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Truth: Ruminations on a photograph

By Dr Thirusha Naidu

Ruminations on a photograph of a woman and her malnourished child at the Apartheid Museum Johannesburg, South Africa

Standing amidst signs proclaiming her “Yesterday’s TRUTH”
Pot-bellied, gasp-eyed child slung across her hip
A white ’n black portrait against a brick wall
Strewn, like gold dust onto mine-dumps, from early eGoli
Nowadays displayed across Gold Reef City
A change of address but her story’s the same

An image curated in a monument against Old Evil
High walls, gates, turnstiles, pass-book photos remind
Lest the TRUTH be forgotten.
That through fearless acts and Rhetoric,
Allies outside and enemies within
The winding journey to cast the vote is now complete.

TRUTH revealed and struggle won.
She lingers alone
Her life, unchanged. Her chronicle, TRUTH transposed
Her self and child claimed afresh by New Evil
Today, Rhetoric hypocricising, reasons her plight
New Evil AIDS its cause

Silent past, hushed being
The future rests on her back,
Poverty, pain, domination her lasting legacy?
What TRUTH will Rhetoric have to tell?
When the today’s story is told, its monuments laid
Will she be failed again?

Here, I explain my interpretative position in the poem. I deliberately maintain a lyrical element in the prose. Why?

The first line evokes images of the physical ambiance of the Apartheid Museum which is dominated by the signs and images of the word “truth”. Among the many images of change this photograph of a malnourished woman and her gravely ill child stood out for me as it could just as easily have been an image from the present-day South Africa.

The black and white image is intended to portray the cruel effects of apartheid for women who were restricted to their homes and not allowed to join their husbands who sought work on the mines, while they suffered in rural poverty. The women, previously cast aside like residue from the goldmines, are presented as a travesty of apartheid.

I use the crafted word “curated” to illustrate that this image in this context chastises apartheid for its impact on rural women; however, the reality for rural women in South Africa is little different today. The physical presence of the museum imposes the word “truth” — almost commanding the visitor to experience the museum from a particular perspective.

Ironically the museum is situated across the street from Gold Reef City, a popular entertainment and casino complex symbolising the New South Africa’s preoccupation with material and financial gain. Even this apparent economic progress has not reached rural women.

The physical and architectural structure of the museum is reminiscent of a prison or concentration camp – oppressive and austere. The images and exhibitions call to mind the fervent days of the struggle and the winding route through the building is at once reminiscent of the sinuous road towards the end of apartheid and the twisting queues on that ultimate voting day of April 27 1994. Nevertheless, the rural (South) African woman’s story is very much the same. Women and children of South Africa bear the brunt of a new evil, the scourge of Aids.

Poems in research
Poetic inquiry has become familiar as a means of recording and reporting research findings and here I propose that poetry can be used as a reflective vehicle allowing the researcher assimilate and process swathes of emotion-infused data. I argue that the nature of qualitatively gathered data is such that in the initial stages of data analysis the researcher can become overwhelmed from the data to the extent that it becomes difficult to analyse, interpret, or reflect on.

At this stage, poetic reflection can offer a means to drift into and out of the data without completely losing touch with the voices of participants. It often happens in the process of qualitative research that once the data is collected and sits as a mass of recordings the researcher feels apprehensive to start the analysis process. It can feel like standing at a precipice or fork in the road where a hasty decision about which direction to take can lead to many months spent on the wrong path. Of course, once one is familiar with a specific path it is difficult to seek other routes or realise that one is on an unproductive journey.

Reflective poetry can offer direction by at once offering the researcher a means to consciously address apprehension and start to process initial impressions of the data. At later stages when the researcher is immersed in the data, reflective poetry can be used to access different perspective and impressions on the data as different dimensions emerge. The latter ordinarily becomes increasingly difficult as the researcher becomes more familiar with data. Poetic devices such as metaphor, imagery, personification, etc can stimulate different levels of thought.

The trick to remember is that context is practically everything for determining meaning.

Dr Thirusha Naidu, PhD, is a senior clinical psychologist at King Dinuzulu Hospital Complex in Durban, and lecturer at the department of behavioural medicine, Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Her poetry and research have been published in international academic journals.


  • PsySSA, the Psychological Society of South Africa, is the national professional body for psychology. Committed to transforming and developing psychological theory and practice in South Africa, PsySSA strives to serve the needs and interests of a post-apartheid country by advancing psychology as a science, profession and as a means of promoting human well-being. This blog hopes to engage psychologists and citizens in debating issues, from mental health to the socio-political. Visit

One Comment

  1. Minolee Minolee 13 April 2015

    Reminded me so much of my visit to the museum. Your “rumination” on rhetoric is on point with the pandemic “she” now faces, making the surreal, real. Fantastic poem Dr. Naidu. I would love to read more from you

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