South Africa lost its reputation as an human rights haven on May 18, when residents of the Ramaphosa Park informal settlement East of Johannesburg went on a rampage, beating up and evicting non-South Africans from their shacks, burning shops and ultimately burning a man alive.  Zanele Sabela spoke to the photographers who captured the images of the burning man, the pictures which encapsulated the horror of the violence, and shocked the world. 

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Burning man, by Halden Krog, The Times

Zanele Sabela writes for

Shayne Robinson, Senior Photographer at The Star, was having breakfast with his youngest son at a restaurant when he saw five police vans, “big Nyalas, roll past filled to the brim with cops, guys hanging off the sides with shotguns.”

He thought to himself: “Something big is going down.” He decided to go into the office.

Halden Krog, Senior Photographer at The Times, was in Hillbrow with the flying squad covering sporadic xenophobic violence when he got word that “Ramaphosa Township was on fire. Residents were burning shacks, chasing people out, taking people in front of police; it was like the police were not there.” It took him 15 minutes to find the place, and when he arrived he saw people leaving their homes with all they could carry.

Kim Ludbrook, Regional Photo Editor for Africa at the European Pressphoto Agency (EPA), heard from various news crews around the city that violence had broken out in Ramaphosa Park.

On arrival they found the usual scene. The entrance into the township was blocked, they waved their cameras at the police and they were let in. They drove to the main intersection where the police were stationed.

“From the second we got out the car, it did not feel right, it just felt strange,” Robinson recalls.
It was chaos; lots of people leaving the area, fire trucks putting out fires, mobs attacking foreign nationals, police dispersing the mobs.

Then everything seemed to calm down. The police retreated to the main intersection. The journalists were standing a short distance away from the police, talking. It was almost 5PM. A young woman came running up the road and said in Zulu: “They are killing people, they are killing people. They are burning a man!”

The police drove down in the van, the journalists ran as fast as they could.

When they turned onto the open square they came across a beaten man lying on the ground, they snapped off one or two frames of him. As they looked up they saw “what literally looked like trash that was burning. You could not make out a human being at that stage,” Krog remarks.

Ludbrook’s first reaction on seeing “the burning man wrapped inside a mattress and already on fire,” was to walk over to the Nyala, look through the latch and scream to the woman officer inside, “this man is on fire you need to get out,” because it seemed to him that the police had taken a self-protective stance inside the bullet-proof vehicle. 

The police jumped out of the van. “Then there was this strange 2 or 3 seconds where nothing happened. No one shot pictures, the cops didn’t do anything, everyone stood around as if they didn’t know what to do, and then all hell broke loose. We started shooting pictures, the cops cleared off the blankets,” Robinson recalls.

“As the oxygen got to the fire, it almost erupted like a volcano and then died down. You could see this person inside there, to which the police started throwing sand in an attempt to put out the fire. Then one officer walked up with a fire extinguisher and literally gave him a good blast – put him out, extinguished him.

“But the damage was done, you could hear the man heaving, his lungs obviously completely charred inside. He died four hours later in hospital,” Krog recounts.
His name was Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave. He was from Mozambique and had come to South Africa looking for work. He had been in the country only three months when he was attacked. The other man lying beaten nearby was his cousin Francisco Kanze. He survived the attack.

Nhamuave had a wife and three children, two boys and one girl, back home in Inhambane.

The whole incident lasted about 50 seconds. The photographers shot the pictures they had to shoot and then withdrew to where Kanze was, so the police could attend to Nhamuave. They shot a few more pictures of Kanze and some more of the police helping Nhamuave, and then started up the road. Krog remembers cursing all the way up the road.

Halfway up, there were some people talking and laughing about the attack and Ludbrook “laid into them, he let them have it in no uncertain terms. And then we were gone. It was that classic phone call to the office – hold the front page, we’ve got good stuff – that you see in the movies,” Robinson says. On the drive back to the office they kept wondering if the pictures would be used.

“The funniest thing is,” Krog says, “I cannot remember shooting a single frame. I know where I got to before I started shooting, but I don’t remember shooting a single picture. Krog says he remembers shooting photographs of the cousin and then turning and seeing the police around the flaming man, “from that moment on I don’t remember actually going that’s a picture, that’s a picture, shoot, shoot, shoot. I don’t remember making sure it was in focus or what my exposure was. I can see the pictures afterwards, but I don’t physically understand how I got them. It’s very, very strange. It’s autopilot, like an autopilot system that switches on, you don’t actually remember anything.”

