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Teaching photography and the great rewards that come from it (part 2)

Winning Image: A view of Hangberg and Hout Bay beyond. With such clear economic divisions in South Africa as a whole it is hard to foresee a time when true reconciliation will occur in the country. Until such inequalities are addressed, South Africa will never truly be at peace and stable as the current labour unrest is further evidence of. As in many Western societies, peace and social redemption is rooted with the emergence of a strong and large middle class in society.

 

One of the students who I was working with won the photography prize for the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation Awards – There is no greater reward in teaching than that..

 

Teaching photography and the great rewards that come from it…

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I have often tried to dispel as many of the sloppy clichés that photography – especially photojournalism has unfortunately sunk in to while writing on my blogs… Teaching photography def falls into that category.  It is often said in our rather snooty circles that only failed photographers teach… what a load of rubbish – or at least it should be with all photographers.  Teaching is not only about a job or even ‘giving back’.  It is an amazing way to hone your own skills and better yourself as a photographer on both a professional and a very personal level..

I had the pleasure recently to work with a group of 18 year olds – the first from the generation of ‘Born Free’s’ as they are called in SA from the townships in my locality through a local NGO called Lalela.  I taught them about photojournalism and mentored them in taking images for a nationwide competition organised by the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation.  The theme was ‘Reconciliation’.

I found the kids amazing to work with and surprisingly receptive to ideas that students at international schools sometimes have difficulty grappling with.  It made me realise – that past the technical side, photography is such a personal expression and statement in life – I knew that before – but seeing it unfold before my eyes so easily with students that obviously have so many varied and different experiences and obviously have a lot to say was revelatory.

Being able to walk freely through the two local townships was another eye opener in itself – not so much because of the places themselves – I have obviously been to many for work – but the fact that literally 150m from my house is almost another world and existence so different from my own suburban one.  Where I live in Cape Town can be described as a micrcosm of the country as a whole – different communities living side by side but – on the whole – not really connecting with each other apart from the most perfunctory of contact.  It is such a shame and addressing it is fundamental to South Africa’s long-term prosperity – I’d even go as far as to say survival…

On a professional level, teaching the 18 year olds has been great in terms of making a breakthrough myself.  I had wanted to go into Hangberg – the local coloured community to do a long-term project there.  It had been hard for me to find ways to enter with cameras.  Unlike the black South African townships – such as the largest, Khayelitsha where I have ventured many times since I came to SA in 2009, always through local NGO’s, coloured communities – being slightly more affluent – do not get as much attention from NGO’s.  To be frank though the main problem is that coloured communities all over the Western Cape suffer from some of the most violent and lethal forms of gangsterism on the Continent fuelled in large part by an explosion of crystal meths use (or rather a dirty form known locally as ‘Tik’).  Recently, the army had to go in and restore some semblance of order in the main coloured community on Mitchells Plain.

While Hangberg is nowhere near as bad, it still suffers from the problem – and by all accounts it is getting worse. One of the boys I met while teaching who really took to the photography classes and understood what it was all about offered to accompany me as an assistant and I in return offered to firstly pay him and also train him further.  If it works out the teaching would have opened a big door for me professionally.

For the record – I love teaching photography in general– and teaching the 18 year olds from the townships has not only hopefully helped them in some small way – It has helped me.  I have found without fail that to be a better photographer you simply have to become a better, more focused and honest person. What better way to make a step towards this by teaching what I myself love so much. It is only when you are constructive and happy that you can realise your true expression in the art form.

This morn I received a phone call at 6.30am – I thought it was my girlfriend calling so I invariably answered and said ‘Hi sweets’ without even checking the number.  There was a pause.

‘Errr – Hi?’

‘Hi? – whose calling?’. I said realising rather embarrassed!

‘It’s Nomtha.  What time is photography classes today?’

‘Oh sorry Nomtha – you’re up early!  I’m afraid there are no more classes – you’ve entered the awards now.’

After a very brief moment’s reflection though – and maybe feeling the disappointment on the other end of the phone I added:

‘But I’ll talk to Lalela and try and arrange more.  You enjoyed them?’

‘Yeah’

‘Then let’s do it!’

And I meant it.  Look forward to doing it again some time soon…

Crisis, Re-working and Learning to Work with Others…

Film Treatment_Complete_TXT

Well – been a while since I last blogged… been keeping up the commission jobs and still doing the stock photography.  I have started outsourcing cleaning images to a company based in Bangladesh.  They found me on Linkedin and after a process of tests and trials I am happy with the output.  I found it hard to let go though of doing it myself – even with stock – as many photographers will testify – I am extremely fussy how my pics are cleaned.  Allowing others to do that I have found hard and have been putting off the decision to do it for a while.  Given the volume of pics though and the time it would take to do, it was def a wise decision and prices were reasonable when compared to potential returns.

I am still looking for someone to keyword the images – and given its importance I want to be careful with it… I’m sure though – just as with digital cleaning – I will prevaricate for a while before giving in finally and outsourcing.

I find it strange working with people who I have never met, but in this brave, new world it really is becoming the norm – my entire website has been developed and has evolved with 1 designer over 10 years who I have never met in person.

And on that note it brings me back to my short film.

July and August proved to be a nightmare with it as it became evident I had def taken on more than I could chew as 1 person.  I started having dissent from frontline staff who would be intimately involved in the piece.  While permission were sought and cleared at the top of each Government body and organisation – the actual people on the frontline of child protection services were not included in the process and properly informed.  When I started appearing they rightly demanded to know what was going on.

The main gripe was where this piece would eventually end up.  I was originally hoping to make it a multimedia piece for an online section of an international publication.  On that front, I have been in contact and there has been interest.  As the piece grew, I started to broaden my scope and hoped to make it into a longer TV or cinematic doccie.  Frontline staff were simply not happy with this.

After a series of further consultations – and a couple of very helpful meetings with internationally-recognised local film production companies, I decided it would be best to scale back the scope initially and make a simple short 10min piece that would be uploaded online and attention would be garnered independently rather than through mainstream media.  By doing this, it would ease the concerns of many frontline staff who would be involved and – if successful – open the door to make a longer piece.  In this way the process got back off the ground.

I was always worried about working with film production companies – or even experienced film crew who I felt – given the budget limitations would have to be personally invested in the project and therefore would want a say in the central ideas and concepts behind the doccie – something I was extremely unwilling to do at first.  I have now found an audio and camera peeps nearly out of a top film school in Cape Town.  They are technically great and are both invested in the ideas behind the short film.  I have also found it has helped a great deal for me to start understanding better the whole process of filming by divulging responsibility and learning from those around me.

I hate feeling even slightly out of my comfort zone when it comes to the technical side of things and the whole filming process has been a massive step outside it and has taken a lot more time than I had hoped for to bring the project to fruition.

I’ve attached the doccie treatment I put together for it here if it may help others.  I again asked a local director to have a look at some of his treatments to get basic ideas on how they should be structured.  As a pre-shoot script, it is a bit general compared to say a film treatment.  But given that you never know what content exactly you will get it is always better to leave it more general and then write a far more detailed post-shoot script once you have more of an idea of how the piece will ultimately look like.  If it is of interest to anyone, I can wetransfer the entire treatment with the photographs used as visual aids the finished document contains.

I am finally starting shooting again on 1st October.  This time I am far more confident and am actually excited.  The prospects of the short film look far better than they did a couple of months ago… and what was important to achieve this as a photographer was learning to let go of my babies and put them into the more than capable hands of those around me…

Fundamental structure and access for shooting a short doccie on child assault in South Africa.

Just came back from the last session of my Masterclass in Groningen in Holland.  Great to see all the usual suspects again and the invited guest lecturers.  Want to blog a bit about that in the next few days – been a great experience – but travelling away from SA also helped me gain some new and out of the box perspective on my ongoing film project.

