Light Reading | Higher ground

Perspective and improvisation allowed this photographer to capture the scale of a mass protest.

On 25 April 2018, the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) organised a massive demonstration against the proposed minimum wage bill, which put forward minimum wages ranging from R11 to R20 per hour depending on the industry.

A common slogan on that day was “We want a living wage, not a minimum wage”. Uniting under the Saftu umbrella, many different unions and grassroots community organisations met at the Workers Museum in Newtown and then marched through central Johannesburg to the offices of the provincial government in Simmonds Street, where this photograph was made.

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At this stage, New Frame hadn’t yet launched; behind the scenes, we were working furiously to get the publication up and running. But I missed being in the field, and this demonstration seemed an important moment to document and a justifiable reason to leave the desk for a day.

It was already mid-autumn, but the day was hot and sweaty and the light was brutally contrasty. Walking between the army of protesters, the sheer mass of humanity was impressive and overwhelming. I struggled to find a way to illustrate the scale of what was right in front of me.

I’m not what you might call a tall man. Years ago I learned that, as a photographer, an elevated position was usually the best way to overcome this particular, um, shortcoming. But, downtown, there was nothing to climb, no higher ground.

In perspective

Through furrowed brows and squinting, stinging eyes I saw a parked truck on Simmonds Street and a fellow photographer on top of it. I struggled to clamber on top of the truck but once I was up there, the red sea in front of me was literally in perspective.

To me, this photograph evokes images of the anti-apartheid marches in the 1970s and 1980s. It is indicative, perhaps, of the mass level of dissatisfaction the working class continue to feel in South Africa, even in democracy.

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