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House of Bondage: A Checklist for Apartheid

In 1967, House of Bondage was published to international acclaim. It told the story of South African apartheid and the ways transportation, housing, identity checks, and education inequities were used to repress an entire people. Now, House of Bondage is reprinted for the first time since its first sell-out edition.

House of Bondage is a brutal book. It’s brutal in its directness, its fire, its anger, and its sense of injustice.

It deconstructs the South African apartheid machine into its constituent parts, making visual connections between policies that were designed to dehumanise and degrade an entire population.

Whistle has sounded, train is moving, but people are still trying to get on © Ernest Cole
Whistle has sounded, train is moving, but people are still trying to get on. © Ernest Cole

It’s this directness that made it one of the most influential photobooks ever made. Its organisation, layout, and accompanying text remain influential to photographers, even in the present day. 

With the exception of the cover, some additional texts, and a supplementary section, the new edition is true to the original. 

The book is laid out magazine style, with some images full-bleed, some pages with multiple images, some laid out in sequence, often with accompanying captions in addition to the main chapter texts.

There are key images that bite into you and don’t let go, images where you know exactly what Cole is doing with the book. One of them is his image of the train platform: one side rammed with Black bodies waiting for their commute into Johannesburg, the other almost empty, with seven white commuters scattered across a bare concrete expanse. 

Doornfontein railway station in rush hour. This picture shows the reality of apartheid without the need for any words. South Africa, 1960s. All images from South Africa, 1960s. © Ernest Cole/Magnum
Doornfontein railway station in rush hour. This picture shows the reality of apartheid without the need for any words. South Africa, 1960s. © Ernest Cole/Magnum

It’s an image that encapsulates the harsh realities of how Apartheid worked and infiltrated the minds, hearts, and souls of everybody it touched. On the Black side of the platform, there is no fence to keep people in their place, there are no bars or barriers. The barriers are (in part) in people’s minds. 

In a similar but different way, the privilege of that empty platform — of being able to easily book a ticket, find a seat, and disembark from the train (all of which are deliberately made near impossible for Black passengers to negotiate easily) — are accepted by the white commuters. It’s easier that way. The crimes of Apartheid seep into their hearts, their souls: there is no escaping that racial culpability.

Students kneel on floor to write, South Africa, ca. 1960s. © Ernest Cole
Students kneel on floor to write, South Africa, ca. 1960s. © Ernest Cole

“The essential cruelty of the situation,” reads the accompanying text to the Police & Passes chapter, “is not that all blacks are virtuous and all whites are villainous, but that the whites are conditioned not to see anything wrong in the injustices they impose on their black neighbours. The cold impersonality and righteousness of white supremacy are what make life in South Africa monstrous…”

The text goes on to detail the laws Black South Africans lived under: they could be jailed for 3 years (or sentenced to ten lashes of the whip) for sitting on a park bench reserved for whites; it was a crime for a young man to live with his parents without a permit after reaching the age of 18; they could be arrested without trial, and “…any African may be summarily removed from in which he lives, should the Government decide he represents “surplus” labour.”

Teacher toward end of her day in school, South Africa, ca. 1960s. © Ernest Cole
Teacher toward end of her day in school, South Africa, ca. 1960s. © Ernest Cole

The brutality of the pass law system and the way it made every Black life precarious is evident in the images Cole presents in the Police and Passes chapter: police stop people on the street, passes are checked, and people are intimidated, harassed and arrested. If you didn’t have a pass with an employer’s signature, you stood the risk of being deported from the area.House of Bondage is laid out into 16 chapters that structure the web of inequality that made Apartheid such an evil. With titles like The Quality of Repression, The Mines, The Cheap Servant, and Education for Servitude, the book lays bare the interconnectedness of Apartheid laws.

For example, if you were Black and you worked in a city, you probably didn’t live in that city, and would take the train from your distant neighbourhood. But the trains were packed, irregular, and unreliable, so you would need to leave early, and, for the same reasons, arrive home late—exhausted by your work, your commute, by the police who asked for your pass, by the family member who queued for five hours to see a doctor at an overcrowded hospital, and by your children trying to learn in a class with no furniture, no books, and a teacher even more exhausted than you are. 

Mamelodi. Typical location has acres of identical four-room houses on nameless streets. Many are hours by train from city jobs. © Ernest Cole
Mamelodi. Typical location has acres of identical four-room houses on nameless streets. Many are hours by train from city jobs. © Ernest Cole

The images in House of Bondage tell that story and clarify the connections between the different elements. They are not sentimental images: they show the ways in which people sought an escape from the Apartheid regime through religion, drinking, and crime. They come with a hard edge.

The penultimate chapter is Banishment, a brutal recounting of a law that stated that any Black person could be banished to a remote detention camp without trial, appeal, or time limit. The book ends with a more optimistic chapter titled Black Ingenuity. It details the cultural life that was evident during the Apartheid era: the will to create, sing, dance, and be human.

Police check passes for employers signature, proof that taxes are paid, and legality of presence in white area. © Ernest Cole
Police check passes for employers signature, proof that taxes are paid, and legality of presence in white area. © Ernest Cole
During group medical examination, the nude men are herded through a string of doctors’ offices. © Ernest Cole
During group medical examination, the nude men are herded through a string of doctors’ offices. © Ernest Cole

Cole’s work is a memorial to past history, but as new accompanying texts point out, it is also an aide-mémoire to examine how we live now, how the legacy of Apartheid continues to thrive in very comparable forms across the world—in Israel, China, Myanmar, the USA, the UK, and even in South Africa itself. And if you want to see the “cold impersonality and righteousness of white supremacy,” you will find it on the newsstands and websites of every European nation, embedded in the institutions of which we are so proud.

On a global level, the exploitation of the world’s resources by the wealthy, the marginalization of indigenous people, and controls on migration all come from the same psychological playbook as Apartheid. 

Untitled, South Africa, ca. 1960s © Ernest Cole
Untitled, South Africa, ca. 1960s. © Ernest Cole

House of Bondage is a book as relevant today as it was then. In an era where photobooks can verge on the narcissistic (guilty as charged) and overly-poetic, it is a welcome reminder that sometimes a lack of ambiguity is needed. The skill of House of Bondage that it is direct and unambiguous in the story it tells, but still nuanced. Though it may not be surprising, it still shocks. 

Ernest Cole: House of Bondage, Photographs by Ernest Cole, published by Aperture. $65.00

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