While I have started shooting, I don’t want to dwell too long on my experience of the technical side until a bit later – as important as it is.  I have actually found the structuring and planning and the need to evolve any type of pre-shoot script during shooting to be of far more importance than I ever imagined. For anyone who might have been in the dark on all the structuring side as I was, a great starting point is:

How to Write a Documentary Script a monograph by Trisha Das – (if you do a google search, it’s the 52 page document).

I have been wondering whether to write openly about the subject matter I am working on.  It is of course seen as ever so unprofessional to give away what you’re working on.  Firstly – talking too much could help set myself up for a mighty fall even more than is necessary, but I also feel that being as open and democratic about the process as possible helps me in terms of getting decent feedback and might also hopefully help others trying to make the jump into video and doccies with a photographic background.  To be very honest too – gaining open access to the subject I am covering has been a very long  (and still ongoing) process that gives me some insulation from any insecurity that I might have that I am being too open about the subject matter.

The general subject itself is to look, broadly speaking, at child assault cases in a certain area in the Western Cape in South Africa.  Specifically though I don’t want to look at the issue head on – apart from it not being possible given the legal ramifications and of course – moral restrictions of looking at such a sensitive issue as child assault cases, I wanted to rather focus on all those intimately involved in such cases on a professional level, including the counsellors, NGO’s, Social Service workers, Forensic Doctors tied to the Department of Health, the IO’s (Investigating Officers) with the FCSU (Family, Violence, Child Abuse and Sexual Offences Unit within the South African Police Service) and the NPA (National Prosecuting Authority: Equivalent in the UK to the Crown Prosecution Service).

On the face of it – it seems that the topic speaks for itself and would be something that can be conveyed powerfully with little need for playing around (from a structural and editorial point of view) with even a simple linear progression of subject matter making do.  You have characters faced with great and overwhelming outer conflict that requires some sort of resolution.  A plethora of inciting incidents can be identified:  Recently for example, there has been a relative crisis with the implementation of the Sexual Offences Act in South Africa. It appears as the relatively recent legislation did not prescribe sentences to 29 types of offences – including sexual assault, sexual grooming and exploitation – there has been confusion in the courts to the point where it has been advised that certain cases not be prosecuted until further notice and further instruction from the High Courts be dictated.  Or the alarming rise in the number of cases where the perpetrators of child assault cases have been as young as 4yrs old.  Such things has lead to exasperation amongst those working closely with such cases and would be a solid starting point from which a resolution can slowly be coaxed.

But – I feel – to really convey the overwhelming nature of these types of crimes it will be the inner conflict of the people that work closely with such cases that I will need to develop to truly get across the gravity of the subject.  Something that is far more subtle and harder and requires much more time and diligent attention to put together.  In making the child survivors and perpetrators almost secondary characters – I ultimately want to convey the ‘unseen horror’ of the situation through the slow revelation of the true (and heriocally distressed) characters of those working on the cases.

Some people with whom I have discussed the project have asked why I don’t get perpetrators’ PoV (sorry – Point of View) as well.  While it would be powerful and certainly meet the criteria of giving a journalistic balance in viewpoint – I really don’t think it will be necessary:

One thing my recent Masterclass has taught me is that access doesn’t always equate best results.  (In my humble opinion) it seems ever so slightly 2-dimensional, sensationalist and almost to dilute the emotional journey and empathy I want to create with my central characters.

Now – in so doing – I agree that the flip side of the argument is that I risk becoming too one-sided.  And for this I have yet to make a decision as to whether the doccie will require a 3rd person narration to go with the obvious 1st person (‘talking heads’) narration that the piece will be strongly tied to.  If the characters are too intense then maybe it will be better to give a more general perspective with a 3rd person narration as well.  Writing such narration though will be a very interesting experience indeed for me and will cross that bridge when I come to it.

All in all, I am glad I took a moment to think about the whole piece before I began shooting.  As someone once said – things get so much more complicated when you start and I can certainly bear witness to that.

