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“There is a Story in our Story.”

Narrativity and Documentary Photography

It is a Monday evening in mid-August 2011, the end of a winter day in Pretoria (Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality). After an 18-year absence, I am back in the country of my birth. It has been an unsettling homecoming, fraught with contrasting experiences and emotions. I am here on a site visit as part of a bilateral exchange with South African researchers to compare and contrast homelessness between the two countries.

The sun hovers low in the sky, preparing to plunge below the horizon. Plumes of smoke rise from shacks as residents of the settlement prepare meals and seek heat over wood fires. The temperature has dropped to around 2 degrees Celsius (35 degrees Fahrenheit) — frigid enough that even the delegation of Canadian academics is finding it uncomfortable.

My first visit to the informal settlement in August 2011

The settlement spreads over eight hectares of land on the corner of De Villebois Mareuil and Garsfontein roads near the exclusive Woodhill Golf Estate. It sits immediately adjacent to a gargantuan Dutch Reformed Church with a congregation of more than 7,000 people.

Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality provides potable water and latrines to the Village. In addition, the area is fenced off and guards are posted at the entrances of the settlement as a measure of security and as a strategy to contain the camp’s growth. The fence keeps others out and the residents in.

I am drawn to the Village because of its unique history. It was created as a temporary settlement by court order in 2009 following years of legal battles to defend the human rights of homeless individuals squatting on vacant land near Woodlands Boulevard Mall, the self-proclaimed fashion capital of Pretoria.

Woodlane Village comprises 846 households representing around 3,000 people from Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique, and provinces in South Africa. Most of the residents are political and economic migrants.

Laundry spans the divide between two shacks in Woodlane Village (August 2015)

The informal settlement is contested. For some residents, the place is a refuge, a green pasture. For others, it is a stop of last resort, a no-man’s-land. The Village is called Plastic View by the surrounding homeowners who describe the place as a hotbed of crime and pestilence — and oppose integration and community-building efforts.

It is hard to imagine that people here spend the bitter cold in shelters made of little more than plastic tarps, recycled cardboard, scraps of plywood, and zinc. Yet despite the makeshift construction of the buildings, the settlement has an orderly feel. There is a sense of care and pride. The shacks are organized in rows separated by wide lanes that permit easy access for motorised vehicles and also serve as fire-breaks. Some of the properties are set up as grocery stores and spaza shops. Others have gardens. On warmer days, colorful laundry hangs from clotheslines and children play in the dirt roads between shacks. But on a miserable winter day like this one, people hunker down to avoid the wind that cuts across the open fields, ripping at the tarpaulins.

I feel the irresistible urge to wander the camp by myself — to dive into the sensory stream of this place without the voiceover and surveillance of a tour guide. It is the same impulse that has compelled me over the years to document a range of topics photographically, including homelessness and poverty, the community experience of HIV/AIDS, and the reconstruction efforts in Haiti after the earthquake there.

Juxtaposition #1 — Woodlane Village set against the backdrop of NG Moreleta Church (August 2015)

I break away from my colleagues to search for visual signs and symbols to help me understand this locality. My camera is a tool I use to explore and make sense of the world. The enormous Dutch Reformed Church sits in the near distance, a physical and metaphorical backdrop to the human drama that unfolds before it. Further out, the veld plunges to Garsfontein Road, the sloping ground transected by trails, shortcuts through the dry brush. The surrounding hills are built up with expensive homes, suburban estates named after that which was destroyed in their making: Silver Stream, Woodhill, Mooikloof, Clearwater, Meadow Heights, Brookside, the Wilds. I shift to capture these juxtapositions.

The movement of person and camera continues as I see, compose, and reflect on images both inside and out the frame. Being in places involves immersion in the sights, sounds, smells, and atmosphere of a locale, and contemplation about the traces of thought, imagination, and investment that have influenced their physical and metaphorical construction over time: the laundry blowing in the winter wind, the fire-breaks, the gardens and spaza shops, the residents cooking salted fish, the parade of foreigners on tours to see how the “other side” lives, the fence that defines a physical boundary between inclusion and exclusion.

Satellite image of Woodlane Village (red square) taken on March 14, 2018. The pie-shaped building above the settlement is NG Moreleta Church. The shopping complex in the upper right-hand corner of the photo is Woodlands Boulevard Mall. (Image © 2018 DigitalGlobe, Inc.)

