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Page last updated at 10:13 GMT, Monday, 4 May 2009 11:13 UK

South Africa's Bang Bang Club goes Hollywood

By Peter Biles
BBC Southern Africa Correspondent

Khumalo Street in the Thokoza township south-east of Johannesburg is again echoing to the sound of war chants and gunfire, just as it did in the early 1990s, when the violence threw doubt on South Africa's emergence from white minority rule.

Greg Marinovich photographer and advisor to "The Bang Bang Club"
It's such a long time ago and you'd think you'd be immune to it now, but we're not
Greg Marinovich (centre)

Zulu Inkatha-supporting hostel dwellers and members of the ANC-affiliated Self-Defence Units square up to each other along the main street of this township.

Only now, the fighters are firing blanks from their AK 47s and lobbying polystyrene "stones".

The action in Khumalo Street forms part of a new Hollywood film, The Bang Bang Club, based on a book that was first published eight years ago.

It is the story of four young South African photographers who worked together and captured many of the iconic images of the political violence that characterised the end of the apartheid era.

One of the photographers, Greg Marinovich, who is working as a consultant with the production team, says the making of the film has brought back a welter of memories, including fear, exhilaration and heartache.

"It's such a long time ago and you'd think you'd be immune to it now, but we're not," he says.

"The film has been done so realistically, and so many of the issues which the people in Khumalo Street faced, are unresolved. Fifteen years on, their trauma has never been dealt with".

Marinovich breaks off to console Dominic Mahlangu, a Thokoza resident who was actively involved in the conflict of the 1990s.

The film's re-enactment of a Zulu charge against the ANC "Comrades" brings tears to the eyes of Marinovich and Mahlangu, as they remember the real events of 1994, leading up to South Africa's first democratic elections.

Nine days before those historic elections, Greg Marinovich was shot and wounded during the battles in Thokoza. His photographer friend, Ken Oosterbroek, was killed the same day.

Joao Silva and Kevin Carter were the other members of the "Bang Bang Club", so-called because of the violent nature of their photographic assignments.

'Death spasm'

Dominic Mahlangu, who now works as a journalist in Johannesburg, explains that there was no effective government in South Africa at the time of the 1994 unrest in Thokoza.

"It was war. It was carnage. A lot of people died at that time, including guys I grew up with".

This is one of the stories of South Africa's political freedom that's not been told
Stephen Silver

Mahlangu says Khumalo Street was a no-go area in those days, but political freedom brought normality to the township.

"We can now walk in this same street at night, and those of us who survived are grateful for that. "

In the lead-up to the landmark elections, right-wing elements in the white security apparatus were accused of supporting fighters from the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party, in order to foment unrest, and undermine the ANC.

There was a low intensity civil war in parts of Natal (now Kwazulu-Natal), and there was also violence in the townships around Johannesburg where Zulu workers lived in single men's hostels, in places like Thokoza.

"The period between [Nelson] Mandela's release from prison [February 1990] and the first democratic election [April 1994] was extraordinarily violent. More people died in that four-year period than in 30 years of apartheid," Bang Bang Club director Stephen Silver, says.

"This is one of the stories of South Africa's political freedom that's not been told."

Silver had to negotiate with many of the former fighters in Thokoza when he set out to depict the bloody events.

He discovered that members of the Self-Defence Units were still living in the township. Many have been hired as extras in the film.

"The period in question was apartheid's last death spasm," says Silver.

"It would have been hidden, had it not been for the photographs which the members of The Bang Bang Club took.

"They shone a light on a nasty covert war that was being waged to try to weaken the ANC's position during the negotiation process. It was very violent, brutal and tragic, and those scars are still there".

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