Buildings serve as a kind of injured body; they have a visual and narrative capacity to help us think through history. They are brimful and shudder with meaning. Understood differently, buildings and sites are not tangential to main historical events, they are the events.
We can see this with the endurance of the Union Buildings in multiple struggle narratives. Images of the Union Buildings conjure up sentiments of freedom while also acting as triggers of pain and deeply disturbing experiences.
When 20 000 women marched to protest against the pass laws in 1956, it was to the Union Buildings. When trade union federation Cosatu protested against etolling earlier this year, it was at the Union Buildings. In late August of this year, 17 North-West students made a seven-day journey to plead with President Cyril Ramaphosa to pardon charged, convicted and sentenced #FeesMustFall students. In September of 2013, Marikana families marched to ask the presidency to assist by funding lawyers who would represent them at the Farlam commision of inquiry.
All of these marches and protests headed for the Union Buildings, a concrete site of power, and also of unfulfilled hope.
We are able to trace value systems and ideologies through sites of memory and the built environment; it is an interesting way to map what was and what is through bricks and mortar. South Africa has a long history of unresolved violences, which is reflected in architecture.
Commissioner Street was the bedrock of subjugation and where the migrant labour system found its home. This thoroughfare was instrumental in advancing Johannesburg’s mining project and is still lined by many architectural markers. Another example is the notorious 80 Albert Street building. For more than three decades, black employment, movement and urban life were dictated and brutally controlled from the pass administration office.
The country’s landscape and various existences have been well captured and documented by photographers, painters and other visual artists. Through their work, we can attempt to understand where we come from.
For example, Santu Mofokeng’s work confronts us with what he described as “existential madness” and “the absurdities of living”. In his series Train Church, photographed over a few weeks in 1986 on a commuter line between Soweto and Johannesburg, the conditions of black people on the move in the city were laid bare. The train transported them from their homes to ruthless dominance in factories and mines, to fuel, with blood, sweat and tears, an economy in which they could not benefit from. In Train Church, the train is just as important as the bodies that fill its carriages.
In the grain and play with shadow and light, we see bodies through Mofokeng’s lens in a land that has become foreign; bodies seeking stability, permanence and something solid to hold on to. In one of the images, we see a group of men riding on the outside of a moving train.
There is also an image of a woman singing, looking over her shoulder. The fact that the train is swaying necessitates commuters to hold onto something. This, coupled with the prayer and worship, becomes a sombre metaphor for the need for stability, protection and deliverance.
In Santu Mofokeng: Stories, 1 — Train Church, a publication produced in 2015, he says: “Early morning, late afternoon and evening, commuters preach the gospel in trains en route to and from work. The train ride is no longer a means to an end but an end in itself, as people from different townships congregate in coaches — two or three per train — to sing to the accompaniment of improvised drums (banging the sides of the train) and bells.”
His meditations on the South African landscape reach beyond 1994. In 2012, he produced a series of images titled Postcards from the Karoo. Through these, we see a people’s struggle, set amid the haunting terrain of the dry Karoo, against the threat of fracking. An image of an anti-fracking rally in Nieu Bethesda shows men, women and children holding protest signs, but it’s the bleak landscape that takes centre stage. The light is harsh and the shadows of the protesters on the land are accentuated.
Ronald Ngilima, on the other hand, focused on domestic life. Born in 1914 in a village in the now Eastern Cape, he moved to Johannesburg when he was 16 and worked as a “messenger boy” at the Post Office. Ngilima’s documentation of black urban life in the old Benoni and Wattville townships span at least a decade.
His images of buildings, open sites and communal spaces subtly unveil contemporary life. In one striking image, a group of friends sit in a front garden, but it is the house, built with oversized bricks and partially obstructed by a tree, that grounds the image. These are personal and distinctive accounts of not only the people of Wattville but their built environment.
At first glance, the images do not seem to concern themselves with physical structures, but they capture the city and its surrounding areas, going beyond the columned colonial imagery of the gridded central business district.
Decades later, buildings and places in South Africa continue to point to trauma and pain. The #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements confronted the suffocating and violent structures, including the many Cecil John Rhodes monuments in towns and cities around the country.
Contemporary artists such as Sethembile Msezane continue to engage with colonial architectural history through site-specific performances. In 2014, Msezane gave a performance at the Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown, where the Freedom Charter came into existence, to commemorate the youth of 1976.
In the same year, she performed at Freedom Square in Langa on Women’s Day, claiming her womanhood and challenging the boundaries defining the women’s movement in the country. The sites are a necessary concomitant to her performances.
The built environment houses lost histories. They bear witness. They act as memorials of memories we would rather forget. They preserve ideologies and retain the spirit of their makers. They make history concrete and visible. They are living objects which we can choose to ignore, celebrate, contest or reject.