Storying Home

This initial encounter with Woodlane Village sparked a seven-year exploration of “home” and “belonging” in South Africa. I was curious about how people experienced life in a place that straddles the tension between social inclusion and exclusion. How do personal journeys, memories, and imaginations shape these concepts? What does it mean to live in an informal settlement sanctified by court order in locality where you are not welcome?

For the first two years (2012 to 2014), I focused exclusively on relationship-building and collecting stories. With informed consent, I recorded and transcribed hundreds of hours of conversations to produce narrative accounts, which represent the sensitive interweaving of discursive fragments.

I resisted the urge to take photographs. I knew that any attempt to visually document the community ran the risk of merely projecting my uninformed perceptions of the place or worse reinforcing stereotypes.

I have spent countless hours talking with residents in the Village and beyond. Exchanges occurred in a variety of settings including around campfires, on the streets, on the football pitch, in shacks where our warm breath condensed on cold metal roofs, and in the bustling townships around Pretoria. There were stories of grief and loss; stories of hopes and dreams; stories of resignation and defeat; and stories of rage and defiance. In some cases, the stories were confessional in nature, disclosing a multitude of struggles. Other times, they were self-aggrandizing, as individuals spoke of past accomplishments or of their prowess in navigating the dog-eat-dog world of South Africa.

Donald warms himself next to his fire to fend off the cold (August 2016)

Through this process, I met and befriended Donald Banda who was a community leader at the time. Donald was born in South Africa and grew up in Pretoria East close to where the informal settlement is situated. He spent most of his adulthood in prison. He entered the correctional system for the first time in 1974 and eventually spent two decades behind bars. In 1997, he was released to face a new life in post-apartheid South Africa — a transformed man in a transformed country. Donald has a stand in Woodlane Village and has lived in the community since its establishment. In late 2017, he relocated with his wife, Rose, to another informal settlement near the township of Mamelodi. He is employed as a work-hand at the NG Moreleta Church and does tailoring on the side. Our relationship developed as I sat with him while he repaired clothing in the late afternoons.

Trajectories of Home

During my visits with Donald, it became apparent to me that the concepts of home and belonging were slippery concepts — and that no singular description of life in Woodlane Village was possible. Donald and others provide contradictory and ambivalent assessments of the settlement, describing the environment as familiar yet alien; organized yet unruly; a “green pasture”as well as a “no-man’s-land.”

Sometimes, Donald describes “home” as a place of birth. Home is envisioned as a place of ancestral roots, a place where the umbilical cords of his predecessors were planted at birth, a place where his relatives are buried in soil that has since been built over. As Donald told me during a drive through Moreleta Park:

Look around you, Pieter. It grows to be this town where I don’t even know which street to go, but I was born here. Because the jungle, it just crossed that way and that way and that way. Now it is a town, but I don’t know which street is which. Because it was planned by somebody who didn’t even know what the jungle was.

He references a time before the countryside became the city. These imaginaries of home evoke nostalgia, speaking of bygone traditions and values. He recalls memories of a time when the cycles of life and death were tied to the same land — where the deceased were wrapped in cowhide and interred in the very ground upon which they were born. Rural life is described as peaceful and neighborly in comparison to the hard-edged anonymity of the city. As he says:

It was mostly farms out here. One man owned this land before they built those million-rand houses…In those days, we knew our neighbours by name. If visitors came by they would say, “I am here to see Mr. So-and-So.” And we would reply, “Oh, Mr. So-and-So lives up the road about five kilometres away. Let me take you.” And if you arrived late and the sun was setting we would offer you a place to stay for the night. We would welcome you. We would give you warm water to wash your feet. We would slaughter a chicken to fill your belly. And in the morning we would walk with you.
But this spirit is gone now.
Evening gospel (September 2017)

Other times, Donald uses the concept of home to describe the trajectory of his experiences. Often his reflections on home and belonging veer from recollections of the past to present-day concerns about the conditions in South Africa to free-flowing explorations of life and selfhood, touching on his origins and the changing world.

Through his stories, Donald describes the dislocations he has experienced. These disruptions are set against the urbanization of the land, the transformation of farms into suburbs, and the displacement of people from Pretoria East to the lokasies, the euphemistic term for the impoverished black settlements that surround Pretoria. As Donald observes:

“We ran out here to make a life. I mean there is no place like home. But if home no longer feels like home, we are lost. We are a lost generation.”

