• ”Seed Crystal” or Cathedral in the Square? Urban Industrial Adaptive Reuse in Contemporary South Africa

    Sarah Rovang, 2017 H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellow
    Oct 4, 2018
    Rovang Blog 2 Sarah Rovang is the 2017 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.

    When my husband and I disembarked the double-decker city sight-seeing bus at the Newtown stop in downtown Johannesburg, we were the only bus riders to do so. While most other stops we visited on the unmistakable red bus had focused on a single building or experience (Constitution Hill, the Apartheid Museum, the tallest building in Africa), Newtown is a whole “Cultural Precinct” unto itself. On Google Maps, Newtown looks like just museums, theaters, and one or two office buildings. Perhaps implicitly, I was anticipating something like the National Mall—cultural institutions and open space and not much else. But as soon as I stepped onto the pavement and the bus roared off to yet another attraction, I found myself suddenly in the thick of things. Whatever I had been expecting, it wasn’t this. It was an unseasonably warm Saturday in July, and business was booming on the sidewalks of Newtown, a vibrant economy of street vendors hawking their wares to an audience of locals. A few sellers had racks from which to hang purses and bags, but most just spread blankets on the sidewalk. This informal market is a spillover of a larger, and more established clothing retail center further up Diagonal Street, where Helmut Jahn’s monolithic and reflective “Diamond Building” looms large overhead.

    Helmut Jahn’s 1984 “Diamond Building” (11 Diagonal Street) quite literally reflects the urban diversity of Johannesburg’s historic core. One of the first major examples of corporate reinvestment in the city center, the building is an unmistakable backdrop to the one and two-story retail structures, such as A. Moosa Blankets seen here, which primarily serve the local population.

    As I ventured further, heading down to Mary Fitzgerald Square, I found myself in a very small minority of people who were in Newtown to see the Cultural Precinct. Minus a group of good-natured teenagers who were stress-testing the interactives in the photography exhibit, the Museum Africa was virtually empty. The Worker’s Museum was likewise deserted. There were a few cars in the SciBono Center lot, but thinking that museum had no industrial heritage connection, I opted to skip it. Water bottle running perilously low, I wandered somewhat aimlessly into the SAB (South African Breweries) World of Beer with the thought that I could solve the thirst problem and see some public history simultaneously. The entrance fee dissuaded me, but apparently not a slew of other visitors who emerged from the exhibit hall to collect their complimentary brews on the way out. Ah, this was where the tourists were. With a prominent mention in the New York Times recently updated 36 Hours in Johannesburg, the World of Beer has become the star attraction of the Newtown area, at least for most tourists willing to venture beyond Johannesburg’s more conventional tourism loop.


    A quiet day at Museum Africa. The redevelopment of the 1913 Market Hall into Museum Africa (a project conceptualized in 1974 and finally realized in 1994) was one of the first major reuse projects in Newtown.

    This whole constellation of museums and theaters represents a decades-long plan to redevelop Newtown following a period of obsolescence and urban decay. Like so many other neighborhoods of Johannesburg, the economic landscape of Newtown was irreparably changed by the institution of apartheid. Formerly a locus of municipal electricity generation, the decline and abandonment of the buildings in Newtown left a major rift in the city’s fabric. Nearby were other struggling areas such as Brickfields (an early “location” for non-whites living in Jo’burg) and Hillbrow (a “gray” area during apartheid that sheltered many mixed race families and was later cut off from municipal services). Newtown, with its existing open spaces and well-preserved industrial building stock, seemed ripe for transformation and renewal that could then spread to surrounding neighborhoods and districts. From the World of Beer lobby, I looked out over the massive project that was meant to be the lynchpin in the new urban plan for Newtown: the former Jeppe Street Power Station. Renovated in 2003 following the design of Guy Steenekamp and Barry van Wyk at TPSP Architects, this award-winning mix of new and old today houses event space, office space, and the AngloGold Ashanti headquarters, and was intended to be a critical and trendsetting piece in Newtown’s renovation.1

    A quick snap of the renovated boiler house from across the street. I had been warned to avoid walking around with my DSLR prominently displayed in downtown Jo’burg, and so I ended up with relatively few photographs of my afternoon in Newtown.

    Looking back on my time in South Africa, and considering the ways in which deindustrializing, post-apartheid cities are adapting and planning for the future, I have been reflecting on the outsized role that reinvented industrial structures play, both in terms of community function and as signifiers of larger urban renewal. The idea that a single, major industrial adaptive reuse project can meaningfully spark significant commercial and cultural regeneration underpins two major twenty-first century projects in urban South Africa—here, at the former Jeppe Street Power Station in Johannesburg, and more recently, at Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MOCAA) in Cape Town. Despite hopes that the installation of the AngloGold Ashanti headquarters in the former power station complex might induce a larger commercial reinvestment in Newtown, today it performs a largely symbolic role in its surroundings, exerting a kind of stabilizing influence. Zeitz MOCAA, which opened in September 2017, claims a larger role as a cultural institution in the Waterfront area of Cape Town, aspiring to become the “cathedral in the square” for the newly coined “Silo District” it anchors. While it remains to see how Zeitz MOCAA’s role will evolve in the community, given the project’s siting, as well as its program and current function, there are some conceivable doubts about how it might act as an “urban cathedral.”

