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Culture, Reality

Landscape and Memory

by Morrel Shilenge / 04.04.2013

This city’s beauty is partially obscured by the many remnants of its apartheid legacy. Haunted ghosts of the past. A once colonized and segregated city that freely copied European architectural fashions in its boom. The cityscape is now changing. Starting with the street names. Goodbye Church. Hello WF Nkomo. The Tshwane Rapid Transit System will be underway in 2014. The Gautrain is already in place.

At the core of Pretoria, the shape of things: pre-colonial, colonial, apartheid and post-apartheid buildings remain the most visible aspect of the city. Changing the street names won’t transform the landscape overnight. Landscape invariably shapes experience and turns it to memory. These slow changes might alter the image of Pretoria a bit, but in people’s minds and close to their lips, the original names of the streets still remain. There is and always will be a connection between landscape and identity. And we are somehow caught up in this slow, geographic process. You cannot simply change a city’s meaning overnight.

Rebecca Ginsburg, associate professor at the University of Illinois Landscape Architecture department, has long stated that historic architecture continues to play a role in defining urban environments around the world. In South Africa these spaces are often filled with negative connotations. She further defines the term ‘colonial’ as referring to a periodic style rather than a historic episode, one where the buildings and monuments that the British built to celebrate their empire’s will to conquer and to dominate many city’s skylines. And that the urban environments directly play into continuing the historic oppression by a colonial minority regime long after that minority has relinquished control. So basically, in South African cities, the legacy of racial segregation remains cast in stone, bricks and mortar.

As we commemorate 100 years since the Natives Land Act confined the black population to only 13% of the land area of South Africa, we need to take in the social dynamics related to the long period of transition and transformation. And to ask: where to? What is the way forward? Debate has been going on in black circles about the legacy of the ANC in trying to integrate blacks, whites and Indians into a cohesive society. Yet the vast gaps in between are still the cause a lot of tension. We need to be proactive to deal with these issues. We cannot simply wait for the government to solve the land issues in South Africa. Not doing anything about these chasms in our society will only create a perfect tinderbox for sweeping revolution. Golden opportunities for populist politicians to push us back towards self-serving autocracies.

This is not just about racial dynamics. Pretoria is a city rooted in an unresolved history. Pivotal to this is the realization that people attach identity to a physical place, which then causes displacement, both physically and psychically. So names are changed for people to feel a sense of belonging and ownership. But it’s much like sticking a plaster on a cancer. The focus is misplaced. Transformation is an external process but it starts in the mind. Beyond the mechanisms and policies of land reform, there’s a certain level of educated self-awareness required for ‘transformation’ from a colonized mindset to a free mind. To shake off the attendant superiority and inferiority complexes that define either side of the chasm. You know what I’m talking about. Then we could start to see these urban landscapes in a progressive historical context, and we could enjoy the architectural heritage without negative connotations and memories that hold us back instead of take us forward.

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*All images © Morrel Shilenge.

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