Settler Theme Parkby Andy Davis / 01.06.2011
Today, the Santarama Miniland lurks forgotten on the banks of the Wemmer Pan in the dirty South of Joburg. A bizarre, neglected miniature smurf village of apartheid’s architectural glory, just across the water from where serial killer Cedric Maake committed the murders that would earn him the monicker of the Wemmer Pan Killer. I remember primary school trips to Miniland that were always tinged with both excitement and disappointment. It was like a dinky car playground but you couldn’t touch anything. Engagement denied. You could only look. There was always a meneer with a cane who kept you from dropping to your knees and actually playing with the installation. It always seemed like a wasted opportunity.
These days, the massive Jan Van Riebeeck statue is an absurd punctuation mark on the road to that kif Portuguese restaurant in La Rochelle. The thought of returning to Miniland is just as absurd. The whole place has an air of entropic fatalism. The exit to the carpark has been closed off, despite the painted arrows urging you towards the barrier. The place smells vaguely of sewage and water hyacinth. You walk through a tunnel, pay the requisite entrance fee to a young man in a blue overall broadcasting tinny R&B on his cellphone. He nods you through into a courtyard where you’re confronted by King Kong and the smell of old cooking oil; where a café churns out no-name brand chicken nuggets and chips, cold drinks, sweets and chocolates.
Upfront there’s a putt-putt course lorded over by a massive 20 foot statue of Michael Jackson circa Dangerous. Santarama’s early 90s attempt to get with the revolution? Michael Jackson is to Santarama, what Jesus is to Rio. Beyond lies the wasteland of apartheid era miniatures. Originally, in 1973, Santarama Miniland was conceived as a fundraising initiative, build an accurate miniature South Africa, invite school children by the busload to learn and ogle at the miniatures of vainglorious South African achievement and history, charge a basic entrance fee and raise money for SANTA, a health organisation predominantly focussed on treating TB. Today, the whole enterprise is like a time capsule for the apartheid zeitgeist of the 70s. A huge replica Drommedaris, the ship that brought that quintessential settler Jan Van Riebeeck to Cape Town, is moored and rotting in the shallows of the Wemmer Pan, just in front of the tiny, ersatz Jan Smuts International Airport, although the Boeing 747 has had an overhaul and now (proudly?) displays the new SAA branding.
Beyond is a miniature of East London’s harbour with a recently added replica of Robben Island in the middle of the bay, to get with the New SA. At the far bank is a collection of apartheid era architectural wonders, from the Cable Station on Table Mountain to the 1820s Settler Monument in Grahamstown, the obligatory salutation of the seat of power, then and now, Sir Herbert Baker’s Union Buildings. There is, of course, a small version of Die Taal Monument. There’s Maatjiesfontein train station and the old haunted hotel, a weird nod to cattle farming, a dilapidated Turfontein Race Track which exists, in reality, just around the corner, there’s Boswell Wilkie Circus, popcorn, bubblegum, ice cream and chewing gum, candy floss and Eskimo Pie all leading up to the triumphant replication of the Johannesburg CBD at it’s apartheid Zenith. The New York of Africa. At Santarama Miniland, there is no Soweto.
Most telling of all is the representation of the Zulu, Sotho, Ndebele and Xhosa “settlements”. You can still taste the contempt, the lack of effort. The greatly overlooked, discounted and miniaturised role afforded to the majority of South Africans is like a rare window on the privileged white psyche of those days. Rare in this climate where no one dares to admit ever voting Nat. You can almost hear the question: “but what about the blacks?” And the answer: “Ja well… better build them something.” A forgotten piece of the South African diorama puzzle, tacked on as an afterthought, like an empty flowerbed. Hastily constructed parodies of traditional African culture, in that old spirit of “good neighbourliness” that so well defined those bad old days.
Santarama Miniland stands today like a damning physical construction of the apartheid state of mind. An entropic time capsule. Lorded over by Michael Jackson in his codpiece-g-string, with Jaws in the harbour and a miniature choof choof train that circumnavigates the whole thing. The absurdity of Michael Jackson, King Kong, Jaws and Dumbo sharing the space with tacky miniature nationalistic monuments in a state of decay speaks volumes. Much like the stumps of Ozymandias, this is the real apartheid museum.
*All images © Andy Davis.