Nomvisiswano Lutwetsha washes clothes in Marikana. Picture: MASIXOLE FENI
Nomvisiswano Lutwetsha washes clothes in Marikana. Picture: MASIXOLE FENI

Drivers commuting past the shacks and houses that line the N2 in Cape Town might see children crouched on the sandy verges, relieving themselves. An early picture photographer Masixole Feni took of a little girl doing so beside the highway — pink garment gathered and clutched safely in her hands — sharpened his focus on the indignities and hardships of everyday life without access to sanitation.

The lack of toilets in informal settlements are a flash point for igniting service delivery protests in Cape Town.

That first image inspired Feni, 29, to confront "the issues no one really wanted to talk about" and turn his lens to the difficult subject of sanitation. The results now glare from the walls of the Centre for African Studies Gallery at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

The exhibition, A Drain on our Dignity: An Insider’s Perspective, is the culmination of Feni’s 2015 Ernest Cole Award win. The R150,000 prize was used to complete the promising body of work he had begun as a young news photographer. It is accompanied by a book containing a larger selection of pictures. The images bear witness to the living conditions endured just 20km away from UCT’s privileged spaces.

In Feni’s pictures, homes stand adrift in floodwater; port-a-loos march along borders — ridiculously permanent features instead of temporary solutions. Residents dispose of human waste in canals. They fight fires with buckets; they wash their clothes amid refuse.

In the image, Perfect Clothing Line, garments dangle precariously in the gap between two blue plastic toilets. There is something indefatigable and defiant about their limp presence, but also ominous. Going to the toilet at night, for many women, is a dangerous excursion. There are images of hapless souls who clean portable toilet containers in Airport Industria: showering after a long day’s work; pulling on heavy-duty gloves.

But most of the images are of residents dealing with the endless, gruelling work necessitated by a lack of plumbing.

Feni is a resident of Mfuleni, a settlement of about 52,000 people packed into a slice of land between Khayelitsha and Blue Downs. He grew up in Sakhumzi orphanage, where he had access to running water, but later lived in a backyard shack. His winnings from awards helped him to build a home on a stand next to a toilet. So he knows his subject well.

He is interested in what is considered to be "news".

"We hear of protests every day, we see images of people burning tyres and throwing stones, but we don’t get to see the other side," he says. Feni wants his work to document life as it is experienced by people living on the margins. It’s a potent reminder of the lack of progress in delivering a better life for all.

As Stellenbosch academic Steven Robins writes, "sanitation and politics have always been intertwined, despite being framed by bureaucrats as purely apolitical and technical matters of urban infrastructure, planning and public health".

If you are a black student born well after 1994, what you see is a parade of black people stripped of their dignity and whites exuding wealth and success
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The works in A Drain on Our Dignity echo in intent images made by Cole in the 1960s. Cole’s banned book, House of Bondage, reflected on the lives of the marginalised and the poor and became a reference point for people who wanted to know more about apartheid. He was SA’s first black photojournalist and, according to SAhistory.org, went to great lengths to take images in mines, a prison and a hospital. He was said to be afraid of "no one besides God".

Feni’s show opened as debate around a column written by UCT vice-chancellor Max Price was in full cry. Price questioned how students might read struggle-era photographers’ works shown or archived at the university.

"If you are a black student born well after 1994, what you see is a parade of black people stripped of their dignity and whites exuding wealth and success," he wrote.

"Even if you know the historic context of the photos, a powerful contemporary context may overwhelm this, leading you to conclude that the photos are just one more indication of how this university views black and white people."

This salvo upped temperatures already raised by the removal of artworks from the UCT campus following protests and the destruction of some art.

In this context, Feni’s stark images of uncomfortable reality take on additional weight.

They are meant to hold authority to account.

Feni says no one should "make boundaries and tell people who can tell what stories" when the purpose is art or that of storytelling.

His "insider status" as a community member doesn’t always make things easier for him, he says. People can be suspicious, even hostile — Feni has been threatened when taking photos.

He thinks community members sometimes question his right to take photos that show their vulnerability, but they wouldn’t question a white photographer doing the same work. Some appreciate that his photos "get the issues out there".

Feni first picked up a camera as a teen at a community centre during a visit by the Icon Photography Project.

He started working for newspapers while in high school. He didn’t always have his own camera, but would shoot when on assignment.

He works for GroundUp and admires the Social Justice Coalition’s work in highlighting service delivery issues.

While a few images in the book are weaker than the rest and probably wouldn’t stand alone, they contribute to a wider understanding of the sanitation issue. Others are deeply memorable — the cover image of a man bowed before a flooded landscape is compelling.

As architect Ilze Wollf writes in the book’s foreword, Feni has "artfully posed an antidote to the crude assessments of township life as depicted in the mainstream media".

An image that still moves Feni is far from newsy. He captured vendors making their way back home in Mfuleni, near silhouettes in the deepening dusk. One man has a small child on his shoulders; another is on the handlebars of a bicycle. There was no one to care for them, so the vendor had taken his children to work.

To Feni, whose images are full of mothers and children — wrapped and cosseted parcels — the image shows that all men are not alike.

"Some are trying hard to make ends meet for their kids and families, even though they find themselves in harsh circumstances," he says.

• The exhibition is on at the Centre for African Studies Gallery at UCT until August 29 then travels to the KZNSA Gallery and the Wits Art Museum.

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