Commission French GEO
(see Geo interview below image gallery)
Borderline South Africa
Question and Answer time with Olivia Sedaner.
South Africa’s 3500km long and convoluted border line, which straddles the Indian Ocean from Kosi Bay on the East coast to Alexander Bay on South Africa’s cold Atlantic West coast, wanders diverse landscapes, cuts through socially complex and disparate communities, and demarcates where the developed super power economy of South Africa ends and the ‘rest of Africa’ begins. It could be construed in some ways as the gateway to Africa. Beit bridge the border crossing over the Limpopo river, between South Africa and Zimbabwe is the busiest land border on the continent.
My chance to wander this front line as a photographer, Alexander Bay to Kosi Bay (Manguzi) and back again, for 6 weeks on assignment for GEO magazine, has prompted me to present a limited edition series of images taken on this 11 000km journey. These images help me reflect upon this demarcation in the sand. This fence line. They are a kind of visual debriefing.
1) How was this idea born to do a report along the north borderline of South Africa ?
The borderline idea came about if I remember correctly during the Xenophobia attacks that happened in South Africa in 2008. There was a violent backlash against African immigrants living and working in South Africa by (black) South Africa's who blamed them for stealing their 'jobs'. The majority of the victims were Zimbabwean and Somalians, who comprise the largest numbers of African immigrants in South Africa. Many of them arrive via Beit Bridge, the border post with Zimbabwe.
For nearly a month rampaging black South African's stoned, knifed, shot at those they deemed to be 'outsiders'. It was a time of national crises, and forced many people to consider the implications of ever increasing numbers of foreign nationals arriving in South Africa, applying for political asylum. Also defining who were political and or economic migrants.
That was the debate too...who deserved political asylum. Who should be deported as merely opportunity seekers. Also the political and social meltdown in Zimbabwe was driving thousands of desperate Zimbabweans across the border into South Africa. That was the conduit I think for proposing this idea to Jean Luc Marty. Yes the South African border with Zimbabwe was definitely the coduit.
Both JC and I saw this feature initially as a hard hitting geo political story, but both GEO magazine and also we the authors realized that the border was a multi-faceted subject, and therefore decided to widen our focus to include the diverse geographical and social richness of the subject. Make it more of a travel story that a hard hitting investigative piece.
2) As a South African citizen since 1975 and having realized numerous reports all over his large territory, you know South Africa very well. Did you discover any new things about the country and what was for you the biggest surprise ?
I have traveled extensively in South Africa over the years, so yes I could say that I had traveled the length of South Africa, but what appealed to me about following the land border was that I had a chanced to wander the country across its width. The breath of South Africa. Along its widest point. From edge to edge so to speak. I've often ruminated over the fact that the two bays, Alexander Bay on the cold, sand blasted Atlantic coast, and Kosi bay on the warm tropical Indian ocean sit on almost the same longitudinal line, but are literally miles apart (approx 2000km) and worlds apart in terms of geography, flora and fauna and social ethnicity. There are probably few other 'bays' in one country that could be so different.
It was watching this gradual metamorphosis as I travelled the borderline that left an impression on me, and of course trying to understand the geo political, social, ethnic, geographical complexities of this convoluted fenceline that instills in me a desire to return again and again.
3) Investigating about illegal border migrations and trafficing must have been particularly hard. What were the biggest difficulties you encountered during your reporting ?
Yes, we had difficulties. The South African Police, border post officials and South African Customs and Exercise personnel refused to cooperate with us at all. Without credible accreditation and authorization letters (which we would not have managed to secure even with months of preparation) we were shackled in terms of getting access to all the freight search and border patrolling that is part of SA border story. It's is the movement of people, transporting legal and illicit goods across South Africa's border which is such a big part of the borderline issue. Drugs, human trafficking, cross border prostitutes traveling clandestinely with the long distance truckers, cross border stock (animal/wildlife) theft, and of course cross border wildlife poaching, especially rhino poaching are hugely complicated issues to investigate and certainly document. So for the most part I certainly as the photographer had to think of ways or aspects that I could control in terms of photography.
Examples of this came through befriending a truck driver and an ex policeman in Mussina to help me get pictures of prostitutes at work around the truck stops on the South African side of the border, and the illegal fence jumpers, that daily cut holes in the razor wire & electric fence erected on the Beit Bridge, side of the Zimbabwe, South African border.
