Photography, Writing

Student Protest Photo Essay

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What was supposed to be the month of commemorating and celebrating the historical strides women have made, instead became a series of protests across the country - highlighting the reality of the increasing violence against women and children. Sixty three years ago, Women’s month came to be when more than 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings. On 9 August 1956, the women were demonstrating against the unjust extension of Pass Laws to women. Years later, Women's Month started with a call for a national shutdown across Universities in South Africa, as a means to protest against the strong hand of Gender Based Violence.


In the early hours of 6 August 2018, a group of young women from various on-campus residences at Nelson Mandela University assembled in solidarity against the continuous gender-based violence that has occurred at the institution, particularly the multiple rapes that took place at the beginning of Women's Month. With the bone-chilling cold and passionate fire in their hearts, their mission to suspend activities at the University were not deterred. What started off as a few women in the early hours of that Monday morning, increased to hundreds of protestors and spectators. Shot by Senzo Xulu, this photo series explores the role of hands, and their laden intentional and unintentional messaging in protest.


The photographer captures the young women in protest at their most vulnerable, yet powerful state. Xulu explores the complexities of body language, particularly seen in the hands. Hands and their gestures are often overlooked because one can argue that they are part of our everyday lives. Think about the integral role our hands play when we’re communicating. The raised fist? The fist pump? Or the clenched fist? The fact that changing the angle of your fist can speak to things on opposite ends of a spectrum, is fascinating, to say the least. Xulu’s perspective, allows us to connect to the protestors as individuals and not as a mob. He peeks into quiet individual moments of reflection, self-comfort, defiance and assertion. Capturing personal moments like these are rare considering the chaos of the site of production. Over the years mass media has succeeded in demonising and dehumanising various protestors, negating the core reasons behind the protest action. Whether intentional or not, Xulu’s photo series has managed to humanise and connect us to the subjects - not because of what they look like, but instead, through their hands.


Words by Sibu Nhlangwini. Images by Senzo Xulu