A tale of two cities: Is Pretoria Jo’burg’s culturally poorer cousin?

Last week I wrote about the new cultural landscape that was shaping up in the form of Johannesburg. I mentioned the inception of the Wits Art Museum as an addition to this landscape and how its presence would infuse the area of Braamfontein with an admirable authenticity that will no doubt endure for some time to come. Johannesburg, I wrote, is arguably a cosmopolitan city imbued with a multitude of elements that make it what it is.

But I have since found myself asking, “what about Pretoria people, what about Pretoria?” These two cities are after all, both in the same province – there must be something to be said for the other city.

I’ll be honest; I have a soft-spot for Pretoria with its purple façade of jacaranda trees lending to it the nickname, Jacaranda city. Unless you’ve lived there and walked its streets, you probably won’t know that there are spaces within it that echo those of Jo’burg nor will you be aware of the various styles of architecture that abound the city and its surrounds, from art deco to British colonial and neo-classicism.

It is in Pretoria that the VW Caravelle minibus found fame as the taxi of choice with its busy transitory rank located right outside the imposing building of the South African Reserve Bank.

There is really nothing to it, if you know Pretoria.

An up close inspection of the Union Buildings, for example, will reveal the Roman mythological figures that adorn it, the odd name of the residential Arcadia that surrounds it and the somewhat delusional ideal, of a ‘Roman acropolis in Africa’ that all these factors together allude to. And then of course there is the three-way visual dialogue carried out between its heritage sites; the Union Building, the Voortrekker Monument and Freedom Park – a conversation of ideals that each was made to embody and carry within the greater history of our country. Oh, and did I mention the expansive Unisa building jutting out of the landscape as you approach the city?

Unfortunately Pretoria has the misfortune of being labelled the not-so-interesting city in Gauteng, no doubt owing to it being the administrative capital. It’s to the difference between histories that these two cities owe their current personality traits. While Jo’burg was the playground of business and commercial trade; Pretoria was built specifically for purposes of administration and governance – hence the ‘Roman acropolis’ delusion.

Jo’burg came to be dubbed aptly and symbolically as the ‘city of gold’ while Pretoria had nothing but jacarandas and an undertone of bureaucratic rigidity.

These traits, while far from absolute, have doubtlessly wound themselves into the defining aesthetics of both cities. I have come to find that Jo’burg has an unrelenting energy which courses through all its city spaces and crevices.

In some instances this energy is the adrenalin of fear from not knowing what lies beyond certain parts of its streets. It refuses to be idle and if you are not in the Jo’burg frame of mind you will quickly find yourself left behind.

But despite the energy that is Jo’burg I sometimes find the option of having a slow-lane a little more appealing. Perhaps it has something to do with coming from a small town or spending one too many years in Cape Town but there really is nothing that compares to hearing yourself think and taking a break from the omniscient pressures of fronting success if you ask me.

I only wish that Pretoria would awaken from its cultural slumber. Where does it hide its equivalent of Neighbourgoods Market, Arts on Main and Juta Street? Do they even exist? An institution like the Pretoria Art Museum has no fewer claims to the potential of being iconic than new kid on the block, Wits Art Museum. Is it so much to ask for a little more diversity and far less provincialism? Come on Pretoria!

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Mpho Moshe Matheolane
Mpho Moshe Matheolane is a Motswana from the little town of Mahikeng. He is a budding academic, researcher and writer with interests in art, history, semiotics and law. He sits on the Constitutional Court Artworks Committee – a clear case of serendipity – and is a firm believer in the power of an informed and active citizenry.

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