Legendary lensman David Goldblatt’s last book takes ex-offenders to the scene of their crimes
One of the country’s top jurists, Justice Edwin Cameron, said a decision by legendary lensman David Goldblatt to relocate his photographic collection from the University of Cape Town (UCT) to Yale University in the United States, in protest at their silence after artworks were desecrated during the fees must fall protests, has potentially ended up saving his work from ruin.
Cameron said there was a sense of “anguished relief” at this decision, as the recent fires in the Western Cape destroyed parts of Table Mountain; and archives and buildings at the UCT.
Speaking during the posthumous launch of Goldblatt’s last book on Monday, Cameron said sending the photographic collection to Yale was an act of protest against the (then) vice-chancellor Max Price and his administration, who when these acts of desecration against artworks occurred at UCT between 2015 and 2016, remained cowered and silent.
“In fact, very few people spoke up for the values which are embodied in our constitution’s values of tolerance, values of artistic expression,” he said.
Cameron was addressing guests in Parktown, via Zoom, for the launch of Goldblatt’s book Ex-Offenders at the Scene of the Crime, saying that its release was significant as South Africa was celebrating 27 years of freedom as a democratic nation, under a Constitution committed to the rule of law, human dignity and equality.
Goldblatt died on 25 June 2018 after a battle with cancer.
His book was released by the David Goldblatt Legacy Trust, Wits Justice Project and Goodman Gallery. Ex-Offenders at the Scene of Crime is a poignant pictorial essay aimed at demystifying inmates or criminals. Published by the iconic German publisher Gerhard Steidl, the book features a harrowing selection of pictures and essays of inmates taken at the scene of the crime or the facility where they were incarcerated in South Africa and England between 2008 and 2016.
Cameron was one of several speakers on the night with effusive praise for the enduring legacy of Goldblatt and he also spoke out on pertinent burning issues in society.
Reflecting firstly on the photographer’s protest at UCT, Cameron said his revered colleague, the former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke was one of the very few public figures to speak out against the violence and intimidation during the student protests at that time.
Cameron said, however, he wanted to make the link between goings-on at UCT, particularly the silence at the manner in which master of ceremonies Judge David Unterhalter was treated by the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) a fortnight ago.
“I want to draw attention to a commonality between the undiscerning and oppressive intellectual assault on aesthetically powerful artworks on UCT’s campus some years ago, and the way David was treated by the JSC. David, in my view, you were relegated to an inferior status because of your race as a white man,” he said.
Turning to Goldblatt, Cameron said his was an extraordinary contribution to the country due to his depth of passion about people, humility, especially in dealing with people, and his compassion and humane insights that made it possible for him to take these portraits.
“He created a means to re-humanise people, particularly in this work that you're celebrating this evening. He did it, even though, as he said in the video he and Lily were themselves victims of crime, even in the course of taking these photographs, I think he was mugged. And it's a reminder to us of our constitutional values on the eve of our 27th anniversary, that we should be empowering lawyers and judges and artists and others committed to helping our constitutional democracy to flourish.
“We are confronted with the very issues that David Goldblatt went out to embrace, to explore, to aesthetics, and to memorialise in this wonderful book. In particular, I think the violence, the use of force, the segregation in our prisons, the statute no longer speaks of solitary confinement, speaker segregation that is something that protects the environment.
“Perhaps the most harrowing, the book reveals and confirms that complex systemic failures of our criminal justice system; issues that are unfortunately beyond the scope of the judicial Inspectorate Correctional Services, but which have a severe direct effect on our work on the prison population of prison culture and how we in South Africa, all of us view prisoners ex-offenders,” Cameron said.
He said the photographs and stories of these ex-offenders displayed some success stories, and it was promising to see that many of them were able to participate in education and rehabilitation programs like those run by Solomon Madikane of non-governmental organisation, Realistic, based in Gugulethu offering early intervention and substance abuse programmes for at-risk and offending youth – helping them to find jobs afterwards.
But the dark side, according to Cameron, was that for many inmates, access to education and rehabilitation programs are considered luxuries, not entitlements in the prison system.
“The budget that the Department of Correctional Services provides continues to undervalue these programs. So in this sense, the system is not working. And many of the ex-offenders are forced back into a cycle of crime.”
Cameron, who made his remarks on the eve of the 27th anniversary of SA’s democracy, concluded reading from Goldblatt’s notes in the book, a sombre sentence, in which he said: “Only that I wish that we had done better with what became possible in 1994.”
“That's true for all of us, only that we have all done better, and we can still do better. David Goldblatt has died now. But we are living and we can do better. We can do better with our criminal justice system; we can do better with tolerance on campus. We can do better against intimidation and violence and coercion on campus. These profoundly articulate the opportunities available to us in our continuing quest to do better with what was made possible in 1994,” Cameron said.
* Edwin Naidu writes for the Wits Justice Project (WJP). Based in the journalism department of the University of the Witwatersrand, the WJP investigates human rights abuses and miscarriages of justice related to SA’s criminal justice system.