Drone Photography Reveals How Apartheid Shaped South African Cities

Cape Town-based photographer Johnny Miller captures the divisive architecture left over from apartheid.

In places of racial, economic, or civic inequality, architecture can play a central role in furthering that divide. In South Africa, for example, where the institutionalization of apartheid divided the country and its resources by race from 1948 to 1994, a history of separation and inequality is permanently carved into the built environment. Physical barriers like walls, buildings, and factories often divide wealthy neighborhoods from poor townships on the edge of town. In other cases, tin shacks are just a stone’s throw away from wealthy estates with swimming pools.


Johnny Miller, an American photographer who lives in Cape Town, maintains that the full picture of these discrepancies can be harder to see–or at least, easier to ignore–from the ground. His photo series, Unequal Scenes, shows aerial views of areas of Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban that he took by drone. From the air, patterns of apartheid and post-apartheid urban planning still shows a stark divide between rich and poor, and in many cases, white and nonwhite.

Papwa Sewgolum Golf Course 2

Miller started the series with a photo of Masiphumelele, a poor township on the edge of Cape Town that he passes through on the way to a known surfing beach on the Southern Cape Peninsula. Although he knew that the township was walled off from the surrounding affluent communities–there is only one road to enter and exit the neighborhood–Miller didn’t anticipate the image he captured as his drone soared above it. The resulting photo shows a broad strip of wetland dividing Masiphumelele from the wealthy Lake Michelle neighborhood, which is also surrounded by an electrified fence. Side-by-side, the two neighborhoods illustrate the inequality the country struggles with in a visual language that is both striking and objective.

Masiphumelele/Lake Michelle

He posted the image on his Facebook page and it was shared widely. “The first two comments were from my friends,” he says, but the third and fourth were comments by people who felt the photos unfairly represented South Africa and the progress the country has made since apartheid. Unsure of whether he was suggesting something culturally insensitive or overstepping his boundaries as a foreigner, Miller decided to sleep on it. “When I woke up, I had all of these comments from both sides,” he remembers. “That’s when I realized it incited this lively debate.” The photo now has 1,049 shares and 193 comments, both positive and negative.

Miller has since expanded his series to include townships outside of Cape Town, in the countries two other major cities, Johannesburg and Durban. With only 12 minutes of battery life at a time in his Inspire 1 Quadcopter, his process has to be precise and systematic, with a lot of research on the areas he wants to shoot beforehand. He chooses the neighborhoods using a map created by the Capetonian developer Adrian Smith that uses 2011 census data to visualize race, language, and household income across South Africa. He then searches for satellite views of the area to find the best place from which to shoot.


The photos are shot beautifully, with clarity and vivid color that enhances the architectural patterns of divide. Yet, as Miller notes, there’s nothing new or particularly revealing about the photos; you could go to Google Earth right now and find the same image of the lush manicured hills of Durban’s Papwa Sewgolum golf course, for example, standing just feet from a settlement packed with tin shacks. Or the wealthy estates of the verdant Hout Bay, hidden by trees from the small shack dwellings of the poor Imizamo Yethu suburb.

Regardless, the photos have clearly struck a chord. After receiving so much enthusiasm for the first two photos he posted, Miller set up a separate website for the series and started to attract media attention in South Africa and abroad. He is now giving talks on the series in Cape Town and will release a new photo a day for the next couple of weeks.


When asked why he thinks the photos have resonated with people, Miller points to a restlessness in South Africa in regards to the policies enacted in the ’90s to correct the discrepancies in housing, which many feel have failed to deliver. In 1994, Nelson Mandela launched the Reconstruction and Development Programme, one of the biggest state housing development projects in the world, which has seen more than 3.6 million houses built for free for people with monthly incomes under about $300. But Miller says the program also has had its share of problems, and progress has been stymied by Mandela’s death in 2013. “The amount of welfare that it promises is hard for a tax system to marshall,” he says.

His other theory for the images’ popularity speaks to the response not just in South Africa, but worldwide. Miller suggests that we may have become desensitized to images of human suffering, for no other reason than the disheartening fact that we see it so much. Seeing the disparity so clearly from an architectural perspective has reframed the problem in a new way for people. “For whatever reason, seeing it as a pattern seems to trigger emotions now,” he says.

All Photos: Johnny Miller/Millefoto


About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.