IN 1980, the first major commission in 60 years to look at poverty in South Africa heard 300 research and academic papers from two dozen universities. Special lawyers, doctors, farmers, pastors, community leaders and others presented findings to the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Children's groups, dramaturgs, dancers, film and video producers brandished their talents in provocative ways. But the most illuminating contributions to the Carnegie inquiry, according to its director, Francis Wilson, was a set of photographic essays submitted by 26 South African photographers.

The essays - excerpts of which are printed on this page - documented as truthfully as they could the conditions of poverty and the people who endure it under South Africa's system of racial apartheid.

``I am taking photographs because one day when something happens and there are changes in South Africa, I want to ensure that people won't be able to say, `We didn't know. We weren't told that these things were happening,'' said photographer Ben Maclennan.

``The photographs themselves demand thoughtful attention because the photographers have tried to go beyond headlines,'' adds director Wilson in a catalog accompanying the exhibition.

But the photographs are all the more compelling for the dearth of both still and video images allowed out of the country since an emergency crackdown in 1985 severely restricted journalistic activity.

The exhibit - entitled ``South Africa: The Cordoned Heart'' - is now on view at the Museum of Cultural History at the University of California at Los Angeles, and is destined for Chicago, Boston, Portland, Vancouver, and elsewhere. It was organized by the Center for Documentary Photography at Duke University and the International Center of Photography in New York.

Although the word ``documentary'' has that plodding, banal ring to it, the images do tell a story. And to call these photographs ``art'' might belittle their content by concentrating on form.

But if the purpose of art is, under philosopher Suzanne Langer's definition, ``to make the felt tensions of life stand still to be looked at,'' then the essays might qualify as that rare occasion when documentary and art become one. In any case, it is the viewers - here intended to be a world of witnesses - who gain immeasurably by the union.

Tension is written on the faces of a nation of blacks trapped by a life of poverty, racism, exploitation. That exploitation is documented in extended captions by the photographers themselves, both black and white.

Some of the photos are gut-wrenching in their poignancy. Others are more subtle, cataloguing a way of life with unemotional distance.

Many of the photos, in fact, appear benign - until you find out the story behind them. Paul Alberts's 1980 photograph of women carrying firewood in Bophuthatswana, for instance: We're told that people living in the Gopane district must walk an average of 14 miles a day to obtain fuel - in a country that produces 60 percent of the entire continent's electricity.

David Goldblatt's ``Night Riders of KwaNdebele'' series shows blacks queued for and riding on buses - buses that leave at 2:45 a.m. for a four-hour commute to work, traversing the immense distance that blacks there are forced to live from their jobs.

And Ben Maclennan's 1980 photo of a man reading becomes more poignant when you realize that the confined stall where he lies is his home-away-from-home - a compound on the grounds of his factory, so far away from family that he sees them only on rare occasions during the year.

``These photographs put a face to all these facets of poverty,'' says Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu, the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town. ``We are not dealing with sets of statistics. We are talking about people of flesh and blood, who laugh and cry, who love and hate. We are talking about men who want to be with their families, husbands who just want to work to be able to feed their children.''

There are so many more stories to round out the full picture of apartheid's repression, in fact, that an ongoing task of the inquiry has been to produce books for publication. The 130 or so photos of this exhibition have been reprinted as the first of a series to encourage public debate.

In the meantime, to photograph or sketch in the so-called ``unrest areas'' without a police-issued press card is now a criminal act. The penalty for breaking the censorship edict is 10 years' imprisonment and/or a fine of 20,000 rand ($10,000).

``You become committed to certain principles,' photographer Myron Peters says in one caption. ``There are a lot of setbacks, but you always know that you must make a contribution, no matter how small, no matter what consequences.''

``These events have once again brought home to us all, artists, photographers, executives, or workers, that we cannot escape the heavy burden of history and that no one can remain neutral,'' writes photographer Omar Badsha, who was refused an exit visa to appear at the exhibit's American opening.

``None of us knows who will survive the coming days, who will succumb and leave the country, who will disappear mysteriously into the night, or who will lose heart in the face of the government's onslaught against its opponents.''

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