Young People Use Cameras to Speak Out for Change in South Africa

Finding ways to maintain hope amid the realities of township life in Mdantsane, South Africa's second largest township, is daunting, but young leaders there have taken a bold step towards progress and change. Built as a homeland township by the apartheid government, Mdantsane now houses 600,000 black South Africans who grapple daily with the challenges of unemployment, poverty, crime, and rampant diseases like tuberculosis and AIDS. Its rows of modest homes line street after street in the rolling hills outside a small industrial port city in the Eastern Cape Province.

In November 2001, Management Sciences for Health (MSH), through the South African EQUITY Project, worked with young leaders in Mdantsane to implement Photovoice, a community assessment methodology that puts cameras into the hands of community residents. Photovoice helps communities identify their problems and resources and communicate with policymakers in a way that is powerful and motivating. Since 1991, Photovoice projects in China, the United States, and elsewhere have created awareness of local conditions and empowered disenfranchised people to act as catalysts for community change.

In Mdantsane, 11 women and 9 men between the ages of 19 and 32 participated in the Photovoice Project. All were members of the Youth Academy, a nonprofit organization run by young people. Several had graduated from high school, but many were forced to leave after 10th grade because they couldn't pay the fees. More than half were HIV positive, several were single parents, and all were unemployed. Four youth volunteers co-led the project with the MSH facilitator.

Putting cameras in the hands of Mdantsane youth gave them a voice for change for the first time. "Usually young people are not consulted about what they think should be done," says Athi Geleba, the Youth Academy's 21-year-old Managing Director. "I have always thought that young people should be included in decision-making. When young people feel ownership, they are willing to take part. They can do a lot."

Taking Photos That Illustrate Community Problems

Each participant received a point-and-shoot camera and up to five rolls of film. Taking photographs was dangerous for some participants and exciting for others. Some were chased by dogs, others by angry residents. When a young man photographed a long welfare line—a monthly township occurrence—the guards shouted at him and chased him away. Some authorities were helpful and suggested photo topics. The participants learned how to explain the project to strangers as well as friends and quickly found that most residents supported their efforts.

Luyandila Dlelapantsi, 22, was walking through his neighborhood taking photographs, when a resident called him into her house. She insisted he photograph her daughter. Now 20, the daughter was gang-raped at 15 by a group of men and has been unable to do anything for herself since. The mother wanted Photovoice to show people how devastating rape can be for the victims and their families. Photovoice gave her a chance to tell her story and gave a young Mdantsane man a chance to show that men can be a force for good in their community.

Youth Reach Policymakers with Their Vision

As they completed each roll of film, the youth discussed their photos, selected some to include in the final exhibit, and wrote narratives for their selections. They invited local policymakers—teachers, nurses, lawyers, EQUITY staff, peers, and community volunteers—to "mini-exhibits" and had lively discussions about problems and resources depicted in the photos.

These discussions informed the youth's selections for the final exhibit, which comprised 80 photographs and narratives grouped into six categories: Health & Welfare, Education & Training, Security, Economic Opportunity, Community Vision, and Township Life. Most categories contained photographs and narratives with an HIV/AIDS theme, demonstrating the impact the disease is having all aspects of on township life. Over a two-month period, the exhibit traveled to Cecilia Makiwane Hospital, World AIDS Day 2001, and two public libraries. It remains on permanent display in the provincial capital.

Young man walking in South Africa

Compelling Data on Township

The problems depicted in the young participants' photographs and narratives seemed overwhelming to an outsider. They showed trash piled up near crowded, substandard houses; hungry residents waiting for food handouts; a brother who rejected his sister because she was HIV positive. "By looking at these pictures, you can see clearly today that Mdantsane needs change," said Khanyiso Sangotsha, 32, a project leader.

In addition to capturing problems, the Photovoice methodology motivates participants to recognize community resources. For example, photographs and narratives praised residents who cut down bushes where criminals used to hide and commended small business owners who provide services and create employment in the community. With their pictures and words, the young participants said they would be willing collaborators in government efforts to improve township roads and schools. "When I took pictures, I started to see things differently from how I saw them before," said Vuyokazi Booi, 24, a project leader. "I had always thought only of the problems in Mdantsane. I hadn't been realizing about the resources."

The Impact of the Photovoice Project

Perhaps the most impressive result of the Photovoice Project was the overwhelming response to the final exhibit. From policymakers and councilors to local residents and the participants, the resolve to address township conditions was clear. For example, a photograph showing the foot of a 16-year old girl pricked by a discarded syringe prompted hospital managers to investigate adherence to their infection control system. In another case, an Amatole District Councilor was prompted to call the Youth Academy to see how he could help solve the problem of leaking pipes in the township.

In addition, the Youth Academy participants have been motivated to start a community newspaper project, and several youth have started small businesses.

For some participants, Photovoice has inspired them to be more active in their communities. "I didn't attend community meetings in the past because I always felt that I didn't have anything to say," said Gcinumzi Gobozi, 30 years old and unemployed. "But since I came here and worked in this project, I feel that there is a lot I can contribute."