A Sad and Beautiful Place

Photographer Gordon Ashbridge explores the townships of Cape Town

The township settlements around Cape Town were effectively established under the Apartheid regime as ghettos for the city’s black population. They haven’t changed much over the years.

Buildings made entirely of wooden palettes and sheets of corrugated iron are the norm, linked by networks of dusty streets and communal washing lines.

Gordon AshbridgeWith brick structures few and far between, modern conveniences like electricity and running water are far from universal. Poverty levels remain high, with HIV and AIDS devastating the lives of thousands.

The inexplicably optimistic attitude of the people, however, and the pervading sense of community that characterises townships like Guguleto and Wallacadene are what make visitors to the area come away with smiles on their faces as well as tears in their eyes.

Belfast photographer Gordon Ashbridge is no different. Having travelled to the townships in 2004 and 2006 along with students and members of the Presbyterian chaplaincy at Queen's University, Ashbridge has seen the best and the worst of the townships at first hand. 

His resulting limited edition book and exhibition, entitled sad... and beautiful place, compiled in collaboration with writer Steven Stockman, documents his time there. It will, he hopes, direct attention to the plight of Cape Town's forgotten majority at a dubious time of South African political change.

'Sad at the injustices these people have to live with, and beautiful because no matter how hard life there gets, the people are welcoming to a man. Their smiles lighten the place up.

'I admit that I was afraid to go at first,’ says Ashbridge, who also works as a fireman for the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, ‘mainly because I hadn’t experienced that sort of poverty before. 

'I was expecting the worst, but what I actually discovered was the most 'South Africa, 2010'amazing place. The sense of humanity, community and integrity is light years away from my own, if I'm honest, or that of many people in the west, I dare say.

'The book is self published, we funded it ourselves, and all the money that we make from the sales will go back into the Capetownship projects.'

Capetownship is a project run by the Presbytarian chaplaincy at Queen's University in conjunction with international housing charity Habitat for Humanity, which sees students travel to Cape Town for a number of weeks every other year to help erect new houses for township residents.

During his time there, Ashbridge was given free reign to explore the townships in all their ramshackle reality. He met legions of happy children eager to have their pictures taken, stopped off at the sprawling market places where men use blow torches to scorch the hairs from sheeps' heads (a cheap cut of meat available to all), and visited the sick beds of those suffering from the HIV virus.

Ashbridge says that things have come a long way since the fall of Apartheid. Despite their many hardships, the people he caught on camera radiate with warmth and humility. But the reailities of the townships in the 21st century are never far from sight, and it is Ashbridge's intention to keep it that way.

'Life''Last time I was there I saw a play at the Baxter Theatre in Capetown, Sizwe Bansi is Dead, which is a play about a time in South Africa's recent history when black people had to show a pass to move from place to place if they wanted to work in different parts of the country. They called it the dumb pass, the stupid pass. 

'There was a part of the play that was set in a photographic studio, and that made me sit up. The photographer was a man named Styles, and he captured people's dreams, the dreams of people who will never have a statue to commemorate them, who will never be on billboards. He called his studio 'the room of dreams'. 

'This is where the book and exhibition come from. These people are the unremembered. Hopefully others will see my pictures and make the people of the townships the remembered, if only for a little bit.'

Limited edition paper and hardback copies of sad... and beautiful place can be purchased at the Queen's University bookshop, Belfast.