RIP Ken Oosterbroek and Kevin Carter. And RIP Freedom of Speech in South Africa….

I read the text below today regarding the passing of the so-called Secrecy Bill in South Africa. The Protection of State Information Bill will make it possible for any official document (crime statistics, AIDS statistics, financial records of government authorities) to be classified as secret, and for whistleblowers to be jailed for up to 20 years. The bill has passed through the lower house of the South African Parliament and is now passing through the upper house (The National Assembly). If it is passed, it will then go to the President for signature. South Africa’s Freedom of Speech will effectively be removed.

The National Assembly’s Ad Hoc Committee on the Protection of State Information Bill has concluded its work with the unanimous adoption of the Committee report. The Committee unanimously accepted the amendments from the National Council of Provinces which dealt with the Bill before sending it back to the National Assembly. But the Democratic Alliance, African Christian Democratic Party, and Congress of the People still object to the Bill in its latest form.The Bill will be debated in the National Assembly on Thursday (25 April 2013). If the Bill is passed by the National Assembly it will be sent to President Jacob Zuma for assent.

….. one step back to apartheid days, unfortunately.

[ UPDATE: The day I wrote this article, the Bill was passed by the South African National Assembly, thus removing our Freedom of Speech]

I trained as a journalist during the worst years of apartheid in South Africa. The university I attended was an English-language liberal university which offered the only journalism degree in the country. So the police were on us all the time. South Africa was under martial law, a state of emergency. Searchlights, guns, arrests, beatings, torture, deaths. NO freedom of speech. We were not allowed to report on or photograph any police vehicle, phone line, railway track, electricity pole or gathering. More than two people were not allowed to gather together. Us journalism students were arrested, beaten, tortured, disappeared – sometimes for years, sometimes forever. There were spies in each classroom but no one knew who they were. Letter bombs were often sent to leading South African journalists, killing them or their families. I can remember sitting inside an armoured vehicle in the township on an assignment, where we were stoned for 48 hours. I can still remember the sound of those stones hitting the vehicle.

A book about this generation of journalism students at my university – many of whom were prepared to die to bring freedom of speech and the unbanning of the ANC – has been written by Janice Warman. It is called Class of ’79 and features three of my fellow students who underwent the most awful treatment but were still prepared to die so that speech may be free.


One of these students was Guy Berger (far right below. I am in the middle)

So for me it is really sad that now the same journalists would be in the same situation today. Because the ANC has done exactly the same thing as the apartheid government did. Restricted press freedom to prevent the truth being known.

On this sad subject, am posting photos of two deceased members of The Bang Bang Club. Firstly Ken Oosterbroek who was shot and killed by police on 18th April 1994 in Thokoza township while photographing a riot.

It was a great honour to know him and I will always miss him. He taught me a lot and was a very generous mentor as well as a good friend. His sister Athelé is also a great friend of mine and she misses him terribly.



Ken in the background with Greg Marinovich (a third member of the Bang Bang Club) wounded in the foreground
Ken in the background with Greg Marinovich (a third member of The Bang Bang Club) seriously wounded in the foreground

Second is Kevin Carter, also in The Bang Bang Club. He committed suicide three months after Ken died, shortly after winning the 1994 Pulitzer prize for the photograph of the starving child and vulture (below). Ken Oosterbroek was his best friend and Kevin always felt that it should have been him who died that day.

Early on Monday, April 18, the Bang-Bang Club headed out to Thokoza township, 10 miles from downtown Johannesburg, to cover an outbreak of violence. Shortly before noon, with the sun too bright for taking good pictures, Carter returned to the city. Then on the radio he heard that his best friend, Oosterbroek, had been killed in Thokoza. Marinovich had been gravely wounded. Oosterbroek’s death devastated Carter, and he returned to work in Thokoza the next day, even though the violence had escalated. He later told friends that he and not Ken “should have taken the bullet.”

I adored Kevin – he was a brilliant, fragile soul. He had his ups and downs but when he was on top he was the best. He felt every emotion more strongly than anyone else I have ever known. He was the first boy I ever loved. death-of-kevin-carter





Photo by Kevin Carter

The image above presaged no celebration: a child barely alive, a vulture so eager for carrion. Yet the photograph that epitomized Sudan’s famine would win Kevin Carter fame. On May 23, 14 months after capturing that memorable scene, Carter walked up to the dais in the classical rotunda of Columbia University’s Low Memorial Library and received the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography.

Two months after receiving his Pulitzer, Carter would be dead of carbon-monoxide poisoning in Johannesburg, a suicide at 33. His red pickup truck was parked near a small river where he used to play as a child; a green garden hose attached to the vehicle’s exhaust funneled the fumes inside. “I’m really, really sorry,” he explained in a note left on the passenger seat beneath a knapsack. “The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist.” The suicide note he left behind is a litany of nightmares and dark visions, a clutching attempt at autobiography, self-analysis, explanation, excuse. After coming home from New York, he wrote, he was “depressed . . . without phone . . . money for rent . . . money for child support . . . money for debts . . . money!!! . . . I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain . . . of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners . . . ” And then this: “I have gone to join Ken if I am that lucky.”

Kevin told the story of the photograph thus…Immediately after the plane touched down in the village of Ayod in the Sudan, Carter began snapping photos of famine victims. Seeking relief from the sight of masses of people starving to death, he wandered into the open bush. He heard a soft, high-pitched whimpering and saw a tiny girl trying to make her way to the feeding center. As he crouched to photograph her, a vulture landed in view. Careful not to disturb the bird, he positioned himself for the best possible image. He would later say he waited about 20 minutes, hoping the vulture would spread its wings. It did not, and after he took his photographs, he chased the bird away and watched as the little girl resumed her struggle. Afterward he sat under a tree, lit a cigarette, talked to God and cried.

With the Pulitzer, however, he had to deal not only with acclaim but also with the critical focus that comes with fame. Some journalists in South Africa called his prize a “fluke,” alleging that he had somehow set up the tableau. Others questioned his ethics. “The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering,” said the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, “might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene.” Even some of Carter’s friends wondered aloud why he had not helped the girl.

The Braamfonteinspruit is a small river that cuts southward through Johannesburg’s northern suburbs – and through Parkmore, where the Carters once lived. At around 9 p.m., Kevin Carter backed his red Nissan pickup truck against a blue gum tree at the Field and Study Center. He had played there often as a little boy. The Sandton Bird Club was having its monthly meeting there, but nobody saw Carter as he used silver gaffer tape to attach a garden hose to the exhaust pipe and run it to the passenger-side window. Wearing unwashed Lee jeans and an Esquire T shirt, he got in and switched on the engine. Then he put music on his Walkman and lay over on his side, using the knapsack as a pillow.

RIP Ken, Kevin and Freedom of Speech in South Africa.

PS – The fourth member of the Bang Bang Club, João Silva, lost both legs in a landmine explosion while covering the warzone in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Two photographers, one leg. Joao Silva on the left


Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

7 thoughts

  1. Hello i need some kevin carter`s picture. can i use this picture. we use this picture in program ‘차이나는 클라스’ . please answer

  2. The article is 3 years old. How is the freedom of speech in South Africa now? Did anyone reversed that law?

    1. No, unfortunately the law is still in place. this means that the government can suppress information from any authority or from the state – that includes spending, statistics and so on. It is very sad.

  3. Thank you so much for telling this story. When Women Waken just published a poem by Joan Kantor that memorializes Kevin Carter, and so I was reading to learn more about him, to understand his suicide.

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