Bryan Heseltine's searing images of 1950s Cape Town at the Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford

By Culture24 Reporter | 29 July 2011
a photo of an African man in a cap
Exhibition: People Apart - Cape Town Survey 1952, Photographs by Bryan Heseltine, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, until January 8 2012

Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum is currently showing a striking collection of images capturing Cape Town at an extraordinary time of transition in the 1950s.

Taken by photographer Bryan Heseltine, they reveal how the rapid urbanisation of the 1940s provided a unique set of political tensions and conflicts in the South African city. 

The Nationalist Party, elected in 1948, was just beginning to implement its policy of apartheid, which extended existing segregation with the ultimate aim of a society based on total racial separation.

a photo of a young African man with a badge on its side
Heseltine’s images, which were discovered by chance by curator Darren Newbury after he was approached after a talk, offer a glimpse into the lives of South Africans who would go on to feel the full force of the apartheid state through the 1950s and beyond.

They are also an important record of life in a number of townships and areas of the city: Windermere, named ironically after the English lake; the Bo-Kaap, home to Cape Town’s Malay community; District Six, site of the one of the most notorious forced removals of the apartheid period; and the black African townships of Langa and Nyanga.

Various aspects of social and cultural life are detailed, including the work of street craftsmen and the importance of beer brewing, music and dance.  What emerges is the diversity of Cape Town’s inhabitants and how they adapted to an impoverished urban landscape.

The exhibition marks another chapter in a remarkable story of a photographic collection which was used first by the South African Institute of Race Relations in the cause of social reform and later, in England, by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and the emerging anti-apartheid movement. 

Today, in the post apartheid era, Heseltine’s photos are a potent record of the period that reflect the late photographer’s powerful engagement with his subjects.

More images from the exhibition:

a photo of a shack surrounded by water with two children play fighting outside
a black and white photo of boys sitting on a wall
  • All images courtesy Oxford University
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