“Although our connection to the land, whether it be spiritual, metaphysical or political, is rooted in the past, it is in no way limited to the past. We are driven by a belief that there is something larger than ourselves, something that helps give our lives meaning and purpose. This collection is an attempt to give form to that belief while inspiring us to marvel at the simple beauty this country offers.”

– Prof Vasu Reddy, Dean: Faculty of Humanities, University of Pretoria

Author’s statement by Paul Weinberg

“Our belief is that land is a gift from God and from our ancestors who have not left us. We continue to see ourselves as stewards of God’s resources, especially of communally owned land.” 

Nkosi, Spirituality, Land and Land reform in South Africa

Earth Songs explores and celebrates spiritual connections to the land in South Africa. While the ownership of “land” in this country is a highly contested issue, people have long marked and celebrated their spiritual connections to the land in ways that signify and re-imagine what it means for a variety of its inhabitants. Such meaning-making often etches the landscape, turning  it into a natural canvass through which layered stories, manifest or buried, are expressed.

In quiet ways beyond the news and headlines, people of all traditions, persuasions, faiths and spiritual engagements partake in formal and informal rituals that mark the land in ways that align with their beliefs. They may go on pilgrimages, or re-ritualise places of archaeological, historical and cultural significance. Such rituals may take place in makeshift places of worship, in caves, next to rivers, or in churches, temples and mosques. In some instances, these spiritual sites are well-known, like Mount Nhlangakazi, the endpoint of a 50 km pilgrimage for thousands of followers of the Ibanda lamaNazaretha (Shembe Church). In others, as in the case of Twee Rivieren, where a small statue at the confluence of the Swart and Liesbeek rivers in Cape Town pays homage to the brave Goringhaiqua Khoi who defeated the first colonisers in 1510, these sites are less known. The lesser-known sites often tell stories of contest and simultaneous spiritual significance that need to be told more volubly and heard more widely.

My project explores many of these lesser-known, lesser-recognised, off-the-beaten-track, unusual sites of spiritual practice and ritual, bringing to the surface histories that are often muted or erased. Collectively, this work is an amalgam of spiritual connections to our land that celebrates our diversity, engages with our past and, for many, transcends the everyday. This project complements and expands on the extensive book I did on rituals and spiritual practice called Moving Spirit (1996–2006). It hopefully offers another way of understanding our country and reflects the essence of spirituality that lies deeply embedded in our land. 

Paul Weinberg

“This remarkable book is a catalog of ritual practices in place, yet it imagines a religiosity not fettered by territory or culture. Weinberg is a sage among visual storytellers.
By gently following the paths of people in prayer, he gives testimony to the value of land beyond property and production, and to the spiritual power of photography itself.”

– Staffan Löfving, Karsltad University, Sweden

Foreword by Karen Leigh Harris, PhD

Department of Historical and Heritage Studies, University of Pretoria

Land remains one of the most political and contested elements of South Africa’s past and present. From the first encounters between indigenous inhabitants to later colonialists, segregationists and the more recent democrats, land has been used to divide the country and her people.

But it has also drawn her people closer to her, enfolding them in a very sacred embrace. In this pristine collection of visuals, Paul Weinberg takes us to this side of the continuum, elevating the meaning of land to this higher, more spiritual plane.

Weinberg has traversed the breadth of the South African landscape to portray its deep and intrinsic meaning and encapsulate the inter-connections of cultures and peoples across the spectrum of time. He traces these intersections from the first peoples, the San and Khoi, whose domain this land was for centuries, to those who came from elsewhere on the continent and from across the seas. His moving imagery harnesses the spiritual rituals of a cross-section of southern Africa’s belief systems – indigenous, Muslim, Jewish, Zionist, Roman Catholic, Buddhist and more. As you page through these visuals, you will have the unique opportunity to gaze differently, and with deference, at the world we inhabit.

In a sense, Earth Songs eloquently draws together the ethereal or intangible realm of belief and ritual with the very tangible soil that makes up our landscape. As the title indicates, it chants the songs of the people who inhabit this southern stretch of African earth.

“Life is the binding and connecting way….if you are alive, you are connected to everything that one has around us and that oneness is the land…the land owns us.”

– Bob Randall, Aboriginal elder

More information about the images used on this page

The San signified their spiritual connections to the land through rock engravings and paintings. Here, the /Xam people would invoke the rain, Springbokoog, North Northern Cape.

The San signified their spiritual connections to the land through rock engravings and paintings. One San group, the /Xam people, would invoke rain through a ritual rain-maker who would lead a water-bull to a site where they wanted rain to fall. The bull would be sacrificed, with the flow of blood signifying the flow of rain. Archaeologist Jeanette Deacon’s research has connected physical engravings with 19th-century testimonies of /Xam informants who shared their stories with Bleek and Lloyd. She notes, “the cosmos that linked the ground and waterhole with the spiritual realm in the sky is referred to in the rock engravings through metaphors and activities of the !gi:ten (rain-maker) as they communicated with the spirit world.”

Every year, the followers of the Ibanda lamaNazaretha (Shembe Church) embark on a 50 km pilgrimage from Inanda to Mount Nhlangakazi, the Shembe Church’s holy mountain, where the founding prophet is said to have received revelations from God, Nhlangakazi, KwaZulu-Natal.

Every year, the followers of the Ibanda lamaNazaretha (Shembe Church) embark on a pilgrimage from Inanda to Mount Nhlangakazi, 50 kms away. Church followers believe that it was on this holy mountain that the church founder, Isaiah Shembe, received the revelations that constitute the bedrock of their faith. Here, they pray several times a day and dance a slow Zulu rhythmic beat accompanied with drums and at one time, horns, but by trumpets today (not unlike a vuvuzela). It is a performance which one devotee described as, “dancing for God.”

For many surfers in South Africa and around the world, there is a strong connection between big wave surfing and spirituality, Dungeons, Hout Bay, Cape Town, Western Cape.

In South Africa, as in some other parts of the world, there is a strong connection between big wave surfing and spirituality. Dungeons, near Hout Bay, is one of the top big wave surfing spots in the world. People refer to the connection between surfing and spirituality as a release, a meditation, and a oneness with nature. Soul surfer Keith Glendon describes this connection as follows: “The sea holds a magic for those of us who know her. A magic so simple, pure and powerful it works as an unseen force in our souls. We’re drawn to her. The spirit of the sea moves in us as we move within her, undulating folds in pursuit of our peace. As surfers, we inherently know this to be so. The sea brings comfort, solace, release and escape. The sea brings healing. The spirit of the sea, for some of us, is the very essence of life.

Page sample from EarthSongs

Paul Weinberg, author of EarthSongs

Paul Weinberg is a photographer, curator, filmmaker, writer, educationist and archivist. He began his career in the early 1980s by working for South African NGOs and photographing current events for news agencies and foreign newspapers. He was a founder member of Afrapix and South, the collective photo agencies that gained local and international recognition for their uncompromising role in documenting apartheid, and popular resistance to it. From 1990 onwards he increasingly concentrated on feature and in-depth project based photography.

He has produced 19 books as a photographer and author in his own right and been published in many anthologies and group projects. Weinberg has exhibited widely, locally and internationally.

He taught photography at the Centre of Documentary Studies at Duke University in the United State and holds a master’s degree from the same university. Weinberg lectured in Documentary Arts and Visual Anthropology at UCT and is currently a research associate at the South African Research Chair in South African Art and Visual Culture, University of Johannesburg.

Together with David Goldblatt, he founded the Ernest Cole Award for creative photography in South Africa. He has worked extensively in the field of photographic archives and presently works as the curator for the Photography Legacy Project.

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