It was the word “prawns” that first caught my attention. Stumbling sleepy somewhere around about 2 am on a frosty night in Newtown, I thought I must be hearing things. But then there it was again on their lips, praaawns. They wanted to hit another club just not that spot “with all them prawns and snakeskin pointyshoe n***as.” Heh heh heh. Instead we went to an all-night eatery across town, where tipsy patrons jumped up on the seats to lead a few rounds of Shosholoza, the day’s futbol games looping on corner TV screens. They tried to get me to sing too, but I didn’t know the words.
And so I sat and reflected on why I was back in South Africa. On prawns and makwerekweres, the origins of idle hatred, living frustrations, bodies and borders, the chasms between us, and how far one person has to be pushed before they feel the need to break their brother.
I spent the past five weeks or so traveling from one end of South Africa to the other. The N1 highway starts in Beit Bridge, where Mzansi touches Zimbabwe, and ends 1,929 km later in Cape Town, bending toward the mingling Indian and South Atlantic oceans. The N1 is where the story starts for a lot of foreign nationals in the country. They cross the Limpopo river, by bridge or bush, and the N1 is on their lips. That’s the road that will take them to Joburg, jobs, a different life. It’s also the road on their minds when they look for a way out. An escape from harassment, from threats, and from the promise of violence. The N1 goes both ways.
I was lucky enough to work on this project alongside my wildly talented friend Dominic Nahr (fresh from a Magnum Photo nomination! Yea!), and am deeply indebted to the support of the Pulitzer Center in DC. Our first Pulitzer Center blog post from the northern border is here, with more dispatches appearing here as they come. It’s worth poking around my twitter for updates too.
I still have piles of interviews, notes and audio to go through and Dom has such striking photos to share, so please do check back in. This is an important story. It’s not about spoiling any Black Star-inspired unity myth, not about simple racism or throwing blame or a jobs-and-housing cause and effect formula. It’s the most human of stories: about movement, the tugging and shoving of bodies. It’s about skeletons from the past and a crisis of poverty. It’s about being at a breaking point — just before you, or your entire world, explodes.