I’m sure more developed doccie makers might read some of this and question some of the process.  All in all though I am happy with the slowly evolving direction of the doccie project.  One thing that continues to worry me though is the sheer number of protagonists – all passionate and great for the project – I am trying to incorporate.  I think at 1 point or another – I will have to tie myself to fewer characters to avoid making the piece too convoluted.  But having a structure is a godsend.  My first self-taught golden rule of film-making is to def go into these pieces – however simple they may seem in structure – with a definitive plan – even if it evolves drastically by the end – otherwise you may find yourself not doing justice to even the most basic of video projects.

Introspection, shooting vid and the way forward….

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‘I spent more than half my life in hotel rooms alone. There is a loneliness with that, but when I come home, I sometimes feel even more lonely. Even though I am in their (my family’s) physical midst, it becomes so clear how I feel neglected. They are not asking any questions, it’s just like: “Oh, Dad’s home. Bye, I gotta go. I got a date,” or “I am gonna hang with friends,” or “I have a soccer game or a baseball game.”’

‘Photographing the World, Longing for Home.’ – Ed Kashi’s Reflections on his Photos – in Diaries and Letters. (NY Times 21/03/12)

Recently updating my website and going through my News Spot section I found myself slightly deflated by my own pics .

I have seen my pics enough times now to shield myself from the worst elements mentally – even though looking at them all again still makes me grimace from time to time.  It was actually mainly out of a sense of frustration at the limited nature of the work itself.  I have been asking myself some soul-searching questions recently – both on a deeper and more practical level and the one glaring, inescapable truth is that the type of work I have done will not sustain me for much longer.  When I did my photojournalism course at LCC in London I was motivated by 1 thing – and that was to go into war zones and the such and be that war photographer – Inspired by books such as Don McCullin’s ‘Unreasonable Behaviour’, Antony Lloyd’s ‘This War Gone By, I Miss it So’ and of course ‘The Bang Bang Club’ I craved to be shaken out of my North London existence and become – for lack of a better expression – a ‘Witness’ to world events.

A decade on and I’m def not so sure – Don’t want to dwell too long on the  personal side – but at 35 yrs of age – and wanting to settle again 1 day, all the traveling will eventually either put a strain on any relationship – or more likely – there won’t be 1 at all – I don’t want to be that 55 year old in Moggie or Sudan or Nigeria on his own – far, far away from any point of reference.  Apart from the loneliness it’s an extremely selfish and solipsistic way of life too.

Far more importantly – there just isn’t any money in news photography or photojournalism as a whole these days.  Shooting for news agencies in particular – esp as a stringer  – just isn’t worth it.

Tthe maths of shooting as a stringer just doesn’t make sense.  You have to pay all costs to a dangerous location (which is usually very expensive) not to mention satellite links etc – and all for US$60 per pub.  That’s crazy -and to be honest offensive. In terms of agencies and representation, apart from my Reuters stringer contract, I have recently re-signed a Getty contract and am signed to Polaris and AMO in SA.  But while that all sounds great on paper – I sometimes wonder what the real worth is – I get by on commissions and library sales in gen with the agencies )the rest comes from NGO/UN commissions).  I am in particular to expand library sales dramatically (Alamy is another great source that I am looking to in future) – but it will only ever bring in a certain level of income.  I don’t want to be struggling in later life and running around while spreading myself thin – both physically and emotionally – As a business model it simply doesn’t make much sense any more (I would love to hear from people who disagree though).

I def want to be on the creative end of work which is why I took on the Masterclass as a way to try and expand my reach into more long-term artistic/abstract photog. projects.

With the Masterclass, delving into the world of long-term book projects and gallery exhibs has begun to bare some fruit on a personal and technical level of understanding – I shot the above images mainly as an academic project, to explore the world of more abstract photography although grounded in more underlying socio-economic trends and issues.  They were shot in Mombasa on a housing estate and depict the hardship of life for the so-called African middle class.  Without running water and sparse electricity and other basic amenities, I wanted to see how African traditional life and the social nature of life on the Continent came to fill that vacuum left behind by the absence of municipal authorities to provide the most basic of services.

I must admit – while I am pleased enough with the results to put them up on my website, coming up with ideas and the actual shooting of such projects I have found hard.  I found myself when shooting this project constantly saying to myself – ‘what the hell am I doing?- I’m just wondering around an estate taking what feels like random pics.’

