Filmmaker: May Abdalla
Award-winning photographer Neo Ntsoma revisits DJ Cleo and the stars of South Africa’s democratic dawn to take new portraits and discuss the impact of both apartheid and freedom on their lives.
In this frank and emotional film, Ntsoma recounts the obstacles facing a black female photographer in apartheid South Africa.
“I was 22 years old. I was just thrown out of photo school for being a black woman pursuing a career, which was seen as inappropriate. I ended up having to work night shifts at The Star, taking pictures of news events …. I was just so sick of all those negative things.”
But as Nelson Mandela was freed and apartheid dismantled, she found herself part of a new movement.
“In the early 90’s, something new was happening in South Africa. We were full of energy and exploded with our dreams and ambitions onto the scene. We wanted to be – to create dance, music and fashion. So I took photographs of what was happening around me.”
Two decades later, the people in Ntsoma’s original photographs are today’s superstars, and her quest to retake their portraits forces her to look at the price she and many of her generation paid in the transition to freedom.
By May Abdalla
I first travelled to South Africa in the summer of 2002. I didn’t know it then but the country was at the height of ‘Kwaito’ fever – a word that described a new sound and a new look for the ‘new’ South Africa. White and black youngsters danced in clubs to Mandoza, the Trompies and anything produced by DJ Cleo. The sound was bassy, edgy and ecstatic. The clothes were wild: extravagant hats, African print and playful sequined numbers that oozed a jokey sophistication – hip without the hipster. Authentically South African, the songs were sung for the first time in local languages over big city house beats.
As a UK-raised 18-year old, apartheid was an abstract news story for me. But now, as a tourist in another nation’s happy ending, it felt like the credits were rolling and everyone was out to have a good time.
It was around that time that Neo Ntsoma, one of South Africa’s first black female photojournalists, was documenting the movement. “It was my scene, it was my party, I was feeling on the inside everything that they were showing in the photos I took,” she told me.
Despite the ‘Kwaito fever’ the story that was coming from South Africa at that time was not about the music, it was about the crime. Neo’s life straddled both of them. Her need to earn money and look after a young son as a single parent compelled her into another, very different, side of nocturnal Johannesburg – night shifts at The Star newspaper. She was sent out to shoot everything from police raids to murder scenes, violent arrests to house fires sweeping the townships. Although she had not signed up for the crime beat, that was now the only news in town.
A black woman with a camera was a rare thing and it enabled her to often get close to the victims and capture the essence of the story. “Every time I saw a woman fleeing a burning building [with a] child in her arms or a prostitute glaring at the approaching cop cars I knew that I could have been that woman. There was nothing that meant one day I wouldn’t be,” she explains.
Apartheid had not yet ended when Neo became the first black women to make it to photography school. She had been awarded a place at the University of Pretoria but felt consistently discriminated against. “I would earn what money I could from the other white students who would pay me to complete their assignments. Under their names, I would always be getting top grades, but my own work consistently failed. That is how I knew it wasn’t me that was untalented,” Neo recalls.
It was not long before Neo’s lecturers dismissed her from the course. She says this was on the basis that photography was not an “appropriate discipline for a black girl”.
So she set out to prove that they had been wrong. But with no credentials she was out on a limb. “I had always wanted to take pictures of beautiful things, black people in fashion, looking great, being positive, but I ended up taking pictures of violence and crime.”
Her pictures of crime, however, won Neo the title of CNN African photographer of the year in 2004, and she became the first woman to receive the award. On the side, she continued photographing positive images of South African black culture.
“That was the story that resonated with me,” she explains. “Everyone had a new energy. We were the generation that didn’t want to fight with bombs and guns; we wanted to prove that we were not what we had been told all through our teenage years. We were not second-class. White people would want to be our friends because they would see what we could do. Everyone I met in those clubs had that energy and that drive. I knew we were going to be big. I really wanted to believe it.”
In the film, Neo revisits those she met and photographed on the dance floors at the dawn of the new South Africa. Many are now the biggest names in South African music and fashion. When we meet DJ Cleo he is in the middle of national broadcaster SABC’s glitzy launch for their new glossy travel show in which he travels around the country on a motorbike. Then we see his studio wall glistening with platinum awards.
What became apparent in this generation’s drive to succeed was the sense that they are out to prove their worth. This is what Ishmael Morabe, the subject of Neo’s first picture and now an internationally acclaimed musician, told me.
Ishmael’s music was banned under apartheid but he has since performed at every one of democratic South Africa’s four presidential inaugurations. “You are always trying to prove that you are not that kid that will amount to nothing. I feel like I have done nothing. We are probably going to feel like that until we die,” he says.
While much of the past has been put away out of sight in modern South Africa, the generation that grew in the last glimmers of the unjust apatheid regime continue to carry the memories on the inside. “I hope my son’s generation can make something good without this baggage,” reflects Neo. It was only a few years ago that Neo’s former university got round to adding her name to their alumni wall of fame. They even held a small exhibition of her work, but omitted to mention that she was thrown out and never allowed to graduate.