Mussina is really the 'hottest zone' in the entire borderline story in terms of legal and illegal activities, and I/we (JC Servant) knew we had to invest a good percentage of our time in Mussina making contacts and defining two or three subjects that would speak volumes about border life. Border issues. Borderlanders. Those that profiteer from living on borderlines!
4) On the border, this in-between-worlds where the realities of both countries are confronting, with more or less violence, you met people who clearly regret the end of the apartheid. Did you know the existence of this endemic racism in this place before your report and do you think that this situation could change in a near future or the relationships between Black and White people are becoming harder and harder ?
Certainly the northern Province, that is the area of South Africa that borders on Zimbabwe, and to a lesser degree Botswana and Mozambique has always been regarded as 'Red Neck' country. Game ranches (wildlife) and hunting lodges abound. Killing animals for fun is the domain of a certain type of person, and those that partake in the sport and provide the facilities and animals to be killed are predominantly of white stock. So too are the hunters both domestically and from abroad. I tend to think that anyone who enjoys killing for fun is going to be biased towards a certain conservative view point and certainly those individuals I photographed living in Mussina and involved in hunting were very quick to lambast the black government and those 'unwanted' immigrants from across the border.
So too many of the agricultural farms in these areas are white owned and there has been plenty of bad press, endorsing the knowledge that these farmers abuse and exploit desperate Zimbabweans and other foreign nationals, who arrived in South Africa feeling tyranny and hunger. There are glaring examples of cyclical patterns of racism, abuse, retribution, hate, anger, distrust on all sides of the ethnic diaspora that is South Africa, and how it deals and relates with its own people and it's neighbors. I tend to think that the history of South Africa has to many degrees been a timeline of one tribe pitted against another, and of inter-tribal violence and plunder, South Africa is a multi-faceted mozaic of ethnicity and it's regional ambitions too as a modern nation are still to a large degree colonialist. Today South Africans are blatantly buying up large tracts of Mozambique, to use for their own gain. This is a glaring example of contemporary colonialism under the guise of South African development and cooperation! I think it will be a long long time before South Africa is a nation of stability and peace, and gains true trust and respect from it's neighbors.
5) You also met tribal people who are living on each side of the border, in a great poverty, and are gradually loosing their ancestral customs, lost in alcohol or drugs. Have you felt that it was the end of a world or would it be a hope for them to survive and keep their way of living ?
I guess one thing that this trip instilled in me was just how much political boundaries, drawn up by 'colonists', have to a large degree played havoc on communities and or 'tribes' that were divided, and separated by these 'border' lines drawn in the sand.
One shining example of this were the communities of San (bushmen), Mier, Nama, Khoi, Baaster decent, torn apart when the fence lines between South Africa and Botswana were literally drawn in the sand of the Kalahari desert, the sacred hunting ground of the bushman people.
Through discussions with members of these disparate communities, scattered both sides of Nossob & Aoab rivers, the natural demarcation line between South Africa and Botswana, bushmen elders and other individuals brought it home to me the absurdity of the concept of national boundaries. Certainly in a place like Twee Revieren or Two Rivers. For who could blame them for illegal fence jumping, when they could almost shout across to their extended family, uncles, nephews, sister and brothers who were living literally less than 0.5 km away on the other opposite side of the demarcation line (a strip of barbed wire fence and a dry river bed) and yet to vist them, they had to travel 25km down to the border control post on the South African side, and then 25km back up the road in Botswana. Totally crazy!
It's really the first time I've seriously considered the true implications of defining South Africa's borders. Any border for that matter.
6) You said that you would like to investigate further on the subject of the South African borderline. Which is the subject that you would particularly develop in a future report ?
The bottom line for me is that this trip I took with Jean Christophe along the border made me realize just what a big story the SA border is, and I hope that I can revist this subject many more time in the future. I'm hoping I can apply for a grant that will give me the financial freedom to explore its myriad complexities in much more detail, and culminate one day in a convincing collection of imagery and text. South Africa in many ways was where the colonial scramble for Africa began, and how it defined it's national boundaries all those years ago is a fascinating subject in its own right. Cecil John Rhodes one of the architects of the now republic of South Africa, went beyond the Limpopo, all the way across Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and even onwards to Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia). South Africa was then and still is a regional powerhouse and some would say a bully.
A lot of how the map of Southern Africa looks today is a result of how colonial South Africa evolved and subjugated its own people and neighbors. Much of that fence line is written in blood.