Signs of segregation

The influence of Visual Culture during South African Apartheid

By Steph Garratt

Ever since Man began creating Images, the ‘visual’ has been embedded into the very fabric of our lives and
onto the landscapes we move through. Images, words and signs influence the way we see and respond to the
world around us, often without our knowing it. But who lies behind the façade of visual culture? Who, or what
authority does it allude to? Baudrillard argued that ‘behind the baroqueness of images hides the éminence
grise of politics’, that beneath the surface of all visual culture is a powerful decision maker operating behind
the scenes. From 1948 until the early 1990s, Apartheid operated as formal policy throughout South Africa;
signs and other visual materials were used in huge numbers to govern the population. To those in charge, it
was a policy of ‘good neighbourliness’, but reality saw a system set out to disposes all non-Europeans,
reducing them to the status of non-citizens. South Africa became a place where visual culture controlled and
conditioned the behaviour of its people.

Andrzey Sawa’s Apartheid Sign depicts a ‘Whites Only’ alley way. In the foreground, two figures walk past and
stare down the void to which they are unwelcome. The central silhouette, of what appears to be an officer, is
completely unidentifiable, just a shadow receding into the distance. However, it is the face of this invisible
man that gives such poignancy to the words above his head. The hierarchical structure of contemporary South
African society is manifest within the photo’s composition. At the very top is an image that dictates the
movement of those reading it. Below this we see a figure of authority; the reason why whoever reads these
words should comply to their dictation. Finally, at the bottom are the people who have to decide their
particular movement based upon the signs message. The very fabric of life was permeated by prohibitions
against racial mixing, everyone was made to know his or her decided place.

Similarly, Ernest Cole’s Doornfontein Railway Station captures a public space, segmented by the restrictions of
city and government. Within a city, there are always places that we can and cannot go. In a train station we are
told where these are by barriers, tracks and stairways; a yellow line painted on the floor orders us not to cross
until we are told, and we submit to its authority through fear of being hit by an oncoming train. In the station
Cole captures, ‘black’ South Africans are kept in their place by words written on a wall, ‘white-only’. Their
submission comes from a fear of persecution, perfectly demonstrating the power that an image, a symbol,
even a word can have over behaviour. Restrictions are not only made by the infrastructure of a city, but by the
language and visual material that can be imprinted onto them.


Under Apartheid, life was entirely malleable, Laws could be changed, place-names altered and maps redrawn.
The government kept up with these changes through the continuing alteration and growth of their particular
brand of advertising. They sold their way of life through signage, graffitied on landscapes, suggesting that the
horrific ‘success’ of South African Apartheid is owed, primarily, to the persuasive powers of visual culture. As
unsettling as this reality seems, we may find comfort in the truth that while images were used first as weapons
against the people, they later became tools used by the people in the struggle to end segregation.
Photography became the mode by which the Apartheid landscape was captured, allowing people to see the
inhumanity that existed, encouraging them to rally for change. Pictures have power; a capability to influence
us in ways we may not even be aware of, and it is their power that led to South African Apartheid being both
constructed and opposed in visual terms.

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© Helicon Magazine 2019

University of Bristol