I spent most weekday evenings during the mid eighties glued to the Nine O’clock News and Panorama. The news seemed to be full of stories about miners and apartheid whilst Panorama, with its terrifying theme tune, tended to focus on nuclear war and apartheid. The last sentence forms the basis of my argument that the eighties was a tragic, and for me at least, a dark and foreboding decade. It’s not that I was above the whole New Romantic thing, just that there were far more important issues showing on the world stage.
One of those was the South African apartheid regime, a brutal experiment in social engineering that dominated eighties media and needs no introduction from me. I recall watching the demonstrations and state sponsored violence unfold on a nightly basis, the beatings, chaos and primeval nature of humanity was as morbidly fascinating as it was terrifying. The surroundings of that front room scene in suburban Essex are as crystal as those occurring on television, the image of a white South African policeman thrashing a shirtless black teenager with a bull whip. For some reason I’ve always remembered that moment, and after the news blackout soon after I never watched any more violence like it. The Phillips television had wood surrounds and no remote control, the chair in which I was sitting was made of a green velour material and I was wearing adidas tracksuit bottoms. I usually watched on my own or with mum – she had a habit of leaning forward intently, holding a tea towel and biting her nails. Reading this book took me back to those Nine O’clock days as all the familiar names re-appeared, F.W. De Klerk and P.W. Botha spring to mind.
I worked abroad for the first two years of the nineties so missed the beginnings of that power transfer from the minority white racist government to a free and democratic one. The Bang-Bang Club covers that period in which townships erupted in violence during the rush to power and influence. It wasn’t until I started this book that I realised just how bad it had been, and what had been missed while away from papers and TV. Two South African photographers, Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva, became known in journalistic circles as The Bang–Bang Club along with two others, Ken Oosterbroek and Kevin Carter. The four of them risked life and limb to document in pictures the township wars that raged in the early nineties.
It is a gripping read that holds no punches, the graphic description of hate fuelled violence accompanies those of poverty and oppression in a shocking manner. The story is littered with heartbreaking stories of the destruction of human life and innocence in the most barbaric manner.
Along with the adrenaline seeking excursions into the townships the authors describe the political and social climate of a South Africa on the verge of a radical change. The corruption of white government controlled security forces, and the underhand dealings with white supremacist and black parties alike is documented in a fascinating manner.
There is a personal element here too, as they weave a trail of failed relationships the club struggle with conscience, drugs and inner demons. Their life of exhilaration and journalistic glamour is set against a nagging backdrop of racism, petty jealousy and elitism. It all amounts to a furious journey that ends with as much inevitability as it does happiness and sadness.