His stories reveal the sociocultural, political, and spatial dimensions of home and belonging. The legacy of apartheid and the rise of neoliberalism in South Africa have created and sustained polarizations, leading to contrasts and displacements. Informal settlements are a ubiquitous feature of the country as the poor occupy land close to sources of employment. The flow of immigrants and refugees from other African countries seeking economic opportunities in South Africa has also exacerbated housing challenges. There are approximately 279,000 shacks in Pretoria distributed among 66 informal settlements (Housing Development Agency, 2013b). Woodlane Village is small example of a much larger dynamic. As Donald says:

Here, you will find children who have been raised in holes in the jungle. When they say “home,” they are referring to this place. And when this land is turned into a suburb and they no longer have a home, they will dig another hole in another jungle. That’s how people live.

There is unsettledness in his accounts of home and belonging, hinting at the fragility and conditionality of these concepts. There are gaps and empty spaces. Stories begin and end, sometimes without resolution. There are mysteries, hints, and provocations. The account mirrors the way in which stories are told and lived — the monologues, the confessions, the fits and starts, the substance and the minutia, the repetitions and the contradictions, the calls and the responses.

Land of enclaves and partitions — the view of the Village from NG Moreleta Church property (September 2017)

Framing and Naming

Over time, I grew to appreciate the complex ways in which residents experienced Woodlane Village — as well as the various strategies they deployed to make homes in a harsh and intolerant environment.

In South Africa, as elsewhere in the world, there are places that have been wiped from the map. Mines have swallowed villages. Suburbs have replaced farmland. Cities have been reconfigured. Ethnic enclaves have been bulldozed and people relocated.

These transitions can be mapped through the shifting of place names. Some remembered, some forgotten. In recent years, roadways and districts in Gauteng Province have been retitled to commemorate the heroes of the struggle or to reclaim African identities, reversing the previous pattern of honouring the proponents of segregation.

In Moreleta Park, the contestation over names continues. The symbolic representation of Woodlane Village as an encampment cordoned off from surrounding neighbours and juxtaposed against the hulking mass of the adjacent NG Moreleta Church sends a powerful message of separateness. Opponents refer to the place as Plastic View, reinforcing the negative perceptions of the camp as a haven for squatters and criminals and hence justifying the exclusion and expulsion of the people living there. In contrast, advocates refer to the settlement as a village, invoking positive connotations of the vibrancy and diversity of life and the integration of the community within Pretoria East.

Juxtaposition #2 (September 2017)

The legacy of apartheid has created ongoing dislocations and separations between “places of work” and “places of home”. This economic displacement is entrenched in Pretoria because of the absence of affordable housing in the city. But it also reflects an established pattern of men leaving the countryside to work in the mines and the industrial centres in South Africa. Gauteng Province has a particular magnetism, pulling economic migrants from the hinterland and from neighbouring countries. As the Zulu proverb reminds us: “Hunger is a wanderer. Plenty sits still.”

The spatial segregation persists. You can rewrite the laws, rename the territories, reorient the landmarks, but the pattern of sin remains. The landscape has a memory. It holds the imprint of our dissonance.

At the same time, human beings have a remarkable ability to resist displacement and to make inhospitable environments more welcoming. It is this process of adaptation that makes defining home and belonging so elusive. Human beings are proficient at transforming alien spaces into home spaces. Home (or elements of home) can be dispersed across our social worlds. Home and belonging can be created and maintained in multiple ways and multiple places. Narrative processes are integral to this capacity. They help us establish our bearings and chart our course, shaping decisions and destinations. If homecomings are journeys then stories are maps. Stories situate us in time and space. They give us a sense of where we come from, where we are, and where we are heading.

Donald and Rose at their wedding ceremony in August 2015

My Promise to Donald

Early in our collaboration, Donald confided that he had long desired to have his story told. But he never had the means to do so. In 2015, I started visually documenting Donald’s life. After years of being immersed in his world, I finally felt adequately informed to have my photos speak alongside his story. Image-making became a means of honouring my commitment to help carry his narrative forward.

Initially, the epicentre of my photography work was Donald’s compound in the settlement. His stand included a courtyard surrounded by a bamboo fence where he met neighbours and entertained guests. Eventually, my field of view expanded as I was introduced to his family and friends in the surrounding townships of Mamelodi, Soshanguve, and Winterveld. A larger web of relations to other home-places was revealed.

The Narrative Contours of Photography

Donald’s narrative provided the reference points and the contours for my photography. His account revealed the depth and breadth of his life, linking his experiences to the larger history of South Africa. His narrative personified the story of my homeland: a place of promise and heartache; a place of perseverance and faith; a place where personal histories reveal complex social truths. His account is peppered with allusions to place, grounding his story in particular geographies, histories, and social orbits. As Adrienne Rich (1972: 23) says:

“The words are purposes. The words are maps.”

