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Apartheid chronicler Ernest Cole's photos on show in Germany

Torsten Landsberg
June 1, 2023

Ernest Cole was the first Black photojournalist to document the violence and atrocities of the apartheid regime in South Africa. His works are now on show in Germany.

Children bending over their books on the floor, shown in the exhibition "Ernest Cole: House of Bondage" at The Cube in Eschborn.
Arbitrary humiliation of the Black population was omnipresent in everyday lifeImage: Ernest Cole/Magnum Photos

South African photographer Ernest Cole chronicled the violence and repression of the Black population at great personal risk. He fled South Africa in 1966, managing to smuggle his negatives out of the country in advance. The following year, he published "House of Bondage," a photography book accompanied by his own texts. His work created worldwide awareness for the atrocities of the apartheid system.

Starting June 2, the first major exhibition of Cole's works will be presented by the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation in collaboration with Magnum Photos at The Cube gallery in Eschborn, near Frankfurt. The exhibition will run until September 17, 2023. The oeuvre of 130 photos is titled after his book.

Cole was born in 1940 in a township near Pretoria. He started working as an assistant to German photographer Jürgen Schadeberg when he was 18. By 1961, he had become a freelance photographer for influential publications in South Africa, portraying the poverty and despair of his people. 

Documenting life under apartheid 

Cole was particularly interested in the condition of children who were denied a proper education. Under the Bantu Education Act, it was compulsory for Black children to attend government schools that focused on providing them with skills for manual labor and menial jobs.

As seen in the main photo, the schools were poorly equipped and lacked tables and chairs, forcing students to kneel on the floor and hunch over their books to write. Cole himself was affected by this law, having been a high school student when it was enacted.

Black and white photograph by Ernest Cole, showing Black South Africans trying to get on a moving train at a Johannesburg train station in the 1960s.
Black South Africans were forced to rely on packed trains during rush hourImage: Ernest Cole/Magnum Photos

Cole also documented the miserable state of public transport for Black people under apartheid. The above photo, taken during rush hour at a train station in Johannesburg, shows people trying to jump onto a moving train, clinging to the doors. 

Deprived of political and civil rights

Racial segregation in South Africa existed already in the early 20th century. But when the National Party took office in 1948, they legalized the segregation and called it apartheid, officially depriving the Black population of their political and civil rights.

A black and white photo from the 1960s showing a Black man bending down to open his suitcase for inspection by two police officers.
Police checks would at times broaden into the search of a Black man's personal belongings, as seen in this 1960s photo taken in JohannesburgImage: Ernest Cole/Magnum Photos

Repression and discrimination of Black South Africans included regular, warrantless passport checks, as Cole portrayed in this photo. Often the checks were accompanied by humiliating body searches.

The arbitrary humiliation of the Black population was omnipresent in everyday life. They were forbidden to sit on park benches reserved for whites, such as portrayed in the photo below, entitled "Europeans Only."

A black-and-white photograph of a white woman sitting on a bench, with the statement "Europeans Only" written on it.
Racial segregation in South Africa was present in every aspect of daily lifeImage: Ernest Cole/Magnum Photos

Decades of activism, international economic pressure and sanctions, as well as the end of the Cold War, led to changes in South Africa's legislation beginning in 1990 and culminated in the end of apartheid and the formation of a democratic government in 1994.

Anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison, became the country's first Black president. Unfortunately, the changes came a few years too late for Cole to witness. He died in New York in 1990, succumbing to pancreatic cancer at the age of 49.

This article was originally written in German.