    For Johannesburg, like many cities, the period of its most intensive industrialization was also one of centralization, solving the economic and logistic problems of creating infrastructure to serve a growing population by clustering related services and utilities into dense districts at the urban core. Here, the organization of municipal systems and the labor required to build and maintain them was based heavily on existing systems developed in the mining industry for managing labor. In the early days, Johannesburg’s many mines largely generated their own power—power enough to carry out private mining operations but not enough to supply a growing municipality. The city constructed a series of power stations in Newtown beginning in 1892, designing the buildings and their equipment in consultation with British experts. All of this city infrastructure was heavily centralized—Newtown was where the equipment for power generation was located, where the machinery needed to repair existing equipment could be found, and where the skilled and unskilled labor for the power industry were housed (the compound that is now the Worker’s Museum). The electric hub of the city was conveniently adjacent to its main market as well. The sprawling 1913 market hall (now the Museum Africa) and the square in front of it (formerly Market Square, now Mary Fitzgerald Square after the famed woman union activist) were key economic hubs for the city, facilitating efficient trade. Both areas were served by the railroad, which brought in goods and coal to fire the power plants.2



    The first power station was primarily intended to supply electricity to the city’s street lamps, but was quickly replaced with a new station (which has been partially reused in the SciBono Center) to serve the demands of the new electric tram system (the tram yard was located in the World of Beer’s present site).3 As demand continued to outstrip supply and the city government of Johannesburg resisted buying power from expensive private companies that supplied power to the mines, it became clear that a third, much larger plant would be necessary to keep the city running. As a result, the city contracted to buy land across the street from the Sanitary & Cleansing Department. This purchase also included a worker compound, that had been constructed to house black sanitation workers in 1913 (what is today the Worker’s Museum). This compound, like the power stations that surrounded it, showed Johannesburg’s continuing reliance on structural and economic models pioneered in South Africa’s mines, that were then adapted to meet urbanistic demands. In this sense, Johannesburg might be considered a city that is uniquely industrial, in a unique and idiosyncratic way. Image sources: (top) Aerial photographs collection at the Architectural Archives, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg; (middle and bottom) scans from Lael Bethlehem, Sue Krige, and Sarah Beswick, Turbine Square: A Heritage of Power (AngloGold and Tiber Group, Johannesburg: 2005).

    The first portion of Jeppe Street Power Station came online in 1927, and further additions were made in 1934 and 1939 to meet the city’s ever-increasing demands.4 Its construction came on the threshold of an important change in Johannesburg’s approach to urban planning. As the city expanded, and as South Africa as a whole started to pursue more rigid segregationist policies (ones that would directly set the stage for apartheid), it began to reverse the policies that had previously brought core services (and the people who worked in and maintained those utilities) into the center of the city. Starting in the late 1930s and increasingly following the election of the National Party in 1948, city planners started to encourage decentralization, for instance, building the famous Orlando Power Plant outside of Johannesburg in Soweto (the Southwestern Townships). Townships, as I discussed in my previous post, were the housing areas created to provide a separate, ex-urban living space for black workers. Urban living became the province of the rarefied white elite. (As a side note, planners in Cape Town, and likely other South African cities as well, were influenced in much of their segregationist planning by the writings of Le Corbusier and CIAM during the 1930s and on. The modernist doctrine of separating urban functions, to apartheid’s architects, seemed to dovetail nicely with an ideology that advocated the separation of people according to artificial categories of racial identity.5)

    The Orlando station cooling towers, as seen from the Hector Pieterson Memorial in Soweto. Known best in recent years for the artwork decorating their exteriors, the towers are now unfortunately covered in advertising.

    Jeppe Street Power Station, like its predecessors in the Newtown Precinct, had been erected expeditiously and by the 1950s it began to show its wear. In 1958, the original wooden cooling tours were demolished and in 1961 the plant was decommissioned. The rest of the complex was given a reprieve and a second life when in 1966 and 1967, Rolls Royce jet engines were installed to create a backup energy supply for the city. But by the late 1980s, the plant was officially offline once again. In 1985, despite outcry from preservationists and heritage advocates, the cooling towers were demolished. By 2000, it was estimated that there were 300 squatters living in the building. 6

    Part of the new architectural fabric of the AngloGold Ashanti building, which replaced the North Boiler House. The sculpture of miners in the second picture is sequestered behind a fence on the company’s private property.

    In terms of scale and mass, the power station complex dwarfs the buildings around it—it is the clear visual anchor for the district. On the Saturday I visited Newtown, the buildings were quiet, entirely closed off. I wandered around the perimeter of the building, hoping to get a glimpse inside. In the process of circumnavigating the structures, John and I clearly crossed the line into an urban zone that was not meant for tourists. Unlike the clothing hawkers on Miriam Makeba Street, who were content to ignore me, the gaze on rounding the building was one of the very few places in Johannesburg where I sensed any overt hostility. After a man aggressively begging for money followed us for half a block, we retreated to the patio of the World of Beer on the north side of the complex. From this vantage point, the relationship between the new construction and old industrial structures becomes clearer. On one side is the South Boiler House, which was saved and converted into office space. At the center of the complex is the old Turbine Building, which is currently a venue for hire owned by the Forum Company. To the northern side of the site is a completely new structure built on the site of the former North Boiler House, which contains the AngloGold Ashanti headquarters.7 Tracing the money trail of who owns what real estate within the complex today is an exercise in late capitalism frustration. The industrial heritage of the site has been largely commodified, transformed into a spectacle of “space to empower, grow and enlighten your brand.”8

    A collage of the transformed event space of the Turbine Building I compiled from a Google Image search, layered over a historic image of the building from its early days. It seems that the Turbine Building has become a popular place to get married in Johannesburg. Historic image sourced from Lael Bethlehem, Sue Krige, and Sarah Beswick, Turbine Square: A Heritage of Power.

    With a little more forethought, I probably could have contacted an AngloGold Ashanti or Forum Company PR person for a weekday tour. But in some ways, my unscripted encounter with the building on a Saturday was even more informative. I was experiencing the building like anyone else out on the street, and to me, the converted power station felt distinctly unwelcoming and fundamentally disconnected from the rest of the urban activity, whether local or touristic, taking place nearby. At the same time, the building complex seems to exert a kind of equilibrating influence on the street condition. Far from the archival images of the building from twenty years ago, which show obvious material degradation and broken windows, the South Boiler House and Turbine Building are today in immaculate condition, the end result of a significant public/private investment. I’d argue that the stable presence of the power station even provides a certain kind of reassurance to perspective tourists considering a stop at the World of Beer or the SciBono Center or even the Worker’s Museum.

    Even in the 1980s, as apartheid was in its death throes and much of South Africa was in a “state of emergency,” Johannesburg’s city planners and developers were beginning to think about how to revitalize areas like Newtown. With the construction of the “Diamond Building” in 1984, and the subsequent tenancy of AngloAmerican, there seemed to be hope for corporate reinvestment in the city center. However, even after the transition to South Africa’s first democratically-elected government in 1994, squabbles over ownership of the building and funding issues prevented any substantive work from moving forward. By 2003 there had been 30 different schemes for the Turbine building and surrounding area.9

    When, finally, plans to move forward with the AngloGold Ashanti project were complete, there seems to have been some conflicting ideas of what the new corporate headquarters would mean for the Newtown precinct. At some points in the planning, it seemed that the developers hoped that the construction of the new building and renovation of the two remaining original structures would spur enough economic activity to drive other corporate investment in Newtown. Other goals seemed less grandiose, aiming, for instance, just to make the white collar employees of AngloGold Ashanti feel “safe” in this formerly troubled urban zone.10


    The above collage shows the Turbine Building, which has been converted into event space. Below, the renovated South Boiler House (back, left) and the newly constructed AngloGold Ashanti Headquarters comprise the office space in the complex. Scanned image sourced from Lael Bethlehem, Sue Krige, and Sarah Beswick, Turbine Square: A Heritage of Power.

    Even standing across the street at the Worker’s Museum, one can partially grasp how much capital the developers poured into this complex. In this sense, it lives up to one of the original wishes of the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA), which was established coinciding roughly with the start of with South Africa’s democratic era. The JDA was tasked with revitalizing downtown Johannesburg to make it more attractive to new development. This included providing public funding for current and future cultural institutions, and upgrading overall infrastructure. The agency remarked in 2000 that the power station’s “development will be an important symbol of the progressive realization of the Newtown vision.” 11

    But to expect one sequence of conjoined buildings, however large and lavishly refurbished, to functionally reverse the direction of a whole urban precinct, seems a little far fetched, a fact which project architect Guy Steenekamp freely admits, stating that “one site cannot be responsible for all aspects of urban renewal—that it could be a ‘seed crystal’ was something of an idealistic overstatement.”12 Sue Krige of the University of Witwatersrand, who has researched the power station extensively and taught on-site in the Newtown precinct, notes that the relationship between individual structures and the district as whole is often complicated and fraught:

    The integration of heritage places and spaces with urban renewal is an uneven process. There is much debate about how an area in which heritage significance resides in the whole (the precinct) as well as the parts (the buildings), may be conserved and re-used sensitively by a set of separate developers.13

    And though the power station didn’t spark a wave of commercial activity in Newtown, there’s no guarantee that that more investment would necessarily serve the best interests of the local community. A few miles away in the district of Braamfontein, the popular, vibey Neighborgoods Market caters to a class of trendy millennials and foreign visitors. Another instance of adaptive reuse, in this case a former office building, Neighborgoods has become a kind of magnet for the hipster elite. Change is happening in Braamfontein, which has attracted more retail and restaurants in recent years, but much of this seems more connected to the influence of Wits University and the demands of an active academic community. Neighborgoods seems to be the one stop in Braamfontein for many out-of-town visitors—Uber in, Instagram, Uber out. Into Newtown’s commercial void, by contrast, the sidewalk clothing trade has evolved to serve the people who actually live near the precinct. Like the nearby Fashion District, where a population of Ethiopian immigrants has repopulated and transformed a white collar office district into a bustling maze of multi-story malls and cafés, the Newtown economy doesn’t cater to riders of the red bus or other tourist interlopers. From all that I could see on a Saturday, it felt like there exists a kind of urban détente between the folks who use the street, and the corporate megalith of the former Jeppe Street Power Station. Paradoxically, though the adaptive reuse of the building complex did not become a “seed crystal,” it also avoided the trap of trying to do too much. Whatever (admittedly warranted) criticism might be lobbed at this corporate fortress and pricey event space for perpetuating racial and socioeconomic divisions, this is not a building with a Messiah complex. That fence that keeps the folks on the street out also keeps the gentrification in, creating space for this lively street economy to exist unimpeded by an onslaught of coffee shops and boutiques.