Greg Marinovich in the book, The Bang – Bang Club that he co-authored with Joao Silva, recalls feeling the same after witnessing a mob killing. He says: “For those crucial minutes, it was as if I lost my grasp of what was going on. I was present, but nothing entering through my senses registered. The pictures I kept mechanically taking would later substitute for the events my memory could not recall.”

Robinson remembers small things like someone screaming, – “get the fire extinguisher” – and the police kicking sand. [But] “I couldn’t tell you what it smelt like, I couldn’t tell you who was standing on which side of me. I couldn’t tell you how many pictures I shot, I don’t know if I moved around. Sort of a minute in my life that does not really exist.” 

Ludbrook recalls that as the “gruesome scene unfolded” before them, his natural instinct as a photographer was to take pictures. The horror only registered later. “I didn’t sleep that night,” he says. And as if to avoid reliving the events of that day, Ludbrook says he does not look at the pictures anymore.

Robinson, on the other hand, says he can spend up to “45 minutes working on the pictures making sure that Ernesto’s fingers are visible.” 

Krog says for him deciding, “what is the best picture?” was more difficult than shooting them.

“You don’t want to be completely blood-thirsty in your reportage of what happened. It is not what is the best picture in terms of goriness? It’s more about composition, exposure, is it sharp? Is it focussed? What are the other characters in the picture doing? It is the clinical side of photography, the subject matter almost falls away for that moment while you are editing.”

Ludbrook admits to having asked himself if he could have done anything to help Nhamuave. In the end he says, “I sleep peacefully at night knowing that I couldn’t have done anything because I didn’t have a fire extinguisher. There were so many police around anyway, there is nothing I could have done.”

He explains that this question recurs throughout their career. “I suppose one asks oneself this question throughout [one’s] career because I have worked in many extreme circumstances in civil wars and I covered the aftermath of the Tsunami in Asia. These are situations that you come across all the time and certainly in this position I don’t think that there’s anything physically as a human I could have done. I just, we shoot pictures.” 

When it comes to drawing the line between helping someone or shooting pictures, Robinson is unrelenting: “There is no line. My job is to bring the realities of the world home to people, that’s the end of the story. It sounds callous but after I’ve got my pictures, if I can I will [help]. But up until the point where I know I have got what I need, there is no line.”

Krog is as insistent: “If I am a policeman, I am not going to drop my gun and pick up the camera because the photographer is tying his shoe laces. You are there to do a job. I would not have been there, had I not been a photojournalist. No normal person wanders around in the township waiting for someone to be set on fire. I was there as a photojournalist to report what was happening.”

Franz Kruger, Ombudsman for The Mail and Guardian and Media Ethics Lecturer at Wits University, says as human beings we have an ethical duty to help. “I think we harm ourselves by denying our humanity,” he says.

Kruger says the general rule is to keep things separate but in a case such as this it is difficult. “First do your job,” he says. “But if you can prevent significant harm, you should help.” He stresses that one should help only if one is able to; if you cannot swim no one expects you to jump in to save someone who is drowning. 

In addition to not being able to sleep that night, Ludbrook remembers feeling guilty for not being able to help. The very next day, however, back at Ramaphosa Park, along with others, he discovered a bloodied man lying motionless on a “stoep”. They assumed he was dead until one of the residents checked for a pulse and found he was still alive. They called for help and he was taken to hospital. Ludbrook says he felt much better then.    

Krog says the gravity of what happened that day only hit him when he showed the photographs to his wife. It was then that he realized that what had happened “was not right; that this country had fought for years to stop these kind of things happening, but that 20 years on it was like nothing had changed.”

Krog believes talking to fellow photojournalist is the “best medicine” because only they can relate to his experiences. Only they can relate to the “weird and wonderful things that have caught my eye – small things like a look in a person’s eye.”

Ludbrook, Krog and Robinson are not just colleagues; they are also very close friends. They meet often over coffee or a drink and talk things through. Krog does not believe psychologists could relate to what they go through.

