Resilient Photographer Jacob Mawela’s exhibition to put spotlight on Soweto township, Orlando East

BY Edward Tsumele, CITYLIGFE/ARTS Editor

Soweto based photographer Jacob Mawela has been working on this exhibition for the past 28 years, and finally it has come into fruition. Titled Easterly-lying of the Orlandos, this exhibition puts a spotlight on one of the oldest townships that constitute the greater Soweto. Soweto a sprawling township of over 30 0dd settlements is rich in history.. Many of the houses in this township are similar architecturally, thanks to apartheid planners who thought it best to construct what are notoriously called Match-box houses. Not much to talk about regarding excellence in architectural design. These are houses which as fate would have it, sealed black people’s homes then. They are still homes to many today, almost 30 years after democracy.

However the township has produced some of the most resilient people, such as academics, entrepreneurs, writers, artists – and of course even tsotsis, as it were.
Soweto is today a colourful settlement that in many ways has shaken off its past as an apartheid created settlement where cheap labour for the Johannesburg industry would come from. Today, it is not odd to have an extremely rich neighgbour’s double storey house situated uncomfortably next to a Match-box house. People have learned to co-exist. And of course some parts of Soweto today are so wealthy that one would be mistaken for a moment to think that they are either in Rosebank or even some parts of Sandton.

An example of this being the famous Vilakazi Street, where the restaurants on this Orlando West strip a favourite with tourists are as luxurious and as expensive as their Sandton or Rosebank counterparts. In other words, Soweto today is as complex as its history of how it came into existence.
It is therefore important that its rich history is not lost and so is its contemporary history. Therefore the work of photographers such as Mawela is important. It is therefore in this context that Easterly-lying of the Orlandos exhibition must be read. It is an exhibition attempting to bring the past to the present and taking the present to the past as it envisions what the future could be for not only Orlando East, but the greater Soweto.

Jacob Mawela recorded taking a lightmeter reading of DD Dhliwayo in the courtyard of Leratong Senior Primary School.

Therefore Pimville-based lensman, M Jacob Mawela’s monochromatic monograph of Soweto’s oldest township, Orlando East,aptly titled, Easterly-lying of the Orlandos, in the form of an exhibition and accompanying catalogues, at the Donaldson Orlando Community Centre on March 4th, must be appreciated. This must be so for both Sowetans and those from outside the township.

The photographer dedicated photographer a good part of his professional life to this project. The hard working and as yet to be publicly acknowledged photographer, Mawela in fact embarked on this mammoth project, shortly after the watershed 1994 elections which heralded South Africa into a democratic trajectory.

Jacob Mawela inside Irene’s place in Orlando East

“It nearly wouldn’t see the light of day had an incident in which an assegai and knobkerrie-wielding Inkatha Freedom Party impi returning from a 1995 local government pre-election rally at Orlando Stadium turned against the then fledgling photojournalist on a platform of Orlando Station, turned awry!,” a curatorial note accompany this exhibition explains.

“He wena, unga sa that’ izithombe!” (Hey you, cease snapping pictures.) The leader of a heavily-armed impi lost in song suddenly bellowed from an opposite platform the lonely photographer was snapping away at the menacing throng awaiting a train to various inner-city Johannesburg hostels, the note further reveals.
It is said that Mawela calmly swayed to his left and is said to have seen, a warrior pointing a spear to his neck whilst his expression pleaded for understanding that he was merely performing his duty, to the agitator across the separating railway line.
With a tinge of a shudder at the memory all those years back, Mawela is convinced that the timeous arrival of a train which pulled in to ferry the aggressors to their destination probably diffused a moment in which he was forced to reckon with his mortality and thus saved his life!, the note further reveals.

The was not the last threat. “Local thugs accosted him in a passage with the expressed intent of relieving him of his photographic equipment. With wits around him, he managed to evade their hostility by ducking into a nearby yard and proceeding to scale a fence leading into an opposite one – leaving the desperados rooted at the front gate he had entered into!.”

Jacob Mawela-with Soweto Students Uprisings leader, Seth Mazibuko, at his house in Orlando East

Other unsavoury incidents he witnessed involved coming across a grisly scene of a family of four burnt to death inside a backyard shack by a man who suspected his spouse of cheating on him and that of victims of a drive-by shooting attributed to simmering taxi wars.
“With one man lying dead in the back of a sedan, Mawela passed by in time to record medics attending to a bearded survivor writhing in pain whilst lying next to the vehicle.”

Back then in the 1980s, Mawela had no inkling that his career or life’s destiny lay in photojournalism nor that he’d produce a visual documentary on a redbrick and rusty zinc roofed three-roomed neighbourhood with a rusty prism distinct from the matchbox houses comprising Greater Soweto! An abiding memory from the period comprises a young him acting as a tour guide to a busload of pilgrims visiting a Soweto church who wanted to see Orlando Stadium. Taking them to the venue, he remembers beholding then Orlando Pirates player, Neo “City Late” Lichaba socializing with friends outside the turnstiles and thereafter proceeding with his tourists to the Jomo Sono co-owned Kentucky Fried Chicken kiosk at adjacent Dube Village where the soccer hero’s pretty wife Gail, was in attendance.

In essence Easterly-lying of the Orlandos is Mawela’s visual chronicle of Soweto’s oldest neighbourhood named after an erstwhile mayor of the city of Johannesburg named Orlando Leake back in the early 1930s. A location of many firsts (first police station, post office, high school, library, et cetera) – it was brought into its own identity through the endeavours of James Sofasonke Mpanza, an imposing civil leader noted for commuting around the township on horseback.

Jacob Mawela snapped alongside South African songstress, Letta Mbulu at her family home in Orlando East, on the occasion of her being honoured.

A place which has a soccer club and a venue bearing its name (Orlando Pirates FC and Orlando Stadium, respectively) – Mawela’s presentation, recorded on black-and-white film lending it a rustic prism apt to its look will enable viewers beholding images of the ilk of mathematician T W Kambule at Orlando High School; Jomo Sono celebrating the Buccaneers becoming the country’s first victors of the CAF Champions Leagure in 1995, at a shindig at Orlando Stadium; the interior of Irene’s Place (a popular nightspot frequented by the who’s who’s of society such as Club Pelican’s Lucky Michaels and yesteryear beauty queen, Charmaine Modjadji) and a donkey drawn coal-cart passing by the Donaldson Fish & Chips shop of a late wintry afternoon, among a vast tapestry of imagery!

The exhibition will also be accompanied by catalogues which will be distributed to the local library and schools.

Funded by the Presidential Economic Stimulus Programme 3, the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture and the National Arts Council – the display will be open for viewing from March 4th to March 31, 2023.
The DOCC is located on 6545 Rathebe Street and enquiries regarding viewing arrangement can be lodged to (011) 935 – 5329 .

Please share

One thought on “Resilient Photographer Jacob Mawela’s exhibition to put spotlight on Soweto township, Orlando East

  1. Mr Jacob Mawela well done on your brilliant work that you are doing in our society besieged by poverty and youth unemployment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *