Afrikaner angst and questions of identity

Wikus de Wet and Jaco van der Merwe use exquisitely crafted images and words to explore the angst experienced by many young

An old, weathered man sits on an old, weathered cement stoep. He squints at his grandson, into the sunlight. Or maybe his face is scarred like that. He’s seen many moons, for sure. His hands are rough and damaged. The boy, young and fresh-faced, looks back past his grandfather at a small black cat.

The poem Drie-enigheid (Tri-unity) reads:

Goddievader dra gemaklike skoene in sy troonkamer. Hy het al alles gesien. Hy is everywhere you go. Goddieseun se voete is plat op die sement. Hy weet hy gaan daai wyn moet drink, in die meantime probeer hy maar besig lyk. Goddieswartkatheiligegees kan nie stilsit nie, sy wandel in die nagte rond wie-weet-waar, maar kom altyd huis toe met geheime in haar oë om weer die driehoek te voltooi. In die kombuis breek ’n bord en iemand skree. ” (God-the-father wears comfortable shoes in his throne room. He has seen everything. He is everywhere you go. God-the-son’s feet are flat on the cement. He knows he is going to have to drink that wine, in the meantime he tries to look busy. God-the-black-cat-holy-spirit cannot sit still, she wanders around who-knows-where at night, but always comes home with secrets in her eyes to complete the triangle once more. In the kitchen a plate breaks and someone screams.)

This beautifully composed scene, photographed by Wikus de Wet in the backwater town of Karatara in the Western Cape, forms part of Wat Binne Is (That Which Is Inside), a collection of photographs and poetry by De Wet and musician and poet Jaco van der Merwe, frontman of Afrikaans alternative hip-hop group Bittereinder.

The book uses photographs and words to paint a dreamy, uncomfortable portrait of a troubled section of South African society. In his trademark style, Van der Merwe’s poems switch furiously between angry, tragic, funny and dark, probing the schizophrenic and insecure struggle for identity experienced by many in the younger Afrikaans generation. 

The photographs are introspective, quiet and honest. They don’t depict only people, but spaces, too: suburbia, farms, the Voortrekker Monument, stoeps, sitkamers, derelict train stations, looted shops. Together, the images and words create an uncomfortable tension, often at the intersections of paranoia, guilt, bitterness and dark sarcasm. They reflect a generation’s angst, their conflicted relationship with their elders, a deep suspicion about inherited ideas of masculinity, and their struggle to figure out where they fit in today’s South Africa.

Wat Binne Is (That Which is Inside). Photo by Wikus de Wet

On the cover is an image of the macabre hillside memorial outside Polokwane exclusively for white South African farmers who have been killed in farm attacks. The image is possibly the most overtly political one in the book. The corresponding poem, Wat Binne Is, after which the book is named, offers no easy solace:

“Oog vir oog, tand vir land, kruis vir bloed, ink vir jok, bid vir reën, koeël vir boer, noot vir noot, tyd vir saai, tyd vir maai, ons vir jou.” (That which is inside: eye for eye, tooth for land, cross for blood, ink for lie, pray for rain, bullet for farmer, note for note, time for sowing, time for reaping, us for you.)

Die Oë van God (The Eyes of God). Photo by Wikus de Wet

Die Oë van God (The Eyes of God) seethes with anger and sarcasm: “Die oë van God soek deur die hele wêreld. Wegkruipertjie en rugdraaiertjie bly die twee nasionale sporte wat beste regkom sonder enige kwotasisteem.” (The eyes of God search through the whole world. Hide-and-seek and back-turner remain the two national sports that are getting on best without any quota system.)

The creative process undertaken by the two is unusual. De Wet gave Van der Merwe a large selection of his photographs to look through. Van der Merwe then singled out the images he connected with. Using the photograph as a starting point, he wrote poems based on the feelings the images evoked in him. They used a crowdfunding platform to raise money to publish the book.

This book is an example of how photography can be used to reflect. In Wat Binne Is, the photographs together with the poems create something entirely new. The book depicts the troubled dreams, or even nightmares, of a tormented generation during a sweaty and restless night’s sleep.

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