Sue Williamson | Better Lives



Migrants, exiles and refugees all share the experience of displacement. Whether fleeing from political persecution war or seeking better economic opportunities, people from all over Africa have come to Cape Town, seen as the city of opportunity at the foot of the continent, to make a new life. Here, the newcomers face fresh difficulties gaining a foothold in communities already struggling to give their own families better lives.

In Sue Williamson’s series of six filmed portraits, the subjects are listening for the first time to an edited version of their life story, recorded on a previous occasion. The seriousness of each participant in the project is reflected in the intensity of their facial expressions. In this update of the classic African photographic studio genre, the black and white backdrop is a photo of Cape Town’s Table Mountain, seamlessly foregrounded by a taxi rank.

In the 1980’s, I did a series entitled A Few South Africans, etched and screen printed portraits of women in the struggle against apartheid. The subjects of Better Lives are the new South Africans. 

At the beginning of the project, I conducted interviews in an audio studio with 10 people asking them to tell me about their lives – why they came to Cape Town, what had happened to them here, if they wanted to go back to their home country. From these tapes, I edited three minute segments for chosen subjects. Next we set up a portrait studio with a photographed backdrop of Cape Town. People were invited to come dressed in their best, as for a formal portrait. Different props were used for each portrait. Once seated, subjects were asked to keep still, as if sitting for a long exposure still photograph, but asked to listen to extracts from their story as it was played. the intensity of their expressions reflect the seriousness with which they participated in the project.

Inevitably, small movements, – hand tapping, little nods, gave away their reactions to hearing their story. Shot on 35mm film with the camera turned sideways to utilize maximum area, we shot only one take of each portrait.

The participants:

Better Lives 1

Isabelle and Albert Ngandu (Democratic Republic of the Congo)
Albert Ngandu left the DRC because ‘death was waiting for me’. He fled to Johannesburg with two of their four children, then after a while, came to Cape Town, where he found a job at Boris the Baker. Eventually Isabelle joined him with the other two children, and gradually they built up a business selling curios. Now they have three shops and a stall on Greenmarket Square. They’ve never been back, and miss “the big family” they left behind. 

Francois Bangurambona  (Burundi)
Burundian Francois Bangurambona was a deputy minister in the Hutu government, when Tutsi soldiers came in to his office one day asking for the minister who was not there. As they left, they threw a grenade into his office. Luckily for Francois, his driver heard the explosion, came upstairs and got him in a car and to hospital and on a plane to Kenya. Now Francois runs a car repair business in Nyanga.

Richard Belalufu (Democratic Republic of the Congo)
Richard Belalufu is an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  He arrived in Cape Town in 1994, leaving his family behind when he heard the Mobutu regime was hunting him down, as he was playing the role of double agent. He has a diploma in electro mechanical engineering, and had an important job for a big company in DRC but now works on a construction site in Cape Town. Family were finally able to join him some years later. He Finds life very hard and Xenophobia is a big problem.

Better Lives II

Nelson Manuel (Angola)
Nelson is in his early twenties, sent from Angola by his father to avoid becoming a soldier. He is now a car guard in Cape Town, and was threatened one night by gunmen wishing to steal a car. But he must work, his girlfriend is pregnant, and he wishes to make a life with her.

Deka Yusuf Farrh (Somalia)
Deka’s businessman father was killed by robbers, and since her brother had been killed previously, Deka left Somalia the next day, three years ago. She was 6 months pregnant at the time. She was arrested on the Namibian border, as the Namibians did not recognize her Somalian passport. She spent six months in jail  where she gave birth to her daughter, Nitshma. Then her mother sent her money to bribe officials and she got to Cape Town. She finds South Africa better, but “home is home.’

Cynthia Gabriel (Angola)
Also from Angola, Cynthia left as a small child, and was brought up by her sister, who she believed to be her mother. When she discovered the truth, she began to long to see her mother. Her sister beat her when she discovered Cynthia was pregnant. The baby was premature and died at a few weeks old. Cynthia is now saving her money to return to Angola to see her mother.