    A trendy crowd enjoys live music on the rooftop terrace of Neighborgoods Market in Braamfontein. Only a block or two away, the streets are quiet.


    Exploring the Fashion District with Professor Hannah Le Roux, who teaches studio architecture courses at Wits University that engage this part of Johannesburg. Former office buildings and medical complexes have been innovatively reconfigured to meet the demands of Jo’burg’s large population of immigrants from Ethiopia and other parts of Africa.14

    At least in the realm of press releases and self-promotion, Zeitz MOCAA, South Africa’s most recent and celebrated example of industrial adaptive reuse, claims to play a more active role in transforming its surrounding urban area. I visited Zeitz MOCAA on a Thursday afternoon, having walked from downtown Cape Town to the Victoria & Albert Waterfront. Quite suddenly, upon crossing the pedestrian bridge over Nelson Mandela Boulevard, the Victorian, art deco, and brutalist building stock of downtown gave way to a wash of new construction. Corporate headquarters and luxury condominums sprouted along decadently landscaped canals in which floated touristy gondolas (and in the nearby harbor, a whole flotilla of private yachts). I strolled past a gleaming office building belonging to British American Tobacco and a Porsche dealership. On the opposite bank of the canal, construction workers were busy with what looked like yet another new, mixed use development. Among all this new construction, however, were scattered built remnants of Cape Town’s old port. The vast majority of this land is owned by a conglomerate called the Victoria & Albert Waterfront, which was “established in 1988 as a private company by Growthpoint Properties and the Government Employees Pension Fund to manage and operate over 100 hectares of prime waterfront land.”15 It is this corporation that also provided the funding for the construction of Zeitz MOCAA.



    Real estate development and rapid gentrification in action on Cape Town’s Waterfront.

    With the advent of containerization in the 1970s, Cape Town’s port, like many ports worldwide, found itself unable to adapt to the infrastructural demands of larger shipping barges and the adoption of shipping containers.16 No longer able to serve its previous role, Cape Town’s waterfront has been forced to reinvent itself. The former brick power station, built in the early 1880s to house Cape Town’s first dynamos, has been reinvisioned as the “V&A Food Hall,” a phantasmagoria of smoothie bowls and kombucha. Nearby, a warehouse branded as the “Water Shed” has been converted into boutique shop space for local artisans and day-lit co-working spaces. The original crane has been preserved as a visually impressive reminder of the building’s industrial past. The so-called “Jubilee Exhibition Hall” fits nicely with the V&A Waterfront’s larger theme of what might be described as “consumer-centric neo-colonialism lite” (all of the cultural appropriation, none of the calories). The latest and most prominent addition to the retinue of reused industrial spaces in this high-investment waterfront district is Zeitz MOCAA.



    The former brick power station that supplied energy to Cape Town’s nineteenth century street lights has been converted into a trendy food hall; an ironically self-aware hipster hotspot.



    The Water Shed, a former dockside warehouse, now offers boutique shopping, event space, and co-working opportunities for Cape Town’s entrepreneurs.

    Like the Turbine Building looming over Newtown, a fenced and lonely citadel, Zeitz MOCAA stands out in the waterfront district of Cape Town by virtue of its sheer monumental physicality. Visible from almost anywhere along the docks, the museum’s faceted pillow windows sparkle during the day—a lighthouse with many glistening beacons. The glittering windows create a striking contrast to the original concrete of the silos from which they protrude. To paraphrase the project architect, Thomas Heatherwick, “When something is infrastructure, people just don’t look.”17 There is indeed a certain invisibility to infrastructure in the built environment. We become acclimated to it and eventually tune it out as a kind of visual noise. I didn’t start seeing all of the power lines in my quaint Providence neighborhood in grad school until I started writing my dissertation on rural electrification. Heatherwick’s design intends to elevate the original silo, to transform the mundane into something extraordinary. The effect upon approaching the museum is nearly ecclesiastical—the tubular silos have the thrust and verticality of a Gothic cathedral. That initial impression was, I later learned on the building’s audio tour, fully intentional. The master plan for the “Silo District,” the portion of the waterfront closest to the museum, intentionally casts Zeitz MOCAA as the “cathedral in the square.”18 As I walked the building’s entire perimeter, I was impressed at how much breathing room the building has been given—its mass and monumentality could be fully grasped in its urban surroundings.



    Zeitz MOCAA stands as a discrete object in the new Silo District of the Waterfront. In the bottom image, note the loading area, which is contiguous with the rest of the building.

    As historian David Worth has documented in his thesis on the building, the silo was originally constructed in the 1920s as a way to provide employment for poor whites, part of an economic development scheme to industrialize South Africa’s agricultural production.19 Like so many development programs in twentieth-century South Africa, the construction of the silo building is shaded by racially-tinged policy planning. In this way, the new use of the building also becomes a kind of restorative justice—by providing a venue for the works of contemporary African artists (many of them black), the building’s original, racially-exclusionary purpose is undermined and provides some modicum of restitution, even if mostly symbolic. Or at least that’s the hope—the museum is named, after all, for the German collector whose long term loan forms the basis of the permanent collection on display.20

    A historic aerial photograph of Cape Town, likely dating to the 1950s or 1960s (the grain elevator and silo circled in red). Image source: Aerial photographs collection of the Architectural Archives at Wits University, Johannesburg.

    Despite its ample plaza, the silo building is imposing and monolithic nonetheless and a great deal has been done design-wise to make the entrance more human scale and approachable. A shaded patio extends from the elevator building, using an industrial vernacular that seems at home with the rest of the structure. The steel lattice hovers over the remains of recovered industrial machinery. Chairs with conical bases create a kind of silly, haptic play space, contributing along with the patio structure to an effective public, interstitial space between the urban space of the silo district and the interior condition of the museum. On the day I visited, museum visitors and passers-by lolled and rolled on the chairs.


    The industrial-inspired patio of Zeitz MOCAA, which creates an interstitial condition and softens the entrance to the building. On the lefthand side (facing the building) is also the lobby of the luxury hotel that hides stealthily in the upper part of the grain elevator building.

    I entered and dropped my bag off in a locker room where the original elevator shafts hung from the ceiling. Like the foyer and entry sequence of a cathedral, the building reveals slowly and sequentially the extent and dramatic magnitude of the structure’s inner height. Past the gift shop and locker rooms, the full expanse of the building’s core is finally revealed. The sacred feeling of the core space was further elevated by an operatic sound installation that took full advantage of the silo tubes’ ringing acoustics. I wandered over to the visitor center and picked up an audio tour device. This is the first art museum I can recall visiting whose main audio tour is devoted to the architecture rather than the art.


    Entering near the gift shop, the cathedral-like heights of the interior are revealed gradually as the visitor processes into the lobby.

    Elevators of Zeitz MOCAA from Sarah Rovang on Vimeo.

    From the audio tour, I learned that the museum incorporates three original historic structures—the grain elevator, the silo building, and the dust house. In order to make this space usable as an art museum and structurally sound, the architects needed to replace much of the older, heavy concrete with newer, lighter aggregates. Much of the construction process was in fact one of “excavation,” carving out as much as 80% of the original concrete. The heart of the building itself is an area where the architects extracted a cavity in the shape of a corn kernel enlarged to macroscopic scale. The original concrete is distinguished throughout the building by its lighter hue—the contrast between the new insertions and the remaining material is a sort of visual register of the construction process itself.



    Concrete, in all of its finishes and manifestations, is the real star of the museum. The finely polished bottom of the atrium contrasts with the original, rough concrete left in place in the tunnels nearby. The contrast between the new (darker) concrete and older (lighter) concrete creates visual drama and recalls the construction/excavation process.

    As I followed the audio tour’s directions, I was led in and out of various galleries, up and down the corkscrew staircase and the tubular, science-fiction-y elevator. One of the largest challenges the architects faced was creating a space where the architecture would not upstage the art. After all, this institution is also the first museum in Africa dedicated to contemporary African art. The solution the architects chose was to create two “separate architectural worlds”—the architectural heart of the building and the art galleries.21 There are a few instances, such as the dust house, where the original industrial, reinforced-concrete interiors of the space have been preserved for site-specific installations. But, for the most part, the galleries follow a standard white cube model. The presence of capital-A Architecture suddenly and intentionally recedes to the background. After the audio tour concluded, I explored the space on my own and found in addition to the obvious visual and spatial differences between “Art world” and “Architecture world,” there were also less perceptible differences that registered in air quality and acoustics. I created the experimental sound piece linked below as a kind of subjective register of that experience. In it, I try to capture the feeling of exploring the galleries, and the refrain of returning to the main cathedral-like core. I also highlight my own complicity in and contribution to the soundscape of this environment, emphasizing camera clicks and footsteps. The source of the sounds is intentionally vague—some come from other video or sound installations, some are HVAC noise, and some are other visitors and docents.





    A variety of the interior spaces whose auditory memories are included in the sound piece linked below.

    Since Zeitz MOCAA has been open for less than two years, it’s still early to evaluate how the building functions as an urbanistic gesture—how the “cathedral in the square” interfaces in practice with the rest of Cape Town. After I finished my own exploration of the building, I attended a lecture (“Women Making Cities, Cities Making Women”) in the function space on the ground floor. The assistant curator who introduced the program expressed gratification that events like this lecture were bringing in members of the Cape Town community to talk about something other than the architectural space of Zeitz MOCAA. Based on the content of the press hype around this museum, and the architectural audio tour, and this isolated comment, I do get the sense that the architecture has thus far rather overshadowed the curatorial program of the museum. As with the coverage of Turbine Square in Newtown, the majority of commentary about Zeitz MOCAA has focused on the ingenuity of the lead project architects and the boldness of the developers in undertaking such a capital-intensive and financially risky project. A quick browse through the big architectural magazines online reveals lots of interviews with British architect Thomas Heatherwick, but very little mention of the substantial contribution and input from the African architecture firms, engineers, and contractors who were tasked with translating Heatherwick’s cathedral dream into concrete reality. While a sizable plaque in the museum’s core near the lobby lists the names of all of the workers who contributed to the building’s construction, references to the actual human power and skill of the workers who physically built Zeitz MOCAA are notably absent from most mainstream press coverage. As Tomà Berlanda notes in Architectural Review:

