Transition: Contested landscapes in South Africa

A photography essay including work by Philippe Chancel, Raphaël Dallaporta, Pieter Hugo, Santu Mofokeng, Zanele Muholi, Jo Ractliffe, Thabiso Sekgala and Alain Willaume. Photography Editor: Rebecca McClelland.

Philip Maughan writes: In southern Africa, landscape photography is always political. The lens was a key tool in the appropriation of land by Europeans. In 1858, the Scottish missionary David Livingstone asked his brother Charles to photograph an expedition to the Victoria Falls (which he had “discovered” in 1855). He wanted “to extend the knowledge already attained of the geography and mineral and agricultural resources” there, in the hope that “raw material” might be “exported to England in return for British manufactures”.

When those that followed came to depict the land for its own sake, they relied on a visual aesthetic adopted from French art. They did not record the landscape: they “invented” it. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, white salon photographers developed an iconography that aimed to reveal a virgin territory whose mountains, plains and tribal inhabitants illustrated the grandeur of the imperial project.

A century after the Natives Land Act 1913, which restricted black South Africans from legally acquiring land, a group of photographers affiliated with Johannesburg’s Market Photo Workshop, founded by David Goldblatt, and with Les Rencontres d’Arles in France has produced a body of work to interrogate this complex history.

Questions of ownership, identity, reparation and brutality are wrapped up in images of anti-fracking demonstrations in the Karoo, portraits of platinum miners taken before and after last year’s massacre at Marikana, and the annual Umkhosi Womhlanga, at which 15,000 young women are investigated, and then celebrated, for their chastity.

“South Africa is such a fractured, schizophrenic, wounded and problematic place,” says Pieter Hugo (left), whose contribution to the project focuses on the roads around gold mines, coming full circle on Livingstone’s hunt for “raw material”. “I am looking for images that reflect the aftermath and psychology of the failed colonial experiment.”
 

Pieter Hugo (above)
Johannesburg, Gauteng Province
The South African Pieter Hugo was commissioned to take landscape photographs and chose to focus on the Witwatersrand, the gold mining region that surrounds Johannesburg. He meandered along the city’s Main Reef Road, which connects the towns that have sprung up close to the mines. Hugo was attracted to the notion that Main Reef Road is a modern equivalent of the Roman Via Appia. “All South Africa’s wealth was generated along this road,” he says.

 

Jo Ractliffe (above)
Schmidtsdrift and Platfontein, Northern Cape Province
For the past five years from her base in Johannesburg, Jo Ractliffe has focused on the aftermath of the Angolan civil war, which began in 1975. Recently she has been exploring old South African Defence Force bases. Black settlers were expelled from these small towns in the 1950s to 1970s. There were training camps here during the 1966-89 “border war”, and then the SADF relocated recruits from Angola to the sites during the transition from apartheid. “There are conflicting narratives,” Ractliffe says. “There were reports of people being forced to volunteer. But then there are other stories, saying the SADF saved them. We fled Angola, they say, as if the passage to South Africa was the passage out of slavery.”

Philippe Chancel (above)
Magopa, North-West Province
It is hard to determine the borders of the Magopa region precisely, as it was wiped off the map years ago. Black settlers bought the land, originally Bakwena territory, from Afrikaner farmers in the early 20th century and lived here until 1983, when the apartheid government drove them out. Large diamond and platinum mining companies have since turned the land inside out and fostered the creation of townships. Philippe Chancel visited Lonmin’s concession at Marikana before and after the strike that led to the killing of 34 miners last August. “Even the South African media called it a massacre,” he says. “It was impossible to remain indifferent.” The grey slag churned from the earth contrasts starkly with the reddish rock.

 

Thabiso Sekgala (above)
Magopa, North-West Province
Thabiso Sekgala was born in Soweto in 1981. In 2012 he and Philippe Chancel travelled to Magopa to investigate the problem of contemporary restitution of land in the so-called Black Spots, from which black South Africans were expelled under the apartheid-era “forced removals” programme. He took these photographs around Marikana, where the inhabitants live in rudimentary shelters, without electricity, dwarfed by the cables and pylons that power the mines.

 

Raphaël Dallaporta (above)
Johannesburg, Gauteng Province
Raphaël Dallaporta worked in Afghanistan before coming to South Africa. There he collaborated with archaeologists in remote areas and found that standard documentary techniques were unsuitable. Instead he developed an “inhuman”, aerial point-of-view, which conceives of the land in terms
of resources or from the perspective of a military strategist. The photographs were taken using a remote-controlled helicopter with six propellers – a “drone”.

Alain Willaume (above)
Karoo
The Frenchman Alain Willaume travelled to the semi-arid Karoo to document new interest in the region, spurred by the presumed large underground reserves of shale gas and prospects of exploiting them by fracking. “It’s like a wandering black hole,” Willaume says. “A landscape living on borrowed time, the unreal sucking in the real.” No fracking sites exist yet, so it took time to decide what to photograph.

 

Santu Mofokeng (above)
Karoo
Santu Mofokeng’s meditations on landscape concern areas of the Karoo under investigation by Shell, which plans to exploit local reserves of shale gas. “Whose land is this anyway? There’s going to be fracking everywhere you have shale,” Mofokeng says. “It does not matter if the government is corrupt or weak – the only way to stop fracking in this country is if all people speak with one voice. It can be used as an opportunity to bring together different peoples in a fight against this scourge and use the unifying energy to pursue nation-building.”

Zanele Muholi (above)
KwaZulu-Natal Province
The artist and visual activist Zanele Muholi was born in a township in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. She returned to her home province in the east of South Africa to take pictures of the annual Umkhosi Womhlanga (or Reed Dance), at which 15,000 young women gather for a ceremony to recognise their virginity. “The young women must be checked to ascertain that they are virgins in order to join the celebrations,” Muholi explains. “Tradition puts value on a woman who is still a virgin upon marriage. This event is a source of pride for young mothers and the women raising them, but it is also criticised.” She also attended the funeral of Mandisa Mbambo (far right) in Durban. Mandisa, a 33-year-old football player who was a lesbian, was found at her home in August 2012. She had been raped and murdered.

"Transition" is at the Atelier de Mécanique, Parc de Arles, in the Rencontres d'Arles photography festival in Arles, Bouches-du-Rhône, France, until 22 September rencontres-arles.com marketphotoworkshop.co.za

Sponsored by South Africa France Seasons 2012 & 2013. With the support of: Areva, Air France, Bouygues Travaux Publics, EDF, GDF-Suez, Mazars, Fondation Orange, Total.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage