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Dire Straits and Nelson Mandela: The return to South Africa

Graeme Williams’ photographs have twice graced the cover of Time Magazine and recently, his work adorned the walls of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

Down-to-earth and modest to the point of self-deprecating, Graeme tells of his experiences of the transition away from the apartheid regime in South Africa, and his close encounters with arguably the world’s most admired man, Nelson Mandela.

During this time, Graeme had a shotgun shoved in his mouth, an AK47 held to his chest, he had been shot at, and he had been beaten. And it all kicked off with Dire Straits.

Eleven hours of glorious music, heaving crowds and the unrestrained goodwill of strangers.

This was the catalyst for Graeme Williams’ return to South Africa after just one year living in London. It was the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert at Wembley Stadium. It was an 11-hour concert held on 11 June 1989, just a few short months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“I had always grown up with this idea of Mandela as this sort of mythical figure that had to be released and apartheid had to go,” he says.

“And the people I hung around with, even in London, were South Africans who had similar views. So going to this Nelson Mandela concert; it was amazing, the sense that the whole world was behind getting him released. It was amazing.”

Graeme was just 25 when he returned to South Africa. It was two months after the Mandela concert and he chose to return and live in Johannesburg, “the cutting edge of what happens in South Africa.”

He describes his desire to be in South Africa saying, “there was a real sense that he (Mandela) was going to be released and I thought, ‘well I really wanted to be a part of the whole process’.”

“One grew up with apartheid hanging over one’s head. So this really felt like it was the end of this black cloud lurking about,” he says.

“I think for a photographer from somewhere else it would still have been interesting, but for me it was more important than taking snaps of another big event.”

And so he returned.

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Working for Reuters: 50 bodies a day

Lives can wander and wane, twist and turn, explode with a bang. Or as in Graeme’s case, life may be violently wrenched in an altogether different direction.

At the time of his return to South Africa in 1989, there was no time for introspection because as Graeme describes, once things started “it was like a runaway train.”

Graeme set out to secure his role in the transition process, starting his first hard news photojournalistic role with global news agency, Reuters.

“I knew the only way (to document the transition) was to be involved with a credible organisation that could get me access to all the things that were going to happen.

“So I just wandered into the Reuters office in Johannesburg with my little portfolio, with a few nice little photographs that I’d done.”

Far from being glib, it strikes me that in saying this, Graeme still marvels at his good fortune in landing the job.

Within two weeks of his joining Reuters, the more experienced photojournalists had flocked to cover a “ little battle” in Namibia and Graeme, still immensely green, was alone when the violence began. His first exposure set the standard for what was to come.

“I had to go into this township called Thokoza and I’d never seen a dead body before, never been in any violent situations, and the first day I was straight into it.

“There were three people killed, people weeping and it was just completely wild. I was living in this middle class suburb and moving into this world that was completely alien.

“At the beginning, the world didn’t really want to know because it was these harsh pictures of bodies, but then the death toll rose quickly to 50 a day. Then that’s all the world media wanted,” he says.

“You know after the first day – I can’t even remember how long it took but it felt like it escalated so quickly – and suddenly that’s what I was doing.

“It’s a very strange thing; once that adrenalin kicks in it becomes almost addictive in a way – well it does become addictive.

“And I never really stopped to think ‘why am I doing this?’

“Since that first day I was like ‘I am here’, and I just went with the flow. So for the next five years that’s just what I did. It was kind of being transported into another world.”

The risks for journalists in these situations are very real. One need only consider the American journalist and French photographer killed in Syria in February (Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik). I ask Graeme about his own safety concerns.

“It was real fear,” he describes. “It was a weird thing – you start getting an animal instinct. When it feels just too much, you just back off a bit,” he says.

“As a photographer you always had to push in the other direction. It was constantly trying to balance getting as close as possible, to listening to your feelings and going ‘ok this isn’t good’.

“You felt  (initially) as if it was the photographers and the ANC guys (anti-apartheid group) against the police. They were kind of protecting us, but then as things moved the whole politics got more and more complicated and we were basically a target for anyone, really.

“So, you know, I got shot at by police, had the right wing beat me up and the ANC pointed an AK47 at my chest. And four photographers got killed and two committed suicide.”  These were Graeme’s friends and colleagues.

Tomorrow: Graeme describes the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

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