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The words “We want our land back” spray-painted on a wall in Worcester directed my attention to the matter at hand: I was on the road to hang our show called “Ons Land |Our Land.” Photographer Monique Pelser and I have a visual conversation about the land; how ‘old’ and ‘new’ media vary and concur in their representations of it. I spent the night in Hanover, and in the morning light I skirted the edge of town where dirt roads lure you into the interior. A road like this is hard to resist, but I had a date in Bloemfontein, so I headed back to the dreaded N1. For the first time, I noticed Ngunis on the arid land and the hardy beasts looked good to me.

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When approached by a person with a camera, a cow tends to offer the rear end. But if you sit among them with a pencil and sketchbook, their curiosity gets the better of them and they come up really close. Cows prefer representation by traditional media, clearly.

Monique and I got the show laid out and it was up on the walls in super quick time. The team at the Oliewenhuis were a pleasure to work with and we were treated like kings, housed and fed on the estate, our media and transport costs subsidised. All of this goes via the conduit of the National Museum in Bloemfontein, which is funded by the department of Arts and Culture. Think about that (rather than Nkandla) when filling in your IRP6 forms, fellow taxpayers. Professor Tony Ulyatt gave us a smart and insightful opening talk; asking questions like “What do we mean when we say OUR land, and who, exactly are WE to claim it?” You only have to drive past a cemetery to understand that the idea of us owning the land is illusory.

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I postponed the search for the Maluti site and got on the road home. On the N1 I noticed grimy people, absolute down and outers, tramping along, eyes fixed on the side of the road, voices in their heads driving them on. How do they survive out here without food and water? There were many stoppages for roadworks, much jostling for position amongst big trucks, and some pretty bad driving. I saw burnt out car wrecks, vervet monkeys, and crows circling overhead. Plastic bags dotted the scrublands where secretary birds once roamed.

Coming around a long slow uphill curve, there was a truck pulling off to the left of the road. As I drove past, I noticed a small troop of baboons on the right, and in my rear view mirror I saw them dashing across the road towards the stationary truck. I thought perhaps the truck driver had a thing for the baboons, that perhaps once a week he stopped at that nondescript place and had his lunch and fed the baboons, which broke the tedium and loneliness of the long haul south. And then I thought he was feeding them because he wanted to kill one to sell to a sangoma for muti. Strange thoughts one has on the open road. Strange land.

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J H Pierneef’s Station Panels are cornerstones of South African landscape painting. They were placed in the old Johannesburg Station as adverts to travel the country.

But did these alluring places ever really exist? And how have they changed?

Taking up the invitation to travel 80 years later, Carl Becker set off to find out.

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