Twenty-eight seconds. James Oatway checked the time stamps of the series of pictures he captured of an attack that took place in South Africa’s Alexandra Township last weekend.
It took only 28 seconds for a group of “neighborhood thugs,” the photographer says, to fatally injure Emmanuel Sithole, a Mozambican migrant who ran a small business in Alexandra. Sithole was the seventh person to die in a wave of anti-foreigner violence sparked by controversial remarks made by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini in which he suggested that foreigners were taking South Africans’ jobs and that they should “pack their belongings and go back to their countries.”
The unrest echoes the brutal xenophobic attacks of 2008, which led to the death of 60 foreigners around Johannesburg.
In the early hours of Saturday, Oatway, a nine-year veteran photojournalist of South Africa’s Sunday Times, teamed up with reporter Beauregard Tromp to monitor the looting that had happened overnight in and around the township. The streets were calm, Oatway recalls, although traces of the previous night’s violence were still evident — rubbish and burned debris still littered the streets.
After photographing in a looted foreign-owned shop, Oatway saw Sithole walking along a street when several men surrounded him. Using wrenches and knives, the men started beating and stabbing Sithole.
“They were intent on killing him,” Oatway tells TIME. “You could tell by the expression on their faces. They look so angry. They weren’t going to stop.”
At first, the attackers weren’t aware of the photographer’s presence. But then one man alerted them and the group ran off.
Oatway and Tromp rushed Sithole to a nearby clinic but they couldn’t find the doctor who was supposed to be on duty. Oatway learned later that this particular doctor was also a foreigner; he had stayed away from work out of fear of becoming a victim himself.
The photographer and reporter brought Sithole to another hospital but it was too late. The man succumbed to a stab wound that had pierced his heart.
The Sunday Times ran one of Oatway’s shocking photographs on its front page, stirring controversy in a country reeling with the realization that such violence can no longer be attributed to the legacy of Apartheid rule and that there are fundamental problems within society that must be addressed.
Unexpectedly, both the photographer and the Sunday Times became the target of criticism, with some accusing the photographer of failing to help Sithole, and the newspaper of callously publishing a graphic image on its front page.
“I don’t have any regrets about taking the pictures,” Oatway tells TIME. “I don’t have any regrets that the picture was on the front page. I really don’t think I could have intervened successfully in that attack. I think my presence there distracted them and did discourage them. If I hadn’t been there, there would have really been some brutal damages and [they] probably [would have] killed him right there, in a far more brutal manner.”
While Oatway’s photographs are gruesome, the photographer believes they are necessary. “I understand that a lot of people have this view of photographers being vultures, preying on other people’s misfortune,” he says. “But why not direct the anger at the people committing the crime, the people brutally murdering Emmanuel, instead of me just happened to be there and recorded it?”
Following their publication, the photographs led to the arrest of all four men involved in Sithole’s murder.
Oatway remains tormented by the fact that he was not able to bring Sithole to a doctor in time. “Ten minutes would have made a difference,” he says. “That’s playing on my nerves. That’s my main regret.”
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