Kholeka Shange discusses the tradition of photography in relation to local ways of knowing in isiZulu.
The nexus between photography and ukuthakatha is power. In isiZulu, the term “ukuthwebula” has multiple meanings. Amongst isiZulu speakers, this expression refers to a ritual where umthakathi (a noun that has meanings that go beyond witchcraft) uses umlingo to take another’s power. In Isichazimazwi Sanamuhlula Nangomuso, Sibusiso Nyembezi offers interesting variations of this concept. In his work, he speaks about “umthwebulo” and “ithwebulo” as a person’s state of (un)consciousness that results from losing one’s power and sense of self through the ritual of ukuthwebula. In his own words, he states that umthwebulo is “isimo esidalwa ngumlingo ophendula umuntu angazazi”, while ithwebulo is “ukuthatha amandla omuntu ngomlingo, umlingo ophendula umuntu angazazi” (1992: 512).
The nexus between photography and ukuthakatha is power
At this point, you may be asking yourself what any of this has to do with photography? Interestingly, isiZulu speakers refer to the process of capturing an image through the camera as ukuthwebula. According to A. C. Nkabinde’s Isichazamazwi 1 and G. R. Dent and C. L. S. Nyembezi’s Scholar’s Zulu Dictionary, the camera (whether it captures still or moving images) is understood as “[u]mshini wokuthwebula izithombe” (1982: 114; 2016: 36). In this context, umthwebuli comes in the form of a photographer (or filmmaker since ukuthwebula is not limited to photography) that decides who or what to capture at any given moment. The idea that the camera is a device through which the visual ritual of ukuthwebula takes place is critical because it calls to attention the power dynamics that are involved in processes of image making.
Most township people felt vulnerable and exposed when they gave you permission to take (or make) an image of them. Many felt that their “shade” (the new anthropology term), “seriti/isithunzi” (in the vernacular), or “soul” (the older missionary term) was implicated in the process. They feared that their essence could be stolen or their destiny altered by interfering with the resulting image or images: “Camera-man, why are you taking so many photos of me. What are you going to do with the rest of them?” Often I found myself at pains trying to explain why I have to make many exposures or to do a reshoot (2000: 43).
By default, the African men being photographed were not just posing but asking questions. It is their questions which make the portraits so powerful—because although no one could answer them then, we can answer them now, and the answer is that this new technology at which you are looking, and these people who have brought it here, will conquer you, strip you of your rights, remove you from the land, tax you, and record technologically the way in which it is done. You will lose your independence, you will work for others, and you will be impoverished. We know, history has told us, the answer to the questions you ask in these photographs by your long questioning, concerned gaze, and it is an answer we cannot give you (2014:176).
the process of ukuthwebula . . . can be disrupted and resisted
When one considers the above rumination, one can understand how abantu could conceive of the camera as a device through which amandla abo could be taken as in the ritual of ukuthwebula. And because they knew that ukuthwebula could be countered, they asserted themselves from the front of the lens. It was through acts of self-representation that they were able to ukuxosha abathakathi—as seen in The Brother Moves On and Njabulo Zwane’s The Dream to See Ourselves Clearly (2018). Black visual participants refused to be confined in photographic subjecthood. Instead, they shape shifted into abantu abaphilayo that ruptured the borders of the image. Instead of being painted with light, they took on the form of the star “isandulela”. Blazing…light…out into space…the place…for Black people…to be.
Originally published on Iliso Zine