SARA TERRY: Forgiveness + Conflict. Landscapes From Nelson Mandela's South Africa

 (1) East London City Hall Hearing Room
Photograph © Sara Terry 

complete captions below. click on images to enlarge

 (2) Site of the Battle of Paardeberg
Photograph © Sara Terry

 (3) Brandfort
Photograph © Sara Terry

(4) Liliesleaf Farm
Photograph © Sara Terry

(5) Limestone quarry, Robben Island, Western Cape
Photograph © Sara Terry

Text and Images by Sara Terry
Exhibition through May 26, 2018

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. Read More Here

Forgiveness + Conflict: 
Landscapes from Nelson Mandela's South Africa

Photographs by SARA TERRY
Exhibition through May 26, 2018

United Photo Industries Gallery
16 Main St, Brooklyn, NY 11201

Photographer Sara Terry and UPI/Photoville Co-Founder's Sam Barzilay and Dave Shelley (not shown), generously explaining both the history behind this must-see series, as well as the importance of the sequencing of the exhibition, to my School of Visual Arts BFA Photography and Video program Professional Community students.

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Sara Terry is an award-winning documentary photographer and filmmaker, and a member of VII Photo, best known for her work as a post-conflict storyteller. She won a 2012 Guggenheim Fellowship for her long-term project, “Forgiveness and Conflict: Lessons from Africa.” While working on her first long-term post-conflict work, “Aftermath: Bosnia’s Long Road to Peace,” she founded The Aftermath Project in 2003 on the premise that “War is Only Half the Story.” A grant-making, educational non-profit which supports photographers working on post-conflict stories, The Aftermath Project is celebrating its tenth anniversary with a book published by Dewi Lewis and a traveling exhibition in 2018. An accomplished speaker on aftermath and visual literacy issues, Terry’s lectures include a TedX talk, “Storytelling in a Post-Journalism Word,” and several appearances at The Annenberg Space for Photography. Terry has also directed and produced two feature-length documentaries, Fambul Tok (2011) and FOLK (2013). Fambul Tok, about a groundbreaking grass-roots forgiveness program in Sierra Leone, premiered at SXSW in 2011, and grew out of her long-term photo project, “Forgiveness and Conflict: Lessons from Africa.” It was supported by the Sundance Documentary Institute, played at over 100 festivals around the world and was hailed by Paste magazine as one of the best 100 documentaries of all time. Terry became a photographer and filmmaker after a long, award-winning career in print and public radio. She is currently working on her third documentary, “That’s How We Roll,” about mobile home parks and the affordable housing crisis

(1) East London City Hall Hearing Room: EAST LONDON, EASTERN CAPE PROVINCE, SOUTH AFRICA. The room where the first human rights violation hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was held from April 15 -18, 1996. Chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the commission held a series of hearings across the country, taking the testimony of more than 21,000 victims of the apartheid regime. The TRC – with a mandate that included the possibility of amnesty for perpetrators of the regime – was an integral part of the agreements that led South Africa’s white Afrikaner government to agree to democratic elections, which in turn led to the election of Nelson Mandela as the country’s first black president in 1994. However, the hearings were also widely criticized for allowing the highest-level perpetrators (on all sides) to avoid testifying or being held accountable for their crimes. Although the TRC accomplished the monumental task of bringing the abuses of the apartheid era into the open and on to the country’s history books, “reconciliation” remained – and remains today – an elusive goal. May 2013. 

(2) Site of the Battle of Paardeberg: ORANGE FREE STATE, SOUTH AFRICA. One of the major battles of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. On February 18, 1900, British forces began the siege of Boer soldiers led by General Piet Cronje. Ten days and several bloody battles later, the Boers surrendered. The soldiers numbered over 4,000 men – nearly ten percent of the Boer army. The victory was the first significant British win of the war, which lasted from 1899 to 1902, and ended with the Boer republics becoming British colonies. The conflict – and the brutal tactics of the British – helped fuel Afrikaner nationalism and a sense of victimization that were part of the Afrikaner mindset behind the creation of the apartheid state in 1948. May 2013.

(3) Brandfort: ORANGE FREE STATE, SOUTH AFRICA. The remains of information plaques that once held details about the concentration camp for Boers that stood on this site during the Anglo-Boer War. The camp, one of 45 created by the British for Afrikaner during the war, operated from January, 1901, to March, 1903; a total of 1,263 women and children died here. The British practiced a brutal scorched earth policy against Boer farmers during the war. They created tented concentration camps to house those burned off the land, mostly women and children, a policy that is widely considered to be the first modern use of concentration camps in war, and which outraged the British public when news of the camps was revealed. Black South Africans were also placed in concentration camps, where they died in greater number than Boers, a fact often omitted in Afrikaner writings about that period. This memorial site, once carefully tended during the apartheid era, is now completely overgrown and neglected. In 1977, under the apartheid regime, Winnie Mandela, then the wife of Nelson Mandela, was banned to Brandfort by the government for her anti-apartheid activities. May 2013. 

(4)  Liliesleaf Farm: JOHANNESBURG, GAUTENG PROVINCE, SOUTH AFRICA. In the early 1960s, Liliesleaf Farm was secretly used by members of the African National Congress, including Nelson Mandela, who lived at the farm under the assumed name of David Motsamayi, as a worker in blue overalls employed by the owner to look after the farm. In a crushing blow for the ANC and its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, South African security forces raided the farm on July 11, 1963, capturing 19 members of the underground as they were meeting to plan attacks on the government. The raid led to the Rivonia Trial (named after the neighborhood in which Liliesleaf stands), in which ten leaders of the ANC were tried for 221 acts of sabotage, which the government said were designed to “foment violent revolution.” Mandela was among those sentenced to life in prison; he was sent to Robben Island, where he served 18 of his 27 years in captivity. Today, the farm is a national museum, dedicated to keeping awareness of the early liberation struggle alive. May 2013.

(5) Limestone quarry, Robben Island, Western Cape: Political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, were forced to work here, crushing rocks, under conditions so severe that many prisoners suffered eyesight and respiratory problems. The pile of rocks in the center of the quarry was created in 1995, when former political prisoners returned to Robben Island. At one point, Mandela, who had been elected president of South Africa in 1994, stepped away from the group, picked up a rock and dropped it on the ground in the middle of the quarry. One by one, his colleagues followed suit, creating the pile of stones that has remained untouched. Robben Island has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. May 2013.

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