Coming very much and solidly from a journalistic background I immediately have a fundamental notion that if it ain’t newsworthy – it ain’t worth engaging.  Unfortunately – I chose the 1 medium in the world of journalism that doesn’t pay too well these days (though I hear some of my colleagues from other mediums bitching as much as me these days).  The career structure for photojournalism I find is more akin to that of acting than anything else in the journalistic world (ie a few minted people at the top and a mass of struggling morons below with no middle ground in between).

Which is where starting the filming and vid process comes in.  While the economics of short doccies at the mo ain’t too amazing they are def far better than photography – in the long-term I am certain it will get better (as fast broadband becomes the norm worldwide) but more importantly – the possibility it offers in terms of avenues to do those old news stories I have such a good grasp on I feel are a lot better than with photojournalism.

Technically I have also always considered my traditional strengths to be in straight visual story-telling.  I think creatively doccies are a better medium in a lot of ways for achieving this end (although some might disagree)…

Translating this though into actually shooting is a whole different story.  The learning curve has been steep.  At 35 it is a bit unsettling  to start out again to learn a new medium but it’s def been worth it.  I had a film-maker friend teach me the basics in terms of equipment and I feel pretty competent now at holding it all together on the shooting side (although my audio knowledge – outside of positioning the various mics and managing the different sound channels – is pretty much limited to making sure the green bar thingy doesn’t become a red bar thingy on the Zoom).

I have found large stumbling blocks along the way and am a bit nervous but feel almost ready to plunge in.  The largest problem has been my choice of subject for my first project.   Instead of opting for simple subject matter – like the eccentric fellow who owns the antique shop down the road – Me being me, I just couldn’t resist taking on a subject that has mushroomed into encompassing 2 large SA Government Departments, an assortment of NGO’s and high ranking officers in SAPS (South African Police Service).  While my friend who gave me a bit of tutoring is completely from the ‘let the script and structure grow organically’ school of doccie thought, given the largesse and gravity of the subject matter I am undertaking, I def don’t want to go down that route (as someone once said – it gets a lot more confusing once you start shooting anything).

I have been immersing myself in reading up about pre/post-shooting scripts, shot lists and paper edits etc at the mo (although I’m almost certain I’ll go in with a general pre-shooting script and develop it organically as I go along into a tight post-shooting script for the forthcoming vid project).  It has helped that I have rather randomly done a film script writing course with a Hollywood scriptwriter in the past (it’s a bit unnerving how the fundamental building blocks of fact and fictional film-making are so similar in many ways) but all the preparation in the world will almost def lead to problems at some point in the shoot.  I promised myself I’d make this blog as blunt and truthful as possible so please key in for my next installment probably titled – ‘How NOT to go about shooting a short doccie’ or ‘How to destroy your reputation in a new medium in 5 minutes.’

Overall – I have large insecurities for the road ahead – it’s such a different road from the well-trodden one of the past but a necessary change is required but it’s also exciting in many ways.  I guess as ex-South African President F W De Klerk once famously declared, you have to ‘adapt or die’ (or in my case ‘adapt or open a small coffee shop on a wind-swept beach in Cape Town engaging in banal conversation and looking out to sea forlornly for the rest of my life’…).

Losing my sense of location…

I kind of understood why the bemused Ethiopian airport security guard had asked to see my passport again.  The answer to his simple enough question had not been forthcoming and my glazed and empty look could only have inspired suspicion.  Getting off the bus from the plane to the terminal building he had asked me:

“Where has this plane come from?”

To be honest – I didn’t have a clue.  I knew I had gotten on the plane and even though it was late I had a vivid recollection of the flight – but as to where I had gotten on I couldn’t have told you to the best of my intentions.

I had decided to do a quick day trip back to SA from Kenya after I realised on my overland journey that I’d forgotten to bring along my studio lights. In typical fashion I had meticulously packed a softbox, barndoors, cables – even extra filters and pocket wizards for the lights – but had forgotten the actual lights themselves.  I was rushing to get to Pretoria from Cape Town for a meeting which I had already postponed twice at SAPS HQ (South Africa Police Service) the next day for a story (and yes – that is me trying to sound important and restore a bit of public dignity!!) but forgetting something as big and blatant as the lights is a bit inexcusable.

I found a very cheap flight back with Ethiopian and decided to take it… I know it was a gruelling 2 day trip with 3 stop over’s each way (which is why it was so cheap… I have never understood why the more stop-over’s you do the cheaper it gets…!) but it got so confusing to the point where I was speaking Swahili to the bemused coloured customer service folk at the airline counter in CT and I didn’t know I had woken up in my own bed again (in Cape Town) for what seemed like an age until my doggie licked my face – as if he could sense the panic and terror creeping through his master and wanted to reassure me.

While it might sound like a positive negative to be moving around so much from interesting place to place – as I get older it is increasingly unnerving.  Certainly when I was younger I used to love that feeling of waking up and not knowing where the hell I was – but as the years roll on it is increasingly a source of dread.  With trips the next few months that will take me to Berbera, Hergeisa, Mogadishu, Groningen (the Netherlands), Juba, Wajir and beyond this feeling can only get worse.

Still – life is good at the mo – got a week to relax and rejuvenate in Nairobi before travelling to Groningen for the Northern Lights Masterclass so hopefully will have time to adjust.  I managed to find a fully-furnished and secure apartment at a very decent rate here and the Landie seems fine on first inspection after a gruelling drive from Cape Town and made worse by the fact I had backed it into a ditch last Friday in Nairobi National Park. At least my impressed stepson who was with me appreciates the car now… no Namby-pamby Pajeros or airy-fairy Hilux’s for him any time soon…!

Tanzania, Kenya and tribalism…

Traveling the length and breadth of Tanzania (which was no mean feat – the country is so much bigger than I thought… 4 days and counting…!) I realised that a lot of those early memories I had from my first trip to Africa when I was 17 that compelled me to come back again and again came from this country.  It really is stunning with views to take your breathe away again and again.. It almost feels like the gen pop as well have all taken a masterclass in how to excel at being warm and friendly…!

When you think of Tanzania – apart from the safari and amazing tourist things to do here – the general view though is that it is a lot poorer than its northerly neighbour Kenya.  Tanzania was home to 1 of Africa’s independence movements’ giants and 1 of the founding fathers of the Pan-African movement – Julius Nyerere.  He introduced a form of African socialism to Tanzania esp in agriculture which was widely said to have ultimately failed and nearly bankrupted the country…

While it has often been cited economically to be a disaster, Nyerere’s African socialism did something far more important for its people – it installed a sense of nationhood on the different groups of disparate tribes thrown together in the post colonial era that now make up Tanzania.

I remember from my time in Kenya meeting a few Tanzanians who were all perplexed when they were asked what tribe they came from (they would nearly invariably reply – I am Tanzanian as if the question made no sense) – a Kenyan though would always – and I mean always – tell you his tribe first followed by the country.  Yes Kenya may have been economically more well-to-do but living in the country in the run up to the violence in 2007/08 the tribal antagonism was there for all to see.  It was only after Kenyans stared over the precipice in 2008 that they realised the alternative and the troubles almost helped – in a horribly perverse way – start to install that sense of nationhood that was missing before.. I haven’t been back for a while so it will be interesting to see how Kenya is doing now – esp in the run-up to elections set for next year….

That sense of nationhood – imposed on disparate tribes not 50 years ago as borders were drawn up after independence throughout the African Continent I think is so important if a country is to succeed in general.  At every level esp in the civil service and govt – if you believe in that sense of nationhood – it will mean less corruption and a better functioning state.

It is also 1 of the reasons I am actually positive on South Africa (although I know I seem to be in the minority).  The most interesting thing in that weird and wonderful country with an unprecedented history – is that – it doesn’t matter how unbelievably different it’s gen pop is – from the vibrant townships to the lively Afrikaner bars playing their own version of sentimental rock (and I have spent time ample time in both!) – it doesn’t matter how much each of them bitch about their country, Government or fellow South African – they are all invariably so proud to be South African.  With that sense of nationhood – even if things don’t feel like they are going in the right direction – a country with such a strong sense of nationhood has a solid base to move forward at the very least…

African borders…

Views from the rooftop...

