive than that of the standing figure whose profile we see in the left third of the picture. The strange sense of impassivity conveyed by these two faces is however, slightly offset by the half-smile of the woman in the bottom right hand comer, who is sitting and reading a book (a Bible?) illuminated by the light from the window.

A similar dynamic is at work in the next photograph, a medium-long shot of a man crouching slightly as he apparently blows air outwards into the carriage with the help of his hands, also blurred. Like the woman in the previous photograph, this man is absorbed in his task and is not looking at the camera, thus lending the photograph an air of disengagement. The intensity of the man’s expression stands in strange contrast to the impassivity of the three out of the four figures behind him who are contemplating his actions. The fourth person, the man reading the newspaper at the left of the photograph, is unconcerned with the display of religious expressivity taking place in front of him. Holding up the paper with his left hand, he hangs on to a strap with his right hand, his right arm held diagonally above his shoulder, leading the eye away from the scene to a point outside the frame. The air of disengagement is further enhanced by the way in which Mofokeng has captured the space in which the man is located, standing as he is between two poles by himself, flanked on either side by seated, dozing women clutching their carrier bags.

The mood changes somewhat in the third picture, another medium long shot of a singing worshipper, who like the worshippers in the previous two photographs is looking away from the photographer and is surrounded by considerable empty space. In this case, however, the worshipper has engaged the attention of those around him to a small degree, as is evident from the faint smiles of the two women behind the man, in the left half of the picture.

In the fourth photograph, much of which is dark, the partially lit faces and hands of three women and the light in the windows behind them prevent the dark areas from overwhelming the composition. Even though the women are clapping and singing (while seated), the photograph has a heavy and silent quality to It.

The fifth photograph, which captures women undertaking what appears to be a healing ceremony, generates greater tension than the previous ones. The tension results from the intensity with which the healer (captured from the side) holds the face of the woman in front of her, and the equal intensity with which a younger woman in the background, whose illuminated face is the picture’s focus, looks on to the scene of the healing with her mouth open as though she is both singing and registering alarm.

The sixth and seventh photographs capture the transported visages of an individual woman and an individual man respectively. Located at the very centre of the frame, the woman’s illuminated face and torso convey a sense of sheer exaltation, a sense reinforced by the blackness which surrounds her and by the way in which her lit countenance contrasts with the faint silhouette which we can barely make out to the left of her. A similar effect is achieved in the next photograph, a captioned close-up of a priest with furrowed brow whose lit-up face is framed by two areas of black.

In the eighth photograph, we have close-ups of the serious countenan­ces of two women, praying with their eyes closed while they hold their anns aloft. The last two pictures are of activities outside the train, and each captures more worshippers simultaneously than any of the previous photographs. In the first, a group of five women at the centre of the picture run in circles surrounded at a distance of a few feet by fellow commuters standing in a ring around them. The expressions on their faces are joyful, and that sense of joyfulness is enhanced by the wider sweep of the photograph, taking in as it does a much larger area than any of the previous eight pictures.

The very last photograph in the essay has a caption which reads ‘Park Station, Johannesburg’. Singing continues onto platform before people go off in different directions to work’. In the left centre half of the picture, a small band of commuters walk along singing and clapping. Seven faces are visible and most of them are smiling. In the right-hand third of the photograph, other commuters standing at the open doorway of the train appear as blurred figures, while in the bottom right hand comer, the skirt, shoes, and socks of a woman walking along the platform are visible. The rest of her is not. There is a tension in the photograph generated by the contrast between the distinct joyfulness of the commuters on the left of the picture who have descended after surviving the journey intact and the blurred image of the commuters still mside the overcrowded and dangerous train.

Possibly taken on separate occasions, the photographs constitute a narrative whole which tells a story of alienation resisted. Writing about the ‘opposition to history’ manifested in a photograph by Andre Kertesz, John Berger (1982) notes that

All photographs are possible contributions to history, and any photograph, under certain circumstances can be used in order to break the monopoly which history has over time.

These words are pertinent to my reading of ‘Train Churches’. The train-and time-bound commuters in Mofokeng’s photographs are represented in the process of breaking the monopoly which history has over time and which the realm of necessity has over their day-to-day lives. As a whole, the essay contributes to this resistance by assembling the images in ways which invite recognition of the everyday drama they represent.

The overall effect of the essay is greater than the sum of its parts. This may be an intrinsic consequence of the montage-like properties of the photo­ essay. John Berger (1982) argues that still photographs placed in a montage sequence are restored to a living context:

… nor of course to the original temporal context from which they were taken­ that is impossible – but to a context of experience. And there, their ambiguity at last becomes true!. It allows what they show to be appropriated by reflection. The world they reveal, frozen, becomes tractable. The information they contain becomes permeated by feeling. Appearances become the language of a lived life.

The context of experience to which the photographs in Mofokeng’s essay are restored is that of the daily commuting experiences of millions of African workers. Celebratory and detached by turns, ‘Train Churches’ captures some of the complexity of an everyday experience in which ordinary workers enacted ritual practices that undercut the commodification to which they were subjected, even as they reproduced some of the features of the oppressive order. Appearances here do indeed become the language of lived lives, lives fraught with alienation, hope, and contradiction. Mofokeng’ s text is therefore in a sense more complex and compelling than either the deceitful, glossy images of life in South Africa circulated by apologists for apartheid or the imagery of unremittingly spectacular confrontation produced even by progressive photojournalists.

For all its power, however, a de-contextualized reading of ‘Train Churches’ could serve to occlude the harsh realities which train-congregants often had to face. In ‘Dumani’, Bereng Setuke (1980:64) notes preachers and their impromptu congregations are often silenced by train-gangs singing obscene songs. In the story which I analyse in the next section, it is the congregation itself which participates in a ‘silencing’.


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(All rights reserved. Text @ David Alvarez, Images @ Santu Mofokeng)

Posted in Africa, Essays, Race & Class and tagged , , , .