Philippe Chancel


For every mind educated to the values of human rights, for every man fed by the ideals of the 1789 Revolution, that still remain the pillars of our French Republic, apartheid in South Africa appears to be an incommensurate injustice. I have been feeling a sort of incomprehension since my youth against this ideological and political system. South Africa seemed to respond to an even stronger archaism as I was witnessing the end of communism at the same time.

This collapse was at the heart of my first stories that tried to show all the flaws finally made visible of these totalitarian aberrations. Probably driven by an ideal which refused any form of injustice, I was among those who protested, argued, demanded freedom that tarried in the African continent. Defending Mandela was almost an ethical obligation. We know what history recalls of this period and the incredible breath of freedom which shook the planet at the time. We more or less already knew that the local was becoming global, that the time wasn’t about ideological or political distorts anymore. The abolition of apartheid became the first fight of this new era that could only assert itself once some particularism eradicated. 

And apartheid was the most obvious symbol, the most exemplary by horror that it involved in the lives of millions of people. This is how I experienced this transition, this historic moment when even from Europe we thought we could do something for a country so distant, so strange in its customs and music. History had taught us that it is easier to declare the end of a regime than to change attitudes. But time was on our side, this faster and faster paced time, so immediate, so linked to simultaneous exchanges of goods and ideas…Yes, it definitely was on our side, and events have finally proved our indignation and contest right. 

At that time, not a day went by without activists and new powers catalyzing the networks. The world was in shock and this feeling was shared by all men and women of freedom. It was not until later that another awareness was raised, suddenly analyzing this globalization as a driving force for an economic ideology dreaming of enslaving the world, denying the local, denying the individual. It is this incredibly violent ideological form that I have been recording these past few years, in some Gulf countries as well. 

Setting foot for the first time in South Africa last July, I had all this in mind, this tremendous acceleration of history. These contradictory and mixed feelings were inappropriate. All that mattered was a land to discover, people to understand. And then there was the North West, the legend of Magopa, giving free rein to my imagination. Reality was even more terribly real than I had expected. I became painfully and sadly aware of the harsh reality of Marikana miners. 

Nothing had prepared me for this, forcing me back into the humanism that had once been mine. Their struggle and hopes were bearing the great movements of the late Nineteenth Century in France. Zola and its Germinal, Etienne Lantier were there, present, embodied in the power of the cry of thousands of workers in platinum mines. I was surprised and overwhelmed by the depth of their refusal. Their sufferings were not in vain but were rooted in a history so long, so oppressive that it was impossible to remain indifferent. Here we must also speak of dignity and of this deep respect that every one of them had for human life and for their families. In this whimsical river of history, this trip was an opportunity to see and record what we thought had vanished, showing at the same time that our world still hides in its folds all the misery of failed utopias.  

Philippe Chancel