New Photography Book Depicts the South African Social Landscape

Between 2012 and 2013, an exercise took place known as the France South Africa Season. This bilateral initiative was aimed at strengthening relations between the two countries. In 2012 South Africa hosted France for a wide range of activities and vice versa in 2013. The activities took place in different areas of each country, covering various sectors, including arts and culture, business and investment, science and technology, tourism, sports and education. One of a number of outcomes of the agreement was the publication of a jointly produced photo book called Transition.

The Johannesburg based Market Photography Workshop, together with members of the French photography collective Les Recontres d’Arles, conceptualized a project in response to the France South Africa Season. The result was The Social Landscape project, on which the Transition book is based. The project investigated ideas around broad definitions of social landscape photography.

For the project, twelve photographers, six South African and six French, were expected to work in pairs to produce conceptual bodies of work from across South Africa. This worked better in some cases than others.

South African Thabiso Sekgala worked alongside Frenchman Philippe Chancel to engage with the issue of land ownership, mass social engineering and ‘black spots’ that occurred in the 1980’s as the Nationalist Afrikaner apartheid government forcibly relocated black communities to designated homelands. ‘Black Spots’ were areas of land illegally held by black communities under apartheid law. The pair investigated the Magopa ‘Black Spot’, an area near Marikana, where a massacre of protesting mineworkers happened at the time of the commission.

French photographer Raphaël Dallaporta and South African Pieter Hugo examined mining and mine-dumps. Hugo focused on the Main Reef Road, an arterial connecting road that ran through this scenario, while Dallaporta used a drone mounted camera to produce aerial images of the environmental devastation caused by mining, which he equated to the images of diseased lungs he had taken in the past.

French photographer Alain Willaume and South African Santu Mofokeng explored fracking operations in the Karoo as well as the MeerKAT radio telescope in the nearby the town of Carnarvon. Willaume utilized metaphor through dust clouds generated by vehicles on the dusty gravel roads of the Karoo to depict the non-existent fracking operations. Mofokeng reflected on the divisions which exist between the communities at risk of being affected by fracking technology and the need to bring economic redress to the dispossessed and marginalized within this environment.

Harry Gruyaert and I both worked in the Eastern Cape, though disconnected by our timing and availability. Gruyaert investigated the contrast between the leisure land sport lifestyles of the affluent and lives of people in nearby townships. I engaged with the One Hundred Year War, or Frontier War of dispossession between the British and the Xhosa, which took place between 1789 and 1879, revisiting the landscapes that inspired this act of war, and its consequences (photos above and below).

 Memorial to the battle of 1819 in which Makana's forces attacked the garrison of Grahamstown. Over a thousand warriors were slain in this battle. Egazini, Grahamstown. Eastern Cape. 2012.
Memorial to the battle of 1819 in which Makana’s forces attacked the garrison of Grahamstown. Over a thousand warriors were slain in this battle. Egazini, Grahamstown. Eastern Cape. 2012. Photo © Cedric Nunn

South African Jo Ractliffe engaged with the story of the indigenous San war veterans who participated in the 31/201 Battalion in the apartheid border wars, in particular in Angola. The San now have been relocated to Schmidtsdrift and Platfontein in the Kimberley region of the Northern Cape. Her French counterpart Patrick Tournebœuf, explored traces of the past in the present of the mining town of Kimberley, home to the very first diamond mining rush in the late 19th century.

South African Zanele Muholi continued her interest in gender-based issues by focusing on the murder of a gay citizen in her home province of KwaZulu Natal as well as the reed ceremony which honours chastity in young women. Frenchman Thibaut Cuisset explored the periphery of the underground and opencast mining operations next to Mapungubwe National Park in Limpopo. Mapungubwe is of course the location of an ancient African gold mining people.

Mining and labour, wars, gender based violence, celebrations of womanhood and legacies of wealth and exploitation were the focus of these commissions. Yet reflecting on the theme of the project – social landscape – what was conspicuously absent was the ongoing contestation around land ownership. Not one commission dealt with the sometimes-controversial land claim issues, of which there are many. Black landowners, or those who dwell on the land were largely absent, not even as labourers. It could seem as though the Land Claims Court did not exist. South Africa rivals the United States for instance in its adoption of monoculture and fossil fuel based approach to agriculture, and crops such as maize and cotton are roughly 95% genetically modified. These issues also didn’t feature in the project.

The focus on mining and environmental issues was influenced by the current prominence of such topics in the South African political and popular discourse. Mining is one of the areas identified as key in developing black entrepreneurs, and a slew of new concessions has been handed to black owned or black majority share mining companies, opening up large areas for new operations. Yet the dominance of these issues overshadowed other critical land rights centered topics.

The fruits of dispossession. Soil erosion due to over-crowding and over grazing in KwaNdhlambe Village. Peddie. Eastern Cape. 2012.
The fruits of dispossession. Soil erosion due to over-crowding and over grazing in KwaNdhlambe Village. Peddie. Eastern Cape. 2012. Photo © Cedric Nunn

My own personal misgivings centered around my awareness of the attitude France brings to cultural relations in general. My understanding is that culture is closely related to foreign relations in the French government. The present contestation around African resources in particular (France was a major adherent of military engagement in Libya at the time of the project, and the Mali intervention was brewing), and its intervention in the affairs of Côte d’Ivoire had just recently happened. I saw the Social Landscape intervention in this jaundiced light. I wondered if there was not a happy coincidence in an image audit of much-desired resources, namely minerals and land, and whether this cosying up between these two countries had some bearing on these recent developments.

I continue to pursue work begun on this collaboration and plan to produce a book and exhibition in mid-2014.

The book “Transition” is available now from Market Photo Workshop. For more images, see here.

Further Reading

On safari

Our annual publishing break coincides with the 10th anniversary of the Marikana massacre. We are planning a public event on August 20th to reflect on its legacies.

Tricky coalitions

The challenge presented by Argentina: What is the best way to deal with global fiscal pressures in a local context of high expectations and public demands?

AMLO’s way

Mexico’s president has a mandate for radical change, but this change must be negotiated within a context of limits produced by the neoliberal period itself.