South Africa


Willie De Klerk’s lens documented the destructive force of apartheid

Willie De Klerk’s lens documented the destructive force of apartheid
Willie de Klerk (photo supplied)

Willie de Klerk died last Sunday aged 81. He was a master photojournalist who did not get the recognition he deserved.

We were a team, Willie de Klerk and I, in another time and in a minority-ruled country. The Cape Flats was where we operated. Our news-hunting team was made up of a world-class photojournalist, and a reporter who was privileged to work with him.

Willie, of course, was a rock star of the photographic fraternity. He was the real thing and not even apartheid could kill the genius that lived inside his brown skin. He was simply world-class. The photographic world pinned accolades on him in recognition of his talent.

We crisscrossed the Cape Flats, often daily, for The Argus newspaper, then the biggest daily publication in Cape Town. We frequently travelled in a pack with other news crews looking for news, often witnessing brutality and cruelty being meted out by the forces of the state. With cellphones still waiting to be introduced to the world, our communications were rudimentary. Some may even call them primitive. But we were there, recording what was happening.

In those times of civil war, drivers wearing names such as Jack, Bernie, Willie, Harry, Constable, Valentine and Gakkie often took us into these places.

This civil war was an asymmetrical one, also sometimes waged in the centre of Cape Town. On the one side were those who were putting their lives on the line in pursuit of democracy and freedom. Facing them were those with a government mandate to stop this by any means.

In our time, areas such as Athlone, Mitchells Plain, Langa, Heideveld, Gugulethu, Crossroads, Elsies River and Nyanga became township hot spots. They were areas where state-sanctioned killings, injuries and tear gas were delivered without mercy from unmarked vehicles, Buffels and Casspirs.

These townships were also areas where we saw the very young, often armed with nothing more than stones and the ubiquitous burning tyres, trying to make a stand against apartheid’s forces.

Inevitably, the results were often gruesome, like that late afternoon in Thornton Road on 15 October 1985, where the Trojan Horse massacre occurred. Willie calmly took his pictures as police who were hiding in wooden crates on a supposed railway truck jumped up and opened fire on the young protesters, killing three of them. I had the satisfaction of asking our driver, Bernie Cloete, to surreptitiously take a television crew’s footage of that atrocity to the then DF Malan airport and ship it to London from where it would be broadcast as one of the major news items of the day.

In the new South Africa, Willie and I performed our final act as a team by taking our place among the first group of people from the news industry to give evidence at the TRC. We spoke about working on newspapers such as The Argus, whose editorials, in our judgment, were often conservative.

We also spoke about telling the story of the struggle for freedom, and our determination to accurately document what we witnessed, despite being harassed overtly and covertly. For us, it was about the road to democracy.

Willie had witnessed the wanton destruction of District Six, had captured for posterity a necklacing in the Eastern Cape, and also witnessed how a police officer shot dead schoolboy Christopher Truter in Bonteheuwel in the unrest of 1976. He had suitcases filled with memories of his work.

Sharing a car with him was to be regaled with stories about his family and his wife, Maureen, which could be interrupted by a command of “follow that ambulance!” to the driver if an emergency vehicle, its lights flashing, passed us.

As an old-school newspaper person, Willie knew alcohol well. As was the case with many of his peers, Willie and some of the drinking holes in Cape Town, such as the now gone Landdrost Hotel in Lansdowne, were firm friends.

Willie was never short of anecdotes about former colleagues, such as Howard Lawrence, Norman West and Jackie Heyns. A skilled raconteur, he could also describe the shebeen queens of District Six, such as Mams Tette (translated as the big-bosomed Ma), the Golden City Post newspaper and a different Cape Town that was no more.

A history-maker, Willie, who died on Sunday 29 September at the age of 81, was the first black photographer to be employed full-time by The Argus. He was a runner-up in the South African Press Photographer of the Year in 1985, 1986 and 1987. The Dutch Stichting World Press Association gave him awards for sport, news and people pictures.

Willie deserved all these awards and accolades. Rising above the straitjacket of inferiority in which apartheid was determined to trap black people was one of Willie’s greatest achievements. His peers such as Alf Kumalo, Peter Magubane and John Rubython recognised him as one of South Africa’s best photojournalists of the apartheid era.

He certainly was. The new country did not give him the recognition he deserved. Farewell Willie. You are a legend. DM

Dennis Cruywagen was a journalist at The Argus from 1985-1994.


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