Tumi Kekana, a Social Worker at the Centre for Studies of Violence and Reconciliation, says the photographers do not have to seek therapy if they find that talking to colleagues helps them cope with the psychological effects of their work.  He says what is important is that they debrief; how that is done is not significant.

Kekana says it is essential that the photographers are psychologically self-aware; that they recognize that some behaviours or reactions are as a result of the trauma they experience.

He says the trauma they endure could lead to flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and nightmares. They could also develop startle response – where one jumps at the slightest noise – or they could adopt avoidant behaviours, where one goes to extremes to avoid remainders of  trauma. 

Interestingly, Krog maintains that he does not dream at all. He says the only dream he has had in the past 20 years is of him in his grandmother’s backyard. Though he adds that he has known colleagues who have been plagued by nightmares. “It starts to affect your life,” he says.
Ludbrook explains that because he works for an agency he gets a mixture of sport and feature assignments and that this helps him cope. He says after the Ramaphosa Park story he had to fly to go cover the Euro-cup, and that literally jolted him into a different state of mind, helping him leave it behind.

Robinson on the other hand went to the funeral. “It’s weird,” he says, “I haven’t been hit in the way I think I was supposed to be hit. I don’t feel the way I was supposed to feel. I think it is because I went to the funeral. I think I got to say goodbye in my way. “ Robinson says going to the funeral helped him “close the chapter.” Looking back, though, he realizes that he crossed the journalistic line.

“I became part of the story. At one stage we put down our cameras and joined the funeral. We stopped taking pictures. I know as a newsperson I needed a picture of the wife crying, I needed a picture of the children crying. I got one of each. I didn’t shoot them again, because as a person I didn’t feel we had a right to be there. As a journalist I believe [we did]. It’s a very faint line between the two, but as a journalist I crossed the line.”

Krog agrees that the journalistic line was crossed. He points out that he has no problem with journalists covering a funeral. However, in this case he objects to the fact that when the undertaker’s car broke down, one of the journalists who had hired a four by four for the trip drove the body the rest of the way home.

“I feel that, that is not doing your job anymore. You are influencing how that body got home; you are influencing everything that happens from there. There is a fine line between observing and reporting what’s going on and actually influencing your story and how you can write it to your benefit.”   

Krog says he is proud that his pictures and those of his colleagues shocked people into realizing what was happening in the townships. He points out that up until that Sunday nobody knew what was going on, people had heard about beatings but that it had been trivialized. There had been no television cameras at the scene so there was no mention of Nhamuave on the evening news.

The pictures proved that people were being killed. Krog believes the photographs prompted the authorities into action. “After that they started setting up camps, the police took it more seriously. Everybody took it more seriously.”  Although he is glad that the pictures helped change things, he is saddened that Nhamuave had to die to save thousands more. “It is normally one guy that has to die for a thousand to be saved…we happened to be there. It could have happened an hour later and none of us would have been there. Then we still would have been having issues,” he says.

Krog says if the newspaper he works for should enter his picture into a competition and he wins, it will all be on Nhamuave’s death and that is “not cool.”

Robinson has drawn renewed energy from the experience. He says: “Over the past five years, I have slowly watched myself get lazy. This has inspired me. Since coming back from Mozambique we have started a trust, it is called The Burning Man Trust.”  The idea of the trust is to compensate Nhamuave’s family for the money that he would have contributed had he lived. They also plan to improve the school in Inhambane and to get a well sunk in the village. Presently the nearest water source is 20km away and this makes farming difficult. “If they had had water, Ernesto would never have left his village. I want to make sure that his son does not have to go through that, so if we can get a well in that village then they can farm,” Robinson says. 

The trust also aims to finance personal projects that journalists would like to undertake but cannot get funded. Robinson feels that personal projects are important, that they keep journalists inspired. He says: “I think everyone needs something in their life to believe in and I believe that we can make a difference. That has become my mission in life now, I will not let him die for nothing.”      

The trio’s absolute belief in photography’s ability to convey an unambiguous message is best articulated by Krog: “I could tell you all day about planes flying into buildings but I can show you one picture and you will understand straight away [what I am talking about]. That is the whole point; 20 years from now, what is going to hold water? A story passed down by three generations or a picture?”

* Zanele Sabela is an honours journalism student at Wits University.