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Jonny Steinberg: Afterword from Beaufort West

I must have driven through Beaufort West a dozen times, perhaps two dozen, before coming across these photographs, but I had never seen it. That there was a prison in the middle of the traffic circle at the edge of the town centre, that there was a traffic circle at all: I did not recall these things.

I was hardly alone in this. South Africa’s longest highway, the 1,200-mile road that joins the northern provinces of the country to the south, slices right through Beaufort West, becoming its main street for a short time. Mine was one of several million cars that pass through each year.

Coming from Johannesburg, as I invariably was, two hundred miles of the Great Karoo lay behind me. By the time I got to Beaufort West I carried in my head mile upon mile of scrub-swept desert: a still, empty landscape beneath a vast sky. I was always at the beginning of a holiday, on the way to the coast or the mountains; and the Karoo was something of a foretaste of what lay in store, an early promise of slowing rhythms, of the idea that an entire day might pass without anything in particular to do. Always, somewhere in the Karoo, I would pull off the highway, drive along a dirt road far enough to kill the sound of the traffic, and get out of the car. I’d take in this huge, still space, its receding power lines, its sudden, sharp-edged hills, its benign indifference to me.

Beaufort West was a scruffy, ugly interruption, a brief absence of landscape, rather than the presence of something else. Traffic circle, prison: these I did not see. My mind had slammed itself shut on the edge of town.

And yet, when I first saw Mikhael Subotzky’s photographs, they were instantly recognisable. My first thought was ‘Of course’. The prisoners in their orange overalls, the hunter’s corpses strung up on his truck, even the anarchically coloured debris on the rubbish heap and the huddle of figures who live there: it all seemed utterly familiar. For these photographs give expression to something one understands – even while choosing to forget – whenever one passes through a distant rural town: that the South African countryside has lost the discrete identity it once possessed; that it is becoming a repository for the people and things the cities cannot contain. …

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