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Drone images show the “architecture of apartheid” in Cape Town is still firmly in place

Johnny Miller
A drone view of the neighborhoods of Strand and Nomzamo in Cape Town.
  • Lynsey Chutel
By Lynsey Chutel


Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

In any city, space is a commodity. In South African cities space is historical and emotional. A new photo series by an American living in Cape Town captures the dramatic inequality of South Africa’s most beloved city. From an aerial view, Cape Town’s scenic beauty gives way to a stark reminder of the country’s past and the continued racial segregation.

The aerial images illustrate South Africa’s inequality. Its GINI index of 63.4 out of 100, is one of the highest in the world. The apartheid system, which lasted from 1948 to 1994, divided the country’s ethnic groups according to tribe and race and divided the country’s resources according to race, favoring white people.

“The actual city infrastructure has been created to keep various groups of people separate from one another. You can see this in all urban centers in South Africa, but Cape Town is particularly pronounced,” says Johnny Miller, a photographer who has been living in Cape Town since 2012.

South African cities and towns were designed to give white people access to the central businesses districts and homes in the leafy suburbs. Black people had to live far outside of the city, only venturing in for work. While apartheid has been over for more than two decades integrating these living spaces has remained a challenge and socioeconomic inequality is still stubbornly divided along race.

Miller’s first photo of the settlement of Masiphumelele and Lake Michelle in Cape Town.

“Looking straight down from a height of several hundred meters, incredible scenes of inequality emerge,” he writes on his website.

Miller used drones to capture what he hoped would be a different perspective of the “architecture of apartheid,” a reality that he as an outsider found surprisingly accepted in his adopted city.

“I felt that it had become mundane. I felt that people had developed a certain complacency towards this incredible inequality, which to me was even more shocking than the poverty itself.”

And while it’s no secret that segregation and inequality persist in the country, Miller’s photos have elicited a strong response. The first of his photographs has circulated widely, with over a 240,000 views on his own Facebook post where it receives both praise and criticism. Thanks to the comments section of his own website, the visceral reaction to Miller’s work is in full public view, an example of the often toxic public debate on race and inequality in South Africa.

“So what do you want the so called wealthy people to do? They work hard, bought and I repeat bought their property, they don’t just get it for free! Your study is totally out of context! Did you received maybe an ANC grant, or Gupta grant?,” one commenter said, referring to the majority black African National Congress and a wealthy Indian family accused of corrupt links to the party and the country’s president.

Another responded, “Strange how most of the people complaining got their houses during an era where only 20% of the population was allowed to buy decent property and were never kicked out and relocated elsewhere—mostly far away from the city with little to no sanitation [or] access to water.”

In some ways, Miller’s outside perspective works to his advantage. His images capture contrasts that most South Africans overlook. He hopes to expand his project by visiting the neighborhoods he has photographed, showing residents the images and hearing what they have to say.

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