Image by Londeka Thabethe.

A taxi in Johannesburg in 2015.

Spotlight: Meet the South African Street Photographer Capturing Photos of Black Life in the Johannesburg CBD

We chat to emerging South African photographer Londeka Thabethe about her work and her interest in taxis and commuters in and around central Johannesburg.

Londeka Thabethe insists on stating her favorite hip-hop producer is J Dilla. "I will take no slander about the god, may he rest in beats," she tells OkayAfrica in an interview about her photography.

During her birth month this year, the emerging South African photographer from Estcourt in KwaZulu Natal opened her solo exhibition at Durban's Distillery 031 venue. Titled 4:4 Mas'hlalisane, the exhibition showcased a series of images depicting the Joburg inner city and the country's most used mode of public transport—(minibus) taxis.

The images were taken during the years she was studying at the University of Johannesburg. During that period of her life, monochrome images of the Joburg CBD and taxis became a core focus for Thabethe who curated a monolithic Instagram feed of images shot mostly on her iPhone.

Shortly, she found herself showcasing her images at a group exhibition called Together Apart in the UK in the year 2017. In 2019, a solo exhibition presented by VANS at The Charlatan in Durban followed.

Thabethe has now diversified her shooting style and is exploring different mediums such as film. In the interview below, she discusses how she developed an interest in photography, how long commutes made her pay more attention to her surroundings, her proudest achievements and more.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Morning coffee in Joburg central in 2015. Morning coffee in Joburg central in 2015. Image by Londeka Thabethe.

How did you get into photography?

I've been intrigued since childhood, looking at my mom's photos (from groove mind you) and wondering about the stories behind them. She was a mystery to me. Later on, iPhone in hand, I found myself in the backs of taxis going to and from "uni", four taxis a day. Initially, I hated the rides because who wants to wake up at 5am and take two taxis before getting to their 8am class? It's traumatic. I used photography to distract myself from that and forced myself to know the city instead, to see the CBD differently. That's when it all began, there was one image I took of a woman crossing a street during the rain with boxes on her head, during the rain. After I posted it in black and white, I got such a positive response that I just haven't stopped going.

Only now, my passion is film photography, and I must say I'm learning a lot, mostly about how much I don't know and need to.

What draws you to those the inner city and the taxis?

There is literally nowhere in the CBD that you can look without seeing a Toyota taxi, they are hard to miss. So, in my attempt to get to know the city, they became the main subjects as that's all I saw on a daily basis. And that's the story I was witnessing every day. People just like you and me, going through life, a day at a time. I see my uncles in those drivers, I see my aunts in those uniforms on Sundays, and neighbors and family in those people, and I tell their story whenever I can. I know that will not get me in the influencer circles, but I don't care because sibahle sonke (we are all beautiful), and deserve to be seen in all our environments and our stories told.

Corner store in Estcourt, KwaZulu Natal in 2018. Subject: Fanele Manyoni. Corner store in Estcourt, KwaZulu Natal in 2018. Subject: Fanele Manyoni. Image by Londeka Thabethe.

One could classify your work as street photography. What do you define your style as?

That's what I did also until I started developing an interest in portraiture, documentary, fashion etc., then realized that I don't want to limit myself. I refer to myself as a photographer, and if a particular work falls within a certain category, I'm not mad. I just know that I prefer my images more candid and organic. So, I like my subjects to be in their natural environment, doing what they would usually do.

Why do you like shooting in black and white most of the time?

I now shoot a lot more color than I used to before, but my preference for black and white is the emotion that comes across in images when the distractions of the colors are not there. Don't get me wrong, I love a good moody/happy color picture and have even recently shot in town with only color film. I also just love the way our melanin comes through on b&w images, and I always highlight that when I get the chance.

Grayston Bridge in Sandton, Joburg in 2018. Grayston Bridge in Sandton, Joburg in 2018. Image by Londeka Thabethe.

What career highlights are you proud of?

Hardest and proudest to get through were the two solo exhibitions because it takes a lot out of you, and I didn't know, I'm self-taught, remember. I am also really honored to have been profiled by the Mail & Guardian as well as being published in The Huffington Post (twice). Several of my images have also been selected to go into the VSCO Gallery which I thought was really cute.

A black queen at Noord Taxi Rank in Joburg in 2015. A black queen at Noord Taxi Rank in Joburg in 2015. Image by Londeka Thabethe.

What are your plans for the year with your photography?

I am working on my website and look forward to selling my prints there. I want to collaborate more. I also bought myself a medium format camera for Christmas last year, and I am working on two personal projects when I am not at my full-time job. They both involve portraits which will be a challenge to me as an introvert with anxiety to have to get up in people's faces but here we are.

Hair-cut on the stoep in Estcourt, KwaZulu Natal in 2018. Subjects: Khehla and Lwandle Gumede. Hair-cut on the stoep in Estcourt, KwaZulu Natal in 2018. Subjects: Khehla and Lwandle Gumede. Image by Londeka Thabethe.

Blurred vision eNanana in Estcourt, KZN 2018. Subject: Deh Mabaso. Blurred vision eNanana in Estcourt, KZN 2018. Subject: Deh Mabaso.

Advanced issue found
Image by Londeka Thabethe.

Car wash at Bree Taxi Rank in Joburg in 2018. Subject: Wandile Vika. Car wash at Bree Taxi Rank in Joburg in 2018. Subject: Wandile Vika.

Advanced issue found
Image by Londeka Thabethe.

The photographer's cousin, Ayanda Seoka in Estcourt, KwaZulu Natal in 2020. The photographer's cousin, Ayanda Seoka in Estcourt, KwaZulu Natal in 2020. Image by Londeka Thabethe.

Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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