07 February 2022

The Erased Narratives Of The South African Escarpment

07 February 2022 - Written by PhMuseum

Robin Berstein´s Mapalakata examines veracity through the relation between landscape and the different groups that controlled the Mpumalanga escarpment.

The Mpumalanga escarpment — where lush cliffs abruptly pierce the hot red earth of the lowlands, serves as a geo-physical symbol for the edge of the Southern African frontier. A collision point that has inspired countless folktales, and 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 a century, 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", it was used to describe Arab and Indian traders who moved through Southern Africa before the time of European colonisation, a word not commonly used in today's vocabulary. 

This selection of images looks at the transient nature of "visitors" to the landscape, questioning notions of truth as it pertains to 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.

Words and Pictures by Robin Bernstein


Robin Bernstein is an African Photographer dealing with socio-spatial issues centred around land, history, myth and globalisation — both within his home country and beyond. His work is made in the context of interactions between him and his subjects, and in turn the interactions they both have with the environment they find themselves in. Follow him on Instagram and PhMuseum.


This feature is part of Story of the Week, a selection of relevant projects from our community handpicked by the PhMuseum curators.

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