In July 2021, South Africa experienced some of its worst civil unrest since the beginning of the post-apartheid era. Sparked by the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma, who is facing multiple charges of corruption and state plunder, riots broke out in areas of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. Shops and warehouses were looted, property was destroyed and buildings torched, resulting in billions of rands worth of damage and untold social and economic loss.
South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, called the riots “a deliberate, coordinated and well-planned attack on our democracy”. The orchestrated chaos, however, also precipitated outbreaks of opportunistic looting.
In the wake of several lockdowns to curb the spread of Covid-19, unemployment in South Africa reached its highest levels ever, which, combined with extreme inequality, fuelled the plunder.
In the aftermath of the violence, citizens came together to ‘clean up’ the mess and restore order. While the mass looting has come to symbolise the political and moral crisis at the heart of South African society, the community initiatives in its aftermath were frequently framed in the media as redemptive, representing ordinary people uniting to right the wrongs of criminals and self-interested politicians.
Before the clean-up began, Johannesburg-based photographer Paul Shiakallis visited several sites of destruction and gathered debris from each: trashed supermarket goods from the Johannesburg township of Alexandra, burned litter from a street fire in the mixed residential and commercial area of Malvern, and remains from a car mechanic’s workshop burnt down in Johannesburg’s CBD.
He created assemblages or sculptures from the artefacts and ephemera he had collected, which he photographed in his studio in an exploration of the meaning and effects of the events. The resulting images, dramatically lit against a deep, black background, represent a frozen moment of reflection and contemplation as the baffling evidence of violent upheaval is examined.
As he collected the debris and assembled the sculptures, Shiakallis found himself asking questions about individual items. Did the rubber bullet he found injure anyone? Was the burnt tyre used to necklace someone? Had anyone been hurt or trampled on the ground where he was collecting artefacts? Why were certain objects taken and others not? Why were some places burned down and others not? What was the unidentifiable mush caked on some of the objects he found? Flour, oil, water, juice, blood?
All these questions and more combine in Shiakallis’s photographs, which capture something of the tension in the aftermath of the riots as, on the one hand they mutely withhold answers and yet, on the other, vividly evoke the violence, chaos and destruction of the events
In his photographs, the clamp and wire that the assemblages are suspended from are intentionally visible, illustrating the fact that the chaos was organised.
The destruction and waste are contrasted with a sense of transformation and renewal. These works capture poignance and violence, emotion and detachment, revulsion and a strange sense of beauty.
Words by Graham Wood