The publication Transitions is one of number of outcomes of an agreement known as the France South Africa Season. This exercise, which took place between 2012 and 2013, was aimed at strengthening relations between the two countries. In 2012 South Africa hosted France and vice versa In 2013. It took place in different areas of each country, covered a wide range of activities in different sectors, including arts and culture, business and investment, science and technology, tourism, sports and education.
The Johannesburg based Market Photography Workshop, together with French Les Recontres d’Arles conceptualized a project in response to the French South Africa Season. The Social Landscape project investigated ideas around social landscape photography.
Twelve photographers, six South African and six French were invited to participate, myself included. I engaged with some trepidations, more of which later. French and South African photographers were expected to work together, which worked in most, but not all cases. The photographers are South African Thabiso Sekgala, who engaged with the Magopa ‘Black Spot’ issue of forced removals and mass social engineering around land ownership of the Nationalist Afrikaner apartheid government and Marikana Platinum mining and the massacre which happened at the time of the commission.
Frenchman Philippe Chancel worked alongside Sekgala on these issues.
French photographer Raphael Dallaporta and South African Pieter Hugo investigated mining, mine-dumps and Hugo on an arterial connecting road that ran through this scenario, the Main Reef Road. Dellaporta used a drone mounted camera to produce aerial images of the environmental devastation caused by mining which he equated to being similar to the images of diseased lungs he had done in the past.
French photographer Alaine Willume and South African Santu Mofokeng investigated Fracking in the Karoo and the MeerKAT radio telescope near the town of Carnarvon also in the Karoo. I didn’t quite get the significance of including the telescope into the project, and it seems to have been marginalized by the urgency of the fracking issue. Willume 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 this form of technology and the need to bring economic redress to the dispossessed and marginalized within this environment.
Frenchman 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 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.
South African Jo Ractliffe investigated the indigenous San war veterans who were participated in 31/201 Battalion in the apartheid border wars, in particular in Angola, and who now have been relocated to Schmidtsdrift and Platfontein in the Kimberley region of the Northern Cape.
French photographer Patrick Tournebœuf explored traces of the past in the present of the mining town of Kimberley, which of course inspired the very first diamond mining rush in the late 19th century .
South African Zanele Muholi continued her interest of gender-based issues by focusing on a gay murder and the reed ceremony which honours chastity in young women both in her home province of KwaZulu Natal.
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 and celebrations of womanhood, extremes in wealth and poverty and legacies of wealth and exploitation were the focus of these commissions. What was conspicuously absent was the ongoing contestation around land ownership. Not one commission dealt with for instance 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 didn’t feature in this project.
It was also interesting to see the focus on mining and environmental issues, which are contemporary issues in the South African political and popular discourse, rightly so. 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.
My own personal misgivings centered around my awareness and consciousness, or understanding of the attitude France brings to cultural relations in general, in that my understanding is that culture is closely related to foreign relations in the French government, and the present contestation around African resources in particular (France was a major adherent of military engagement in Libya at the time, and the Mali intervention was brewing), and its intervention in the affairs of Cote d’Voire had just recently happened. I saw this intervention in this jaundiced light. I wondered if there was not a happy coincidence in an image audit of a much-desired resource, namely minerals and land, and whether this cosying up between these two countries had some bearing on these recent developments.
However, to be honest, my lack of resources to engage with project ideas is scarce indeed. As I was at the time sitting on one such idea, which needed resources to get going, I decided to engage with the project on condition that my project idea be agreed on, which was accepted. I continue to pursue work began on this collaboration and plan to produce a book and exhibition in mid 2014.