By Ettioné Ferreira
At the heart of the Africa Media Matrix I found Joe Alfers sitting quietly in his office; the same office that will become an empty shell for the next few months. The School of JMS is losing not only our Technology Manager but a mentor; a visionary and a friend. Alfers closes his office door for the last time on Friday 11 December to embark on a new chapter as he will be joining his wife in Muscat, Oman.
Joe’s wife Helen has lived in Oman for the past seven years where she is a lecturer in English at a tertiary college. During July and August she comes to South Africa to live with her husband and in November and December Joe flies to Oman to live with her. “I can’t say that we never see each other, we see each other a lot – but it’s not ideal,” Alfers says.
My first reaction to his decision to move to an Arab country was news headlines flashing in my mind of Pierre Korkie, the South African hostage who died in Yemen at the hands of Al Qaeda. Joe however assures me that Oman is peaceful and safe, “The people are very friendly and the Sultan is exceptional. He has been ruling over the country for 45 years and has transformed it.” The geography of the country also sounds idyllic with parts desert and other parts with a landscape resembling the Eastern Cape’s mountains and green thicket, as Joe describes it. Oman sounds like a photographer’s playground which will certainly benefit Joe. Oman sounds like a photographer’s playground which will certainly benefit Joe. Photographer is an entire alter ego for Joe, a side of him which only his long-time colleagues and friends have encountered.
His photography career started when he worked as a photographer at Eric’s Studio in Pietermaritzburg three years after graduating with a BA LLB degree in 1972 at what was then the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg. Law in the 70s seemed like a difficult choice for a man who did not agree with the governing party at the time. His stance against apartheid had him fired from the Justice Department in 1974; alongside Judge Lee Bozalek, who now serves in the High Court of the Western Cape. This change of path from law led him to his passion for photography and he entered the world of media which would pave the way for the rest of his career. From Eric’s Studio he received an opportunity to work as photographer at The Natal Witness and later at The Rand Daily Mail, one of South Africa’s most influential newspapers of the 70s. As a photographer he made a name for himself and has taken photographs of many influential figures during the apartheid struggle such as Henry Selby Msimang and author Alan Paton.
Joe decided to leave print media and he moved on to work as a photographer on Project ARAL for four years in the 80s. This involved taking photographs to document the extensive rock art of Lesotho, a project which has been revived this year. “Over 25 000 colour slides are archived now at Wits in the Rock Art Research Institute. The project was revived this year because of the project to build the National History Museum in Maseru.” Joe’s keen interest in documentary photography flourished in Lesotho as he started documenting how people in the country fit into the rugged landscapes to call it home while collecting thousands of black and white photographs.
In collaboration with Prof Jeff Guy at the National University of Lesotho, Joe produced a photo-essay depicting the lives of the Basotho people. The essay was featured in Afrapix’s Cordoned Heart book and exhibition. Some of his photographs were also included in the German book, Nicht Wird Uns Trennen in 1983. Afrapix was a freelance photography agency providing newspapers with hard news and documentary photography from 1980-1991, which contributed to the cultural struggle against Apartheid. Joe was invited to join the initiative in the early stages when he met the founders, Omar Badsha and Paul Weinberg in 1980. From Lesotho he joined Dorbyl Heavy Engineering where photographs of the heavy industrial landscapes of Vanderbijlpark filled his camera. And then he moved to Mafikeng where he became the principal producer at the media production studio which was part of the University of North West (then known as the University of Bophuthatswana). He filled this position for more than 11 years and drove many new projects to advance the technology of the studio. The outlet was one of the first in South Africa to use photographic desktop publishing and print in full colour. He also worked with researchers to help document homeland relocations and schools and people who lived in the area.
His work through the Bophuthatswana area was given the Scrimgeour Award for Best Industrial Portfolio in 1985 which he was admitted to the South African Institute of Professional Photographers as an associate.
In 1994 the apartheid system was finally broken with the election of the ANC as the new ruling party of South Africa. To help with the rebuilding of the nation many positions were created and reallocated in the government. Joe was recruited by the government to work as Chief Education Specialist in the North West Education Department. However, Joe had only done seven months in the position when he received news of his wife being recruited by Rhodes as a pioneer teacher in the English Language for Academic Purposes programme which later evolved into the successful Extended Studies programme which is still fully functional at the university. “It was my turn to follow my wife. She’s always followed me wherever my career took me and this was a great opportunity for her. So we headed to Grahamstown. The only available job at the time for me was studio manager for television at the Journalism Department,” Joe says.
This position became production manager for the broadcast specialisation. In 1998 Joe was part of the setting up of CueTV which aired live from the National Arts Festival, broadcasting on the SABC TV channels and later also on MultiChoice. The beginning days were a struggle as Joe explains, “We didn’t have any fancy equipment and had to arrange with the SABC for their mobile studio truck to lend us the equipment for the festival time. We would pack out everything out of the truck in the beginning of fest, set up in our own studio and workspaces and then by the end pack everything back on.”
The project evolved over the years and even received its own channel on MultiChoice with 24-hour broadcasting. The financial constraints were too much however and the channel did not sustain its space on the satellite television provider. “It took a lot of bandwidth in those days to broadcast and it ended up being very expensive for us. It wasn’t as easy as today where we can just live stream from the equipment for free,” Joe says.
In 2003 Joe worked closely with the head of the Journalism and Media Studies Department, Prof Guy Berger, to create a purpose-built building for media production on Rhodes campus – the African Media Matrix. This, he says, was one of the highlights of his career.
The department staff agreed that they needed a technology manager to decide on the type of technology needed in what would become the hub of media education at Rhodes. Joe had years of experience in setting up studios and working with equipment which placed him in the perfect position to advise on these needs for the department. He suggested a four-year equipment and software roll-out plan for the department instead of a yearly one like with other departments. It was this sort of ingenious thinking which gave Joe the ability to set the AMM project in motion. “Guy and I made a good team. He was the visionary and I was the one on the more practical side of the whole project. It worked well,” Joe remembers. In 2006, R24-million later, the hard work paid off and the Africa Media Matrix opened its doors for the first time.
His work in setting the technological base at the AMM has given students many advances in their media production education at Rhodes.
“The thing I’m satisfied with the most is that we created a platform ready for people to use. I’m happy we managed to do that,” Joe says of both CueTV and the other media projects based in the AMM that he helped resource.
As he packs up the office that has been his for nine years there is the bittersweet taste of change. Joe has to say goodbye to the buzzy and busy AMM to embark on a new adventure which he hopes will entail a lot more time for photography. He will spend the next year working on old photographs by digitising negatives, categorising, captioning and editing them. He will also continue working on the rock art archiving project and a project at UCT involving the archiving of South African documentary photography dating back as far as the 1920s.
We bid Joe adieu and wish him all the best in his future endeavours and thank him for the wonderful, fruitful years he spent with us at Rhodes JMS.