A selection of photos that appear in EarthSongs

“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.”

– Paul Weinberg

Excerpt from the essay “Sanctuary” that appears in EarthSongs

by Hlonipha Mokoena

Sanctuary is what we seek — not cure, not vaccine, not care. Sanctuary is a place where we can fly through the open doors of redemption, lay our confessions down and be redeemed. This is a place where every knock is answered and every plea is heard. Sanctuary is the fountain of clear, cool water where we seek to quench our thirsts. It is the place where our knuckles will not be torn and bruised by constant banging. It is the place where we imagine we will find ourselves again, dream the dreams we had forsaken, embrace the loves we had rejected and re-ignite the passions we had quelled. In our febrile imaginations, sanctuary would right all the wrongs and cleanse all our iniquities. It is why, in our dark corners, we mutter prayers to unknown gods and neglected ancestors. It is why we are attending to our supplications and bowing to our discarded gurus. It is that hour when to be human is to be a groveller, a penitent, a worm, raising hands skyward in the hope that providence will offer succour. This plea for sanctuary is at present parching our throats and cracking our lips because we are the unknown gods and neglected ancestors. This is the invitation that Paul Weinberg’s Earth Songs delivers to us — come and live in a sanctified world.

In making these opening statements on Weinberg’s photographs, I am not attempting to argue that, as humans, we don’t deserve the modernity we have crafted. This is not even an attempt to hold up Nature and argue that it is her who has exhausted her patience and is now throwing us off her tired back. This is not even to argue that there is a “lesson” here, that this is a teachable moment, that those who fail to heed the parable will live to reap the whirlwind. There are no sermons here. There is only the stark and painful reality of an event without precedence and of the innumerable and unthinkable consequences. That is the sanctuary we cannot have; the future has been wiped from our foresight and we are left groping in the darkness for a shard of understanding. In Weinberg’s photographs, we are witness to; multiple and polyphonic congregations. Mothers, wives, husbands, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandmothers and grandfathers are photographed in a state of grace — leaving evidence of their humour, incomprehension, irony, tenderness, carelessness, satire, exasperation and fortitude. These communities have been brought together, torn apart, reconnected and reconstituted, and in the instant when I looked at the photographs, I searched for the familiar tropes, the habitual, worn-out and recycled dictions. And just as I was about to fall back on the dependable maxims, I caught in the wind Miles Davis blowing on his horn and I heard it for the first time, the lilting and pulsating desire for a place where there are no sinners, only saints. In the intervals between propulsive and sharp phrases, Davis opened the space for the drummer to gallop in — fast, furious, unbridled. This is the sound that would open the caverns, the haunts, the fountains, the wellsprings of the sanctuary.

“Sanctuary is what we seek — not cure, not vaccine, not care. Sanctuary is a place where we can fly through the open doors of redemption, lay our confessions down and be redeemed.”

– Hlonipha Mokoena

More information about the images used on this page

On 24 May 1921, 800 white policemen and soldiers confronted an African prophet, Enoch Mgijima, and some 3 000 of his Israelite followers, killing 200 of them, Nthabelanga, Bulhoek Massacre site, Eastern Cape.

On the morning of 24 May 1921, a force consisting of 800 white policemen and soldiers confronted an African prophet, Enoch Mgijima, and some 3 000 of his followers at their holy village of Nthabelanga in the Eastern Cape. Called the Israelites, Mgijima’s followers had been gathering at the holy site since early 1919 to await the end of the world. They refused all attempts by the authorities to remove them from the site. With rifles, machine guns, and cannons, the government forces killed nearly 200 Israelites who challenged them with knobkerries, swords, and spears. This massacre has been likened to Sharpeville and Marikana, but while political convictions animated the resistance in 1960 and 2012, the so-called Bulhoek massacre saw state forces arraigned against the visions of a prophet and the religious beliefs of his followers.

Melville Koppies, one of the few rich prehistoric sites that were left in Johannesburg after the development of gold mines. Today, various spiritual practices of ancestral worship and Zion church services occur at the Koppies, Johannesburg, Gauteng.

Layers of history are buried in the Melville Koppies landscape on one of the few remaining archaeological sites in Johannesburg. Archaeologist Revil Mason found early hominid sites dating back some 250 000 years, a San settlement in a cave dating back 100 000 years and more recent Iron Age Tswana settlements from about 500 years ago. Mason was able to show a grouping of people who practised pastoralism, agriculture, metal craft and were involved in trade. The Tswana people lived in this area until about 1820 when they fled from Mzilikazi who in turn was on the run from Shaka. The discovery of gold and the subsequent development of mines in the late  19th  century  led  to  the  destruction of much of this region’s rich social history. Today, a variety of Zion Church groups and izangoma (spiritual practitioners) regularly visit this space, adding further layers of cultural life and history.

A non-stop church meets every day on the mountain behind Muizenberg for worshippers, mainly from Burundi, but is also a haven for many other foreign Africans. Many believers travel from townships on the Cape Flats to attend ceremonies, Peck’s Peak, Muizenberg, Cape Town, Western Cape.

A non-stop church meets every day on Pecks Peak behind Muizenberg in Cape Town. The group is mainly from Burundi but also offers a haven for many other foreign Africans who come from townships on the Cape Flats to attend these ceremonies. Like the small Nigerian church gathering on Signal Hill, this small outdoor church attracts a steady flow of followers. I met Zimbabweans, Rwandans, Malawians and people from the DRC on the way up the mountain. The preacher told me his story, which could probably be repeated by all on the mountain trail. “It was very difficult to get here. I left my country because of unstable politics. I do piecework to support my wife and two children. Even though I’ve been here for 14 years, I still struggle to get formal work because I am not registered as I don’t have citizenship.” The view from the church site stretches from the Indian Ocean to Cape Town’s Flats and endlessly north, to those places from which the congregants have come. Two days before my visit, there were attacks against foreigners in the country. Lost in prayer and speaking in French, snuggled in the fold of the mountain, this small group were safe amongst each other in their temporary sanctuary.

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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