Donald’s world is bigger than Woodlane Village. His story illuminated the multiplicities of his life. Through our conversations, narrative maps of home and belonging were drawn and redrawn. These maps described the dispersal of home-places over storied landscapes. They also traced the paths of movement across these landscapes and hinted at the forces that shaped these trajectories of home.

Without this fluid, narrative context, the photographic portrayal of his life would have been skewed. It would have frozen him in time and place — and in doing so, would have misrepresented his ongoing efforts to negotiate and sustain a sense of home. The dynamic tensions that animate his life would have been absent. Describing human experience requires a polyvalent vocabulary — one where words are as important as images, one where memory, immediate sensory experience, and imagination co-exist.

Donald attends an improvised church service in Soshanguve (August 2017)

Lives in Motion

Donald’s life affirms the emergent quality of human experience. When we enter communities, we are encountering individuals who are in the midst of living their stories and we, as documentarians, are also in the midst of living our own. The lives of participants and documentarians are “always in motion.” And as Clandinin and Caine (2013: 21) observe this creates opportunities for:

“New relationships to emerge, for lives to unfold in unexpected ways, and for the element of surprise to remain; it too means that there is no final telling, no final story, and no singular story we can tell.”

The challenge of documentary work is to embrace this sense of possibility. Stories allow us to resist the totalizing and essentializing of people’s experiences that occurs when we create seemingly authoritative texts and images. There is openness to narrativity. Stories shift through the telling, retelling, and reliving of experience. Life is not static, as Donald observes:

Life is a “compendium of wonders.” It is this mixed thing. It keeps on rolling. You think you know it all and then you get to the other side and you find it is something else. And then you turn it around and you find it is something else again. It gives you many reflections of itself.
“Life is a compendium of wonders” — Donald (August 2017)

There is a Story in our Story

During my time in Woodlane Village, my experience of home was also in flux. As a former South African of Afrikaner ancestry, the mixing of spirits and stories that occurred during my time with Donald have been profound and surprising. My story and sense of belonging changed over time. Strangers became friends. The boundary between “self” and “other” collapsed. One cannot be privy to the intimacies of people’s experiences without being reoriented to one’s own story and to the existential and moral questions posed by the human condition. As Donald shared with me, “There is a story in our story.

Our lives have become interwoven — and in the warp and weft of our commitments and our shared experiences we have fashioned the enduring fabric of friendship. Over the past seven years, we have grieved the losses of loved ones together and celebrated the emergence of new unions. When I wed in 2014, I took Rachel to meet them and Donald accompanied us on our honeymoon. In 2015, I was a signatory to Donald’s marriage to Rose. In 2017, I helped Donald and Rose secure a foothold in Solomon Mahlangu Village, an informal settlement near Mamelodi, where they have established a new home. As Donald says, “We have grown attached to this guy. And we never asked to be. Now, we are kind of like a rope, triple-woven.”

The shift in our relationships occurred when we visited their family and friends in the townships. It was an opportunity to journey together, to share adventures outside the confines of the settlement, to go where he calls home. In hindsight, there was nothing remarkable about the form and content of our encounters. They were rather ordinary. There were the daily conversations in Woodlane Village spanning the bone-rattling cold of July and the torrid heat of late October. There were the long commutes to the townships and the stops along the way to run errands. There was the gridlock. The intersections and the speed bumps. There were the introductions to family and friends, the halting conversations, the polite smiles, and the gestures of hospitality: a cold drink, a seat in the shade, the pap burning our fingertips. There were the moments of laughter, boredom, and fatigue. And on the return journeys, there were the road stories, the jokes, and the recollections of the sights seen and the people met.

They were mundane encounters. The only notable thing is that they happened.

(All photographs © 2019 by Pieter de Vos. A monograph featuring 65 black and white images from this series along with Donald’s story will be published in April 2019 by Daylight Books. For further images and context see:

Sunday chores in Solomon Mahlangu Village, Donald’s new home (August 2018)


Clandinin, D. Jean and Vera Caine (2013) Narrative Inquiry. InReviewing Qualitative Research in the Social Sciences, Audrey A. Trainor and Elizabeth Graue, eds. Pp. 166–179. New York: Routledge
de Vos, Pieter Francois (2014) Homelands: A Narrative Inquiry into Home and Belonging in an Informal Settlement in South Africa (doctoral dissertation), Edmonton, Alberta
Housing Development Agency (2013) South Africa: Informal Settlements Status in Gauteng
Rich, Adrienne (1972) Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971–1972. New York, Norton