God…

Crossing into Zim with a car I have completely forgotten what a nightmare African borders can be. It’s been a while since I’ve crossed a proper African border (South Africa really doesn’t count) but as I left SA and approached Zimbabwe – it all came flooding back: The needless and pointless bureaucracy. The queues. The hawkers… it was all there.

I’ve always said you can tell a lot about the African country you are about to visit – its economic and political situation by the state of affairs at the border.   Borders are like an intense microcosm of the world you are about to experience for the next few weeks: The length of queues. How chaotic things are. The demeanour and attitude of the border officials and how organised the cons of the hawkers are and the level of collusion with border officials are all good indicators of what you are about to face in general in a country.  By these standards Zim appears to be a country that is in trouble and is starved of money at every level of society. Everything you do from the moment you get to the border – esp if you are alone and look none too confident as I must of done(!)- is to try to extract every cent possible from you – From the lowly hawkers – to the border and customs officials – to the secret police and plain clothes cid.. they appear to be in collusion to try and bend the bureaucracy so by the end you are grateful to pay your way out…!

Even by Western standards where the idea of bureaucracy is generally negative stirring connotations of inefficiency and mental images of unnecessary paperwork, it is easy to forget that the actual purpose of bureaucracy is to try and help make life more seemless and help in general organisation… but in many parts of Africa it is so Kafka-esque and convoluted it goes beyond the Western negative definition and seems to serve one purpose and one purpose alone – to make the process so impossible to adhere to that it leaves you with no other choice than to offer a bribe.

There are the small bribes like the one at the Zim border to avoid queuing up for approx 2/3 hours at immigration for around USD 10.

Then there are the big bribes:  The real problem at borders in Africa in general is and has always been customs and Zim was to prove no exception – in fact far from it.

I realise now that the substantial camera equipment I am carrying as well as all the spare car parts and the tool kit I have for the Landie will be a problem this side of Africa.  Apparently the correct procedure at the border would be to produce every single receipt for every bit of equipment I have so that the customs officials can catalogue everything and then issue a  temporary importation document for all the equipment.  This though involves putting down a ‘deposit’ against the full value of all my equipment but which is supposedly refundable on leaving the country again. It would have entailed a deposit of thousands of dollars.

Anyone who has gone overland in Africa will know this is standard procedure for your car where you place a deposit with the AA (in South Africa in my case) which is refundable on re-entering SA with the car.  The AA will allow you to (seriously) undervalue your vehicle so that the deposit is not overwhelming.  In the case of the Zim border officials – without receipts – they will try and over-value everything so adding a few hundred – even thousands of dollars to your final deposit.

In theory this deposit is refundable once leaving the country.  But trying to reclaim your deposit in countries like Zim is almost wishful thinking bordering on fantasy.  When I come to try and reclaim it the process will be so labyrinthine and time consuming (we’re talking weeks – even months here) that it will be nigh on impossible to get the money back… and so – the honest man – is left with only one choice – and that is to throw a hundred dollars or so at the custom officials to turn a blind eye at all the equipment I am carrying.

Admittedly – the overwhelming nature of the border crossing is also a sign of how out of practice I am and is ultimately a sign of my own failure.

I could have stood my ground calmly while the customs officials tried to scare me into submission and probably got away with the smallest of bribes.  But a combination of not having adjusted from the relatively fair but inefficient bureaucracy of SA (if the year-long wait for my work permit is anything to go by), the fear of the unknown especially as I was bringing loads of camera equipment into a country not particularly known for its friendliness to journalists and the fact I had driven since 5am and it was now 10 hours later, lead me to capitulate a bit quicker than I would have liked.

It will be interesting to see how I fare at the same border on the way back after a few months on the Continent proper – I would like to think that once I am up and running again it will be harder to dupe this ol’ mug next time…..!

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