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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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism