45mm X 35mm – Xenophobia = Photobook

By Alex Gwaze I Photographer

THE #45mmX35mm PROJECT
Download the free Photobook: 45x35mm [Immigration]


The 45mm by 35 mm Project is a photographic form of protest art that explores the duality of the bureaucratic / impersonal framing of the official face shot [a passport photo or a police mugshot]. Impromptu photos of seven foreigners were taken using this 45mm by 35mm frame [by another immigrant who appears in the work]. The goal of the short piece was to unravel the negative perceptions of immigrants –which has resulted in an extended period of xenophobic violence towards Africans and fostered rampant cultural ignorance.

45mm x 35 mm is essentially a re-imagining of Home Affairs and law enforcement’s schizophrenic positioning of your friends, family, neighbors and acquaintances by placing a different [more colourful person] inside the frame. The photographs are saying when you are looking through the passport frame or mugshot -do not see “makwerekwere” — see the real person and their home land.

Additional information:

In 2008 immigration became a contentious issue in South Africa contra to the pan-Africanist notions propagated by the South African 2010 FIFA World Cup bid organizers in the media. Foreign nationals from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Somalia, Malawi and other African countries were targeted and “accused by [local] township residents of being thieves” in a wave of xenophobic ‘township’ violence that resulted in 62 people being killed: 41 foreigners and 21 South Africans. Then president, Thabo Mbeki, criticized the actions of the perpetrators as “shameful” and “criminal.” This was not the first time or the last time ‘locals’ would  target ‘Africans.’ Since 2008 African immigrants have been the prey of local socio-economic thwartings – the most notorious assaults being the ‘2015 Durban outbreak’ and the June 2016 ‘Tshwane lootings.’

Despite the high profile exposure of the Durban outbreak, the 2008 phenomenon is widely regarded by most African immigrants residing in South Africa as a watershed moment. Certain facets – besides the paradoxical attitudes that sedated the World cup public relations whimsies and the international media attention garnered from the exposition of South African ‘afrophobic’ atrocities – make this 2008 incident prevalent in the eyes and ears of the African immigrant. Two fraught particulars are worth noting:

  1. The vulgar use of the ethnic slur ‘Makwerekwere’ to label all African immigrants as criminals and,
  2. The etching of the image of the ‘burning man’ as the effigy of the African victim.

Language and Representation:


The easiest way to identify or represent someone is through an image or photograph. The most common image of an immigrant is the passport photo or mugshot: the 45mm by 35 mm standardized frame. Until an immigrant has been confirmed as a refugee, scholar, tourist, worker, criminal or fugitive; this is the most neutral decontextualized representation of him/her that does not condemn or absolve him/her, provided he/she meets all the necessary requirements and supplies all the necessary information required to identify him/her to local security officials sufficiently. The 45 by 35 mm frame validates and equalizes the viewpoint of all immigrants [world wide] through standardization and strict regulatory practice. However, this official ‘face’ shot is characteristically uncomplimentary, neutral, stark and void of intimacy.


Another way to identify or represent someone is through language. Language is a system of words or signs that a particular group of people can use to express thoughts and feelings to each other to contextulize a concept, object person or situation. One can effectively communicate his/her ideas and values to one group of people while simultaneously ostracizing another through a few choice words or word, for example – nigger, kaffir, cracker, pig or makwerekwere.

Makwerekwere is a derogatory term / slang / hate speech used by ‘locals’ to describe “foreigners in South Africa, especially illegal immigrants or all black foreigners;” circularized proficiently during and after the 2008 attacks. (Macha: 2008, para 1) There is no reliable historical account specifying the meaning and origins of the term, but the Khanya blog is often cited as a useful point of reference. The blog hypothesizes an array of likely inceptions, but the supposition I have identified as the most faithful rendition of the current intended meaning is that – it is derived from ‘Kwelakwela,’an old Zulu term/slang for the Black Maria police van. “Policemen used to say to people they had arrested (usually for infringing the pass laws) ‘Kwelakwela’, meaning Get in! Get in!” ‘Khwela’ means ‘board’ in the Zulu language. Kwelakwela appears to be the most probable origin of the term due to its fluid correlation with deportation, segregation, law enforcement, migrant workers, xenophobia and passports. The word Makwerekwere describes the contingents of an image or scene that a certain group of disgruntle black South African onlookers perceive to be the representation of a trespassing African – the passbook offender.

This historically warped model of the African migrant worker continues to inform discourteous locals’ understanding of the immigration process. According to the average nescient South Africa, Europeans/ descendants of Europeans/ ‘whites’ cannot be foreigners,  only Africans are Makwerekwere. Immigrants from Germany, United Kingdom or America are not labelled as immigrants because they are not black and African. This is because “South Africa’s xenophobia reflects the country’s history of isolation … South Africans are fond of referring to their continental counterparts as Africans or people from Africa.” (Tshabalala: 2015, para 10)

These two facets (victim= passport’/ immigrant + criminal= makwerekwere/ mugshot) highlight the dichotomy of South African attitudes towards immigration and contextualize the plight of the African immigrant in a diachronic socio-economic frame.

Download the full Photobook: 45x35mm [Immigration]

Cited Sources:

Khumalo, Sibonile  and Underhill, Glynnis. 2010. No justice for burning man. [online] Published by mail&guardian.co.za website on the 30th of July. Available at: http://mg.co.za/article/2010-07-30-no-justice-for-burning-man Acccesed on the 26th of September, 2016.

Macha, Ndesanjo. 2008. South Africa: What is the meaning of “makwerekwere”? [online] Published by globalvoices.org website on the 25th of May. Available at: https://globalvoices.org/2008/05/25/south-africa-what-is-the-meaning-of-makwerekwere/ on Accessed on the 12th of September, 2016.

Naidoo, Jay. 2015. South Africa, say it loud and clear: NO to Xenophobia! [online] Published by dailymaverick.co.za website on the 17th of April. Available at: http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2015-04-17-south-africa-say-it-loud-and-clear-no-to-xenophobia/#.V-mS3fl97IU Accessed on the 26th of September, 2016.

Tshabalala, Sibusiso. 2015. Bad hosts: Why black South Africans are attacking foreign Africans but not foreign whites. [online] Published by Quartz (qz.com) website on the 15th of April. Available at: http://qz.com/384041/why-black-south-africans-are-only-attacking-foreign-africans-but-not-foreign-whites/ Accessed on the 7th of August, 2016.

Unemployment, anger over inequality drives xenophobic attacks – report . 2015 [online] Published by news24.com website on the 17th of April. Available at: http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/Unemployment-anger-over-inequality-drives-xenophobic-attacks-report-20150417 Accessed on the 23rd of August, 2016.

Warren, Scott. 2015. A New Apartheid: South Africa’s Struggle With Immigration. [online] Published by huffingtonpost.com website on the 1st of September. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/scott-warren/south-africa-immigration-apartheid_b_8068132.html Accessed on the 23rd of September, 2016.

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