Chapter 5: Landscapes from Nelson Mandela's South Africa

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I resisted including South Africa in this project for a long, long time. 

Over the years, when people asked about my work – and heard the words “reconciliation” and “Africa” come out of my mouth – they almost always leapt to the same conclusion without hearing another word: “Oh, you mean like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa?” 

No, I would say, not really. I’m looking at traditions and attitudes deeply embedded in African culture – like mato oput in Uganda, or fambul tok in Sierra Leone. It’s true, I often used the South African word ubuntu when talking about my work. I leaned heavily on its rich meaning (which loosely translates as “because you are, I am”) to explain the extraordinary human interconnectedness I found rooted in the traditions of truth-telling and forgiveness that I was exploring. 

But the TRC of South Africa? I didn’t think it fit. For one thing, it seemed to me to be as much a Western proceeding as it was an African one, with formal hearings and reports in equally formal settings. I was also aware that although the TRC was given high marks for many things – including its “truth” mandate of finally putting on record the horrific abuses of the apartheid era – it was also sharply criticized in many quarters for falling short of its goals, particularly its “reconciliation” mandate. So, no, I would say, not really. 

As time went by, however, I began to re-think my work. If most people I encountered in the West consistently referenced the TRC when talking about reconciliation in Africa, then perhaps I needed to include it – to create a bridge, of sorts, to bring people farther into the heart of my project. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. After all, despite the TRC’s shortcomings, it was still a monumental achievement. And so was the fact that for the first time on the African continent, a minority white power had willingly (in the end) conceded governance to the black majority. And then, of course, there was Nelson Mandela – the extraordinary human being who embodied forgiveness and reconciliation with breathtaking grace in almost everything he did after being released from prison and becoming his country’s first democratically-elected president in 1994. 

But how to do the work – that took me quite a while to figure out. At one point, I thought about making portraits of former political prisoners who had forgiven their prison guards, and of the guards who had been forgiven. I had met a few of those former prisoners, who now serve as guides at the former Robben Island prison, but ultimately that route seemed too contrived, and not a genuine representation of a country that was still working through deep divisions. 

I thought for a while that I would search out the places where the TRC human rights abuses hearings were held – the more than 50 locations where the dark stories of the past were told, where victims came to finally be heard as they recounted what had happened to them, where offenders came to tell what they had done. I thought about making environmental portraits of the locations and trying to find people who had testified. But this, too, seemed too academic, too contrived. 

In the end, I let South Africa guide me to the story I needed to tell. I arrived in May, 2013, still unsure of my direction. I asked questions and listened to what South Africans, black and white, had to say about how far their country had – and hadn’t – come over the past nearly twenty years of democracy. Again and again, I heard the acknowledgment that reconciliation was still an elusive goal, one that might belong to the “born free” generation, the youth born after the fall of apartheid. 

“We have a long way to go in our attitudes towards one another,” my black taxi driver said, as we drove from the airport into Johannesburg. “It will be some time before we are truly a rainbow nation. 

“We have to reconcile in our daily lives,” he said. “You cannot leave that to the TRC. That was an institution that existed for a limited time.” 

As I thought on these conversations, I found myself drawn to the land – and the landscapes – of South Africa. I began to seek out places of contemporary and older history where memories still lingered of events that had defined the country’s past – and thus helped shape its future. I drove across much of the country, and back again, seeking out sites that had shaped both black and white history in South Africa, sites that in many ways linked the two groups in ever evolving ways as passing years created new histories. I found battlefields, graveyards, monuments, memorials, new beginnings and old sorrows, each a wordless testament to a country still struggling to become its best self.  

The land, in fact, is where much of the story of South Africa has always played out – from the early displacement of blacks by whites seeking new destinies, to the discovery of diamonds, to bitter battles, to legislation passed 100 years ago by whites that deprived blacks of land ownership in all but marginal sections of the country (legislation that was overturned by the post-apartheid government). And land is where much of South Africa’s story continues to play out today – from the discovery of mineral deposits on communal lands and secret deals between mining companies and tribal leaders, to continued battles over land restitution claims resulting from the apartheid era. 

“Each one of us is intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country,” Nelson Mandela said in his inaugural speech in 1994. He understood perfectly that the land of his beloved South Africa was inseparable from the identity, the hopes and dreams, of its people.  

These are his landscapes, the landscapes of South Africa’s memory – the landscapes of its future. 

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