    At the peak of construction, which lasted 36 months, and 5.3 million man-hours, almost 1,200 workers operated on site. Whereas the official overall budget of 500 million Rands has been quoted as not being much to operate with in other parts of the world for a building and programme of this magnitude, it was ‘a lot of money in the context of Africa’. Credits for the South African local architects and site managers, not to mention the hourly rates to which the budget divided by man-hour equates to, are not easy to find in the official press release, raising the issue of what needs to be done to recognise the African, read black, labour, that allowed the museum to exist. 22

    And then there’s the broader question of who the museum serves and how. Throughout my time in South Africa, I was heartened to see community museums and individual entrepreneurs pioneering their own grassroots approaches to public history. Institutions like the South End Museum in Port Elizabeth and the District 6 Museum in Cape Town are actively engaging their communities through art and oral history projects to recover and preserve individuals’ experiences of apartheid and discrimination, and in doing so, are helping to stitch neighborhoods back together across the historic and artificial dividing lines of race. Businesses such as Msanzi Restaurant in Langa, one of Cape Town’s oldest townships, are breaking down the stigma around township living, in the case of Msanzi, by attracting international visitors with the promise of home-cooked African food.

    Overlooking the harbor of Port Elizabeth from the South End Museum. The large tree in the foreground is one of the only remnants of a vibrant, multiracial community that was razed under apartheid. The South End Museum now serves as a vehicle of restorative justice and memory within the community.


    The District 6 Museum in Cape Town is also an active community organization serves the needs of families displaced during apartheid. Community artists, activists, and historians are engaged in sharing and preserving these memories.

    Mzansi Restaurant’s chef and owner Nomonde Siyaka shares her story after a delicious dinner of Xhosa food. Located in the township of Langa outside Cape Town, Mzansi has grown from a single-story, three-room home into a two-story house and restaurant that can accommodate dozens of guests and a live band. Siyaka’s storytelling is part of the experience, bringing visitors into this space and helping to break down the stigma that still exists around South African townships.

    As exciting as it is to see a historic industrial building given new life as a cultural institution, Zeitz MOCAA does serve to further the aggregation of wealth and power in the already prosperous and gentrified Waterfront area. Geographically and culturally, the Waterfront is about as far as you can get in Cape Town from the townships, which are sequestered outside of visitors’ views on the other side of Table Mountain. The Waterfront, ultimately, does not need a “Bilbao effect.” This part of Cape Town is doing just fine. In some ways, Newtown and the area around the power station seemed more diverse and inclusive than the “Silo District” around Zeitz MOCAA. While in Newtown, the additional commercial investment that developers hoped would follow on the heels of AngloGold Ashanti never materialized, local people have claimed the streets as their own, and forged an informal retail economy outside the purview of large-scale real estate development. The urban space of Newtown felt lively, occupied by people across the socioeconomic spectrum. Even if Turbine Square hasn’t proven to be a “seed crystal,” it has become a kind of solid anchor for the neighborhood—if Newtown is not regenerating in the way that developers and urban planners had hoped, it’s certainly not regressing either. For the most part, the Newtown cultural precinct seems safe and stable, which is certainly not something that could have been said in the 1980s or early 1990s. In order to have a substantive effect on the wider community and urban condition of Cape Town, Zeitz MOCAA needs to channel its notoriety and expand beyond the concrete hull of its flagship building—it needs to be an institution of outreach and connection.

    1. Lael Bethlehem, Sue Krige, and Sarah Beswick, Turbine Square: A Heritage of Power (AngloGold and Tiber Group, Johannesburg: 2005). This book is one of the preeminent resources on the redesign and redevelopment of the Jeppe Street Power Station, though due to its writing date it does not contain the latest information on ownership and usage of the building. ↩︎
    2. Ibid. Also, see my SAH blog post from the previous month for more about the Worker’s Museum and the public history function that it serves. ↩︎
    3. Ibid. ↩︎
    4. Ibid. ↩︎
    5. Information from the District 6 Museum in Cape Town. ↩︎
    6. Bethlehem, Krige, and Beswick, Turbine Square. ↩︎
    7. Ibid. The demolition of the North Boiler House was not without controversy and sparked significant pushback from the preservation community. ↩︎
    8. Jade MacCallum, “Turbine Hall Johannesburg, An iconic heritage building for clients who want to create an innovative event experience,” The Forum Company, 20 September 2017, http://blog.theforum.co.za/celebrating-our-heritage-with-turbine-hall, accessed 30 September 2018. ↩︎
    9. Bethlehem, Krige, and Beswick, Turbine Square. ↩︎
    10. Ibid. ↩︎
    11. Ibid, 47. ↩︎
    12. Ibid, 135. ↩︎
    13. Sue Krige, “‘The power of power’: power stations as industrial heritage and their place in history and heritage education,” Yesterday and Today no. 5, January 2010, online version accessed June 2018. ↩︎
    14. It was Professor Le Roux who very kindly got me access to the archives at Wits University, where I sourced much of the background research for this post. Many thanks! ↩︎
    15. Tomà Berlanda, “Zeitz geist: Zeitz MOCAA, Cape Town, South Africa by Heatherwick Studio,” The Architectural Review, 8 January 2018, https://www.architectural-review.com/buildings/zeitz-geist-zeitz-mocaa-cape-town-south-africa-by-heatherwick-studio/10026761.article. Online version accessed 26 September 2018. ↩︎
    16. From the Zeitz MOCAA architectural audio tour, September 2018. ↩︎
    17. Zeitz MOCAA architecture audio tour. ↩︎
    18. Ibid. ↩︎
    19. Ibid. ↩︎
    20. Berlanda, “Zeitz Geist.” ↩︎
    21. Zeitz MOCAA architectural audio tour. ↩︎
    22. Berlanda, “Zeitz Geitz.” ↩︎
    Go comment!
  • Missing Decades, Hidden Labor: Reconstructing and Interpreting Industrial Heritage in South Africa

    Sarah Rovang, 2017 H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellow
    Sep 6, 2018

    There is nothing magical about a gold mine. Barren and pockmarked, all dirt and no trees, fenced in all sides, a gold mine resembles a war-torn battlefield. The noise was harsh and ubiquitous: the rasp of shaft-lifts, the jangling power drills, the distant rumble of dynamite, the barked orders. Everywhere I looked I saw black men in dusty overalls looking tired and bent. They lived on the grounds in bleak, single-sex barracks that contained hundreds of concrete bunks separated from each other by only a few inches. (Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, Chapter 9)

    Standing in Pretoria’s Church Square a few weeks back, the sounds and sights of urban construction were omnipresent. Dozens of workers hefted shovels and axes under the midday sun as part of a new public work, stripping the existing surface of the square in preparation for a larger renovation. As I paused to snap a few photos of the statue of Dutch Boer president Paul Kruger at the square’s center, I heard laughter as a voice from behind me called out “You should take our picture — we are the real heroes!” A construction worker and his crew reclined nearby, having sought out the scant shade available to enjoy lunch and a much-deserved break. He said I wouldn’t be able to pronounce his Zulu name, but in English his name means “Praise God.” We talked politics (he’s a big Trevor Noah fan) and swapped stories about the places we grew up. He spoke incisively of the rampant corruption and unemployment in South Africa, which by current calculations hovers around 25%.1 Though he dreams of better pay and more fulfilling employment, in this economic climate, construction work is at the very least a job. As we parted ways, my husband asked how the future looked for him. Praise God shrugged and said, “It’s survival, my man. We just try to survive.”


    Praise God (front center) with his colleagues. This photo by my husband, John Golden.

    Standing there in the literal and proverbial shadow of Kruger, amidst the rubble and noise of new construction, I thought about how the historical spaces and places of South Africa continue to reverberate in the country’s tumultuous present. Especially here, in this place where the built environment was being actively remade, the rapid reinvention of South Africa over the last 150 years felt palpably present. This is after all, a young country, forged from the systematic and industrialized extraction of gold and diamonds, rising now from the rubble of one of the greatest human rights violations in recent history.2 In my capacity as the 2017 H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellow, I’ll be spending the next year exploring the life and afterlife of industrial heritage sites across the globe—how they are being interpreted for public audiences, adaptively reused, left to decay in place, or razed and forcibly forgotten.

    A rare public recognition of the economic role of mining labor during the Industrial Age. Sculpture by Andile Msongelwa, May 7, 2013. The inscription on the back reads: “During the 2007 wage negotiations, the Chamber of Mines of South Africa, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), UASA - The Union and solidarity agreed to recognize the role played by mineworkers in developing the economy of South Africa. This monument represents the symbolic and historical role played by mineworkers in shaping the economies of the mining towns and labour sending areas in particular and that of South Africa in general. We salute these economic heroes who risked their lives to make Johannesburg one of the most economically vibrant cities on the continent. We value their contribution to the economy and will strive for quality education for our children and the development of skills of mine workers to enable them to play their rightful role in the continued economic development of mining communities, labour sending areas and of the country as a whole.”

    As heritage sites, industrial places from the nineteenth century onward occupy a strange and tenuous place within current practices of global public history. Early spaces of industrialization are key to understanding the concept of the “Anthropocene,” the now ubiquitous trans-disciplinary term for the geological age in which humans have dramatically and irreversibly altered the structure and climate of our planet. These sites, which in addition to rarely conforming to standard conceptions of aesthetic appeal, are frequently characterized by historical practices of labor exploitation and environmental pollution. Often existing at massive scale, they can be difficult to adaptively reuse. Many have left their sites and surroundings damaged, both environmentally and socially.3

    The first stop on my itinerary is South Africa, where I’ve spent the past six weeks exploring the urban center of Johannesburg, before roadtripping from the mountainous Highveld region of Mpumalanga in the northeast, across the rugged central plateau, down the lush corridor of the Garden Route, and finally to Cape Town. During that time, I visited many sites of industrial production (mines, factories, ports, wineries), and the buildings constructed on the wealth generated and accumulated from those sites (company towns, museums, manor houses, hospitals, clubs, etc.).

    Across all of these different sites, rural or urban, hundreds of meters below ground or at the top the tallest building in Africa, I have been struck by the extent to which the architectural histories of industrialization and apartheid are inexorably linked. However, how (and even if) current public interpretation acknowledges that connection has varied significantly across the sites on my itinerary. As I’ve witnessed in South Africa, public history-making reveals a great deal about how a country conceptualizes of itself—its aspirations and self-perception are deeply embedded in how the past is being presented to public audiences, local and tourist alike.

    In selecting sites for my fellowship travels, I relied heavily on the UNESCO World Heritage list, as well as the list of tentative sites maintained by UNESCO that are intended for current or future nominations. South Africa currently includes no industrial sites on its tentative list, which struck me as strange, since the mining industry has had an outsized impact on the economic development, urban planning, and built environment of the country over the last century and a half. However, the absence of industrial sites on the list is, in fact, a relatively recent development. In 2015, South Africa dramatically reconfigured the cultural sites included on its tentative list, removing several significant and endangered industrial heritage sites, including the mining town of Pilgrim’s Rest, the open mine at Kimberley and its associated historic structures, and the Namaqualand Copper Mining landscape.4 The justification for the change is not entirely clear, though those in the heritage business here have speculated a number of different reasons, including the desire to conserve resources and target sites with the most chance of achieving World Heritage status.5

    The mining town of Pilgrim’s Rest is one of the sites de-listed from UNESCO tentative list. Today, the dwindling tourist economy seems to be barely supporting the town.

    Only two modern cultural heritage sites survived the 2015 cuts: the Early Farmsteads of the Cape Winelands and the Liberation Heritage Route. A third was also added during the reorganization, which partially overlaps with the latter listing: Human Rights Liberation Struggle and Reconciliation: Nelson Mandela Legacy Sites.6 Based on my observations over the last month, this current list reflects South Africa’s preservation priorities, each of which connect to certain kinds of buildings and historical sites. The first of these paradigms is anchored firmly in the colonial pre-industrial past, and is still largely dominated by the stories and places of white colonists and settlers, mainly of Dutch Boer or British descent. The second centers on the young democracy’s ongoing attempt to grapple with the recent, and still very raw, memory of apartheid. Sites that fall into one of these two categories are virtually inescapable in the touristic landscape of South Africa.

    Like an archaeologist peeling back stratigraphic layers of European architectural influence, my road trip across South Africa has taken me progressively deeper into the built remains of the past. The International Style office buildings in downtown Jo’burg and apartheid-era township housing of Soweto gave way to the late Victorian corrugated tin of mining towns in the Mpumalanga Province, then to rusticated brownstones in the Northern Cape, and eventually to the white-washed gables of Cape Dutch manor houses in the agricultural lands of the Western Cape.

    Driving west from Wilderness to Franschhoek a few weeks back, my husband and I stopped for an afternoon break in Swellendam. By this point in our drive, much of the historic building stock was firmly late seventeenth- or eighteenth-century, dating to the late days of the Dutch East India Company. This is the architectural heritage that has been carefully preserved at Swellendam’s Old Drostdy Museum, an impressive complex of historic and new buildings meant to evoke life in the late 1700s under Dutch colonial rule. Here, the second oldest jail in South Africa opens out onto a courtyard (or Ambagswerf in Afrikaans) of recently constructed thatched buildings, each housing the trappings of a different trade, such as tanning, milling, cobbling, and barrel making. Across the street, the Drostdy (or magistrate’s house) stands as an exemplar of early Cape Dutch architecture. In addition to reconstructed period rooms, one hallway charts the development of the Cape Dutch vernacular through the various expansions and changes made to the manor over time. Mayville, another, smaller house from the mid-nineteenth century illustrates the changing lifestyle of Swellendam’s middle class.7



    Cape Dutch heritage at the Old Drostdy Museum in Swellendam, South Africa. While the prison and the Drostdy (or magistrate’s house) both date to approximately 1750, the mill is a modern recreation that is part of the Ambagswerf, or trade yard, meant to demonstrate a variety of pre-industrial occupations.

    Old Drostdy is typical in many ways of the architectural heritage that has survived through apartheid and continues to flourish under South Africa’s democratic government. When apartheid ended in 1994 and Nelson Mandela became the country’s first democratically elected leader, the new government took stock of what had constituted heritage under the previous regime. What they found was a strong bias towards sites that emphasized the role of white, colonial actors.8 In particular, many national monuments declared under the National Party’s apartheid government were colonial sites located in the Western Cape, the province that includes Cape Town. By prioritizing early Dutch manor houses on historic farms and vineyards above other kinds of buildings, the National Party sought to legitimize its claim to power through association with this particular architectural tradition. So while heritage conservation in South Africa has broadened to include more diverse buildings and landscapes since 1994, it is undeniable that many of the sites valued by the apartheid regime have been well cared-for and remain in excellent condition today. The public history challenge for these sites has been to reframe the stories and meanings of these places in light of post-apartheid attempts to decolonize history, giving voice to non-white actors and telling a more inclusive range of stories. Places like the great Dutch colonial farms must confront the ways in which, as landscapes of power, they perpetuated the systematic disenfranchisement of non-white people, either overtly through the institution of slavery, or through more insidious means, such as the establishment of pass laws or other legislation meant to restrict freedom of movement.

    Many of the historic Cape Dutch sites such as Old Drostdy use the methods and strategies of vernacular architecture in a public history setting. Diachronic explorations of changing floor plans such as this