William Matlala’s exhibition of photographs, ‘The Complete Worker’, was launched at the Apartheid History Museum on Saturday 1 September. It was a joyful celebration of a lifetime’s commitment to photographing workers. Mr Matlala is himself a worker who has spent his life documenting the lives of fellow workers.
At the launch many speakers said important things about Mr Matlala and his work, but most important of all are the photographs. The images of workers are vivid and compelling. Workers at their machines, at lunch, addressing meetings, gazing at the camera, striking. Matlala’s photographs convey a sense of workers’ dignity, stoicism, humour, determination, defiance – both through powerful individual portraits and through their collectivety and comradeship. They are displayed in a circular gallery which intensifies the effect.
As Sally Gaule, the curator of the exhibition, pointed out at the launch, these photographs capture the moments when workers have evaded the control of the bosses and carved out their own time, their own sense of themselves, their own autonomy, whether it is just for that second when they look up from their machines, or when they laugh over lunch, or when they come together and down tools.
Mr Matlala himself started off his working life as a worker in a food factory, joined the Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU) and soon became a shop steward. He began taking photographs of workers in order to supplement his wages, documenting workers lives and struggles. In the late 1980s he became COSATU’s in-house photographer. He then joined the South African Labour Bulletin as photographer, moving on to become a freelancer, and providing the images of workers’ struggles for unions and publications across South Africa and the world.
Mr Matlala is well known in the union movement. The worker leader Zwelinzima Vavi sent this message to the launch: “I am so pained that I cannot make it to this commitment. William Matlala and I go really all the way back from the beginning of his career deep deep down during the ugliest times of the past. I would like to make it clear how deeply we honour this man’s contribution to the workers struggle.”
Hats off to Sally for sifting through thousands of Mr Matlala’s photographs to select those that speak to us from the gallery walls, and thanks to History Workshop, The Apartheid History Museum and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) for organising, supporting and financing this exhibition. But most of all, congratulations to William Matlala for finally achieving the recognition he deserves after a lifetime of immersing himself in worker life and struggle, and making these moments available to all of us, and those who will come after.
The exhibition is on until 20 October 2018. The Society, Work and Politics Institute (SWOP), History Workshop, FES and the Museum are planning to bring groups of workers and students to the exhibition to interact with Mr Matlala and learn from his photographs.
Mr Matlala is currently a Photographer Associate at SWOP, where he is digitalising his archive of some half a million photographs.