After more than a week of explosive student protests in South Africa, President Jacob Zuma announced Friday that the planned tuition fee hikes for 2016 would be suspended. As #feeshavefallen replaced #feesmustfall on social media and police put away the stun guns and tear gas, media coverage of the protests withered. But the list of students' demands is far longer than just cutting fee hikes.
Photographer and activist Imraan Christian was in the thick of the demonstrations, and spoke to us about what it's like to be a young adult in South Africa today, how he appraoched photographing the protests, and what lies ahead for youth activists.
Isis Madrid: Tell me a bit about yourself.
Imraan Christian: My name is Imraan Christian. I am born and bred in the Cape Flats of Cape Town. I am an independent filmmaker focusing on the rise of the genuine South African and Pan-African voice.
When I’m not working, I love to be in nature. Forests, surfing, the beach, whatever it may be, I find that being in nature allows me to connect with a part of myself beyond the prison of ordinary daily routines and comforts. It connects me with my true self.
I do the work I do because, as far back as I can remember, I've been deeply unsettled by the apathy toward injustice that has seemingly been programmed and normalized into our collective consciousness. Every day I am inspired by genuine artists who raise their own voice, and pave the way for others to do the same. While there is a great beast that must be dismantled, there is also a lot of work to be done in rebuilding our story.
Most of all, I am inspired by the womyn [sic] in my family who, despite having to overcome a merciless structural and societal violence — pre-and-post Apartheid — the matriarchs of my family are the middle pillars of love, strength and empathy. They have instilled in me a deep trust in my heart and intuition, and are the omega against the forces in this world that seek to harden a black man’s heart.
IM: What is it like to live in South Africa right now as a young adult?
IC: It is a world of duality, constantly.
My generation is incredibly brave, and full of fire. However, there are layers upon layers of deeply rooted, post-colonial inequalities engrained in our South African systems, businesses, government, institutions and, most importantly, the minds of each individual. So while I know that my brothers and sisters are true, I am constantly aware that the ever shifting structure that holds us is rotting at the core.
IM: Why do you think these protests grew so much so quickly? The world is certainly watching.
IC: The protests are a continuation of the process of decolonization initiated by the students of Rhodes Must Fall, when they demanded the statue of Cecil John Rhodes come down. The statue was a symbol of the great socioeconomic wealth and land gap that has embedded itself in Cape Town’s core functions, and is a direct manifestation of the systematically racist infrastructure that has not changed post apartheid. There is a phrase that has kind of become the underground theme to the cause of the protests, and the feeling that has been ignited in us all: “Shit is lit.”
In other words, the societal structures that we were born into are crumbling because they are on fire. We the kids are the only ones brave enough to look this truth in the eye. And we will act. We are not sleeping anymore.
IM: What do you usually photograph?
IC: I like to immerse myself in unique South African sub-cultures, connect and share with people who embody those sub-cultures or movements, and when i feel like I have a true connection and understanding with my subjects and topics, I manifest the collaboration through either photography or film.
Currently, my main focus is collaborating with artists and people who share the understanding that we need to rise from our African roots if we seek to restore pride to our narrative. This means that I work a lot with grassroots movements, sub-cultures and people. And the process itself is one of learning from one another and growing together. At the end we have this beautiful piece that represents all of those who were part of the process.
IM: What's it like to photograph protests?
IC: It has been an absolute whirlwind photographing the protests. On October 20, when UCT passed the interdict that allowed police to use brute force against students, I knew that I had to commit to documenting truth, no matter what comes.
It was with that intention held firmly in my mind that I dove whole-heartedly into the protests.
The process has galvanized the truth seeking parts of myself, and the connections that have been made because of this work will undoubtedly shape my future.
IM: Do you have to take any special precautions?
IC: The main precaution was training myself not to get riled up by the emotional fire that takes hold during the protests, especially when the police are brutally attacking your sisters right in front of you. I'm still trying to learn to see through the raw emotions, and make the best decision from a clear mind. I feel like I’ve managed to achieve this balance so far, but it is constant work.
IM: What do you look for when you're out shooting demonstrations? Is there a certain something that you seek in a subject or a moment?
IC: I've watched the progress of decolonization grow since the statue of Rhodes fell, and I feel like I understand the core beliefs of this struggle and the intersection of the many layers of struggle in our country. Specifically the intersection between gender, race, class and sexuality. So I look for moments that speak to the core principles of the movement.
IM: If you had to sum up the energy of the past week there in one word, what would that be?
IC: Fire. The structures that seek to enslave us are burning, but so too has an internal fire been lit in the hearts of everyone who attended these protests and felt the web of connection light up between the like-minded brothers and sisters.
IM: What do you think the world needs to know about the student demonstrations? Is there anything you feel is misrepresented in the media?
IC: Right now, the South African media, which has heavy government interests at heart, are trying to reduce this student movement to being merely about fees. The media has conveniently left out the student demand about outsourcing, which states that university workers are to be directly hired by the university in which they work so as to avoid the further abuse of poor black workers who do not earn a living wage, or a pension, as the institutions they work for negate responsibility because of the middle man contractors who outsource the labour.
Students who are still protesting for workers rights are now being made to look like vigilante rebels by the South African media, and even more troubling is that there has been little to no genuine representation on the true core philosophy guiding the movement, which is a decolonization of spaces and structure.
IM: What do you hope changes in South Africa?
IC: The change has already happened, most importantly it is this internal fire within the students as individuals as well as a body that can’t be put out. This is only the beginning. We have realized the power of our collective voice and our ability to effect change.
In the short term, I hope free education becomes a reality, and I hope outsourcing is brought to a necessary end.
I can’t have hopes for the long term yet, this movement is currently defining itself with every day that passes. What that means is that our actions now are writing history — as well as our future.