Cape Town Fringe: Manenberg Avenue is Where it’s Happening by David Lurie (Double Storey Books, 2004). ISBN 1-919930-72-8
Spread from Cape Town Fringe by David Lurie (Double Storey, 2004)”26/ It’s me against the world/ West Side/ H$L/ Two Pac/ My mother ain’t raise no fool/ THUG LIFE,” read the tattoos inscribed on the man’s chest. Visible only from mouth to stomach, the man is pictured just left of centre. The offset wooden slats in the background suggest disrupted balance. His right hand raised thumbs-up, head turned towards the owner of the hand gripping his left arm from just outside the frame; the tattooed man’s facial identity is masked. The words inscribed on his chest speak of an inherent violence; a lack of vulnerability; connections to gang life. Knowing the context of this image merely affirms this reading. His body bears the traces of his landscape.That landscape is Manenberg Avenue, the subject of documentary photographer David Lurie’s new book of photographs. The book is a follow-up to his 1994 publication Life in the Liberated Zone, which explored conflict and life in Cape Town’s informal settlements. Located on the fringe of Cape Town, twenty minutes east of the city centre, Manenberg was built during the 1960s as a relocation suburb, primarily for the dispossessed peoples of District Six. The dilapidated low-cost housing blocks along Manenberg Avenue are typical. Façades covered in murals eulogise gangster movies and musical legends, while half-repaired cars and the chalked outlines of children’s games mark the streets. Those tattooed words repeat themselves throughout Lurie’s images.From 2001 to 2003, Lurie spent six months on this street, where he says he was “welcomed, entertained, amused,” but also “frightened, bewildered, disorientated, incredulous”. Lurie’s images possess an arresting immediacy. His camera variously describes the daily struggles of life on Manenberg Avenue, where women wash, clean, sleep and cook, and children play on broken jungle gyms. There are also images of the routine symbols of violence in Manenberg: a sjambok, a gun stuck in the pants of a cyclist, another gun openly pointed in the camera’s direction. Lurie also portrays religious followers praying in churches and mosques. He shows us more tattoos, and gold teeth.The photographs are sparingly interspersed with text. In the opening text Lurie relates some of his experiences (and shock) photographing a community in which 12 of his subjects were either injured or killed by violence. The book includes an essay by Shamil Jeppie, whose essay “Cape Town Fringe” starts in an embittered mood. His discussion of Manenberg’s political background nonetheless reclaims something for this neighbourhood. Jeppie concludes his essay questioning where the subjects of Lurie’s photograph stand ten years into the nation’s democracy. The latter half of the book features anecdotal interviews with residents, a device that allows Lurie to relay some of the problems (fewer jobs and an increase in violent crime and gangster activity in the area) characterising life in Manenberg. These extracts also provide clues as to the identities of Lurie’s subjects. Aside from Desmoney Smith (10), who died March 14, 2003 in rival gang crossfire, most of Lurie’s subjects remain nameless. The photograph of Smith’s funeral is the only photograph captioned in the entire book. Jeppie raises the point that Lurie’s book is an “important addition to the growing visual library of urban spaces,” further arguing that the book “deserves close perusal and study”. Lurie’s book documents the particularities of transformation in a democratic South Africa in the broad hope of affecting future change. Whether a seductive black-and-white photographic coffee-table publication – indeed any socially committed photography – can achieve this aim remains a moot point.