The Mpumalanga escarpment — where high lush cliffs abruptly pierce the hot red earth of the lowlands. It serves as a geo-physical symbol for the edge of the Southern African frontier. A collision point that has inspired countless folktales, has bore witness to centuries of epic warfare and the beginnings of the modern-day story of gold in South Africa.

Today, plantations of foreign trees blanket the landscape while mills churn steam as they pulp pine into paper.In the valleys below, gold mines that have been chiming steel against rock for over 100 years ring their ceaseless chorus. The surrounding terrain is littered with relics of another time — the remnants of a forgotten pre-colonial society and wild descendants of horses abandoned during a failed gold rush over a century ago. In recent times, there has been a mystical reimagining of the region as the site of the oldest civilisation on earth.

Mapalakata is a Bapedi word meaning ‘visitors’, that was used to describe Arab and Indian traders who moved through Southern Africa before the time of European colonisation. The word is not commonly used in the vocabulary of today. This selection of images looks at the transient nature of ‘visitors’ to the landscape.

This body of work questions notions of truth in narrative as it pertains to the landscape. I attempt to draw attention to how the prevailing history of the region is continuously rewritten as dominant groups erase the narratives bound to their predecessors—each driven to occupy the space for the resources that it holds. ‘Truth’ is maintained by those who have the most power, and this power is always dependant on who controls the resources. It is this triangular relationship between truth, land and narrative that I wish to highlight via this selection of images from the body of work, “MAPALAKATA” — still in progress.

Robin Bernstein

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