Photographer Graeme Williams creates a thread between the present and past in Mandela's South Africa.

Photographer Graeme Williams creates a thread between the present and past in Mandela's South Africa.

“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” – Maya Angelou

They say history has a way of repeating itself. Memories fade, pain deadens over time, lessons have a funny way of being unlearned.

But for South Africans who lived through the fall of Apartheid, the years that led up to 1994 are, rightfully, impossible to forget. On May 10 of that year, Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as president following the country’s first free multi-racial elections. Until then, rights were dictated by the colour of your skin: white people had them; other races had few. But Madiba, as Mandela is lovingly known, was just the rock that his countrymen needed to derail history from its ruthless course and propel it towards a more just place.

The long walk to freedom may have been Mandela’s to make, but the struggle for democracy was a collective battle; lives were lost, sacrifices made, barricades dismantled one brick at a time. And through it all a young photographer was standing by, capturing the balance as it tipped.

Graeme Williams was twenty-eight when he returned to South Africa in 1988. He’d moved to London in search of stories, but came to realise he was in the wrong place. “One could feel that things were changing in South Africa,” he explains. “I knew that as a photographer there were things happening there that I wanted to be a part of. I wanted to document that particular era in South Africa’s history. Not because the rest of the world wanted to see the violence there, but because it was the country I grew up in. I was born in Cape Town so I’ve always had this feeling that this time was going to come – you just didn’t know when.”

On June 18, 1988, Graeme attended the Free Nelson Mandela Concert at London’s Wembley Stadium, alongside a global audience of 600 million people, all calling for the South African government to release Madiba, the ‘militant’ anti-Apartheid activist they had sentenced to life imprisonment in 1962. Back home, meanwhile, violence was erupting between Mandela’s ANC supporters and the Inkatha Freedom Party; the rival factions both stood against Apartheid, but had different ideas on how to dismantle it. Before the year was out, Graeme was on a plane heading home, eager to document the resistance as it rose. “It was just the atmosphere,” he recalls. “It was the most amazing event and one could feel from that, that the pressure on the Apartheid government was huge and there was a limit to how long it could last. Politically, one could feel that things were going to shift fairly soon.”

Landing in Johannesburg, the city most engulfed by riots and tension, Graeme was struck by the gravity of the situation – and the depth of his own naivety, too. “On my first day I came across three bodies,” he explains. “There was this feeling of violence across the township and you knew this wasn’t an isolated incident. From that point on I was immersed in the politics and violence of that time.”

He goes on: “I went from being a fairly protected white kid from the suburbs to suddenly being thrust into the real cauldron of a changing society. Mandela in my mind had always been this mythical hero figure put in prison by the baddies. But there’s a huge difference between thinking, ‘Oh well, things must change for the better,’ and actually being in that process of change, because it was just so absolutely dramatic.“
Over the next five years, Graeme captured the human face of the fight for freedom – moments that no amount of time can erase. “Seventy per cent was violence and confrontation and probably thirty per cent was politics,” he says. “I didn’t really look up until five years later in 1994 when Mandela was inaugurated.”

By the time Graeme emerged from the battlefield, the newly christened ‘Rainbow Nation’ was stepping up to the tortuous challenge of piecing together a society divided for so long. As any South African citizen will attest, 1994 wasn’t the end of a story, but rather the start.
“There were so many facets to the change, the colour aspect and Apartheid was just one,” explains Graeme. “We’ve got eleven different language groups, which means that there’s a lot of different things happening in one country, and to move that country from what it was to what it became was quite amazing. The process, for me, really got rid of a whole load of naiveties. I understand human reactions and the reality of the human race probably better than I did before. At the beginning it seemed obvious: you didn’t want Apartheid, you wanted the goodies to win and the baddies to go away. But it’s more complicated than that. Politics and the human urge for power is really ugly. By the end of the five years of photographing, my faith in the human race was only held up by people like Mandela and Archbishop [Desmond] Tutu. It wasn’t like there were that many people behaving well. There were just enough.”

Today, Graeme has a catalogue of images that immortalise one of the most pivotal moments in our social history. But far from locking them away in a dusty cupboard, he’s ready to face what they say about us all, and is retracing time for his most contemplative project yet.

“I’m going back to the most significant places during that period,” he explains. “It’s a body of work called Previously Significant Places that contrasts what those places meant during that time and what they are now. I suppose it’s multi-faceted because it looks at how the country has changed, but also how I’ve changed and how I relate to the situation now. It’s been really interesting, and in a way quite cathartic, to go back to those places and see them with a bit of hindsight. People were prepared to die and kill there for a particular viewpoint. From our position now one may consider that nonsensical. But the one aspect that completely overshadows my fixation with that period, and that still resonates today, is just how amazing Mandela was, especially at that time. He held the country together just by the strength of his personality. It was by virtue of who he was that he was able to change things. There’s not many people you meet in your lifetime that have that kind of gravitas.”

You can see more of Graeme Williams work on his website.