All Photographs by Erica Canepa
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Kleinfontein's community swimming pool was built in 1997. Although the entrance fee is low, kids often climb the fence and get in it without permission.
All Photographs by Erica Canepa

Photographing Inside the Gates of a Closed Community

Erica Canepa ventured into one of South Africa's few remaining white-only settlements to better understand their way of life — what she found was not what she expected.

Italian photographer Erica Canepa describes herself as both “curious” and “stubborn.” Both of which are excellent characteristics for a photographer.

Both traits came in handy while pursuing a recent project on an extremely closed community in South Africa called Kleinfontein. The society, on the outskirts of Pretoria, is home to a small group of Christian Afrikaners who embrace traditional Afrikaner culture and exclude all others from their settlement.

When Canepa started researching the community she couldn’t find any photos of the place, and she wanted to know why. She also wanted to better understand the community members’ unique way of life. Afrikaners, also sometimes called Boers, are descended from mostly Dutch settlers. They maintain a distinct culture and language and are predominately white. Kleinfontein, with a population of around 1,200, is one of South Africa’s few remaining white-only settlements.

Canepa reached out to community leaders to see if they would let her visit. She wanted to stay for five to six days and live with a family there who could help her understand their way of life.

“I started emailing them and they didn’t reply, so I called them, and they said, ‘No,’ and then I finally convinced one of the founders to meet me, and the first thing that he told me was: ‘You will never get into the community.’”

Over the course of a long conversation Canepa explained that she wasn’t interested in sensational journalism but instead wanted to truly understand the community.

“I was really interested in them because it was a story related to the aftermath of apartheid, and I read a lot about South Africa before and after the apartheid, but I didn’t find a lot about the Boers. They are usually portrayed [in a bad light], but I was curious to understand something that was difficult to understand,” said Canepa.

After a month of deliberation and back-and-forth emails, the community leader finally agreed to let Canepa visit Kleinfontein. She then had a hard time finding a family willing to host a journalist, but she was eventually welcomed by Michelle and Louis, a couple in their 40s.

“It was really hard for me to get into the community, but once I was there everyone was really friendly; I honestly didn’t have trouble taking pictures and talking to [people],” she said. “They would see me in the street and invite me into their house. It was interesting, the contrast getting in and how friendly they were once I was there.”

And once inside the community gate—manned 24-hours a day by security—she said she found a warm, safe community of deeply religious people who loved nature and had a helpful spirit. She said she eventually came to understand that their way of life was more about preserving their unique cultural identity than simply keeping “others” out.

“Before going to the community I had a prejudice, but I was trying to get my mind clean to be open. Honestly, I was kind of expecting to find a racist community and, in a way, this is actually what I found. It is more complicated than that, though. I found it’s not about the race; everything is about the culture, and racism became a consequence of their desire to protect themselves and their culture. They think if they live outside the community they will keep mixing with others and will slowly lose their identity.”

Canepa also said the safety of the community surprised her. She found few locked doors, and the children ran around mostly unsupervised. There was also economic diversity—some people were well-off, while others lived in a makeshift squatter camp. There was a special home for the elderly, and almost everyone had a job in the community—with the goal of making the settlement self-sufficient without outside help.

Overall, Canepa said she wants to share what she found in Kleinfontein with a wider audience, to help dispel stereotypes about a group of people who have chosen to isolate themselves from a larger population.

“Basically, I want to show people something that is quite unusual and that not everyone has seen. They really care about their identity and culture, which is something different to me than just being racist. Afrikaans is not only a race—it’s a race, it’s a language, it’s a way of living.”

Erica Canepa is an Italian freelance documentary photographer and videographer. She is passionate about stories that examine the human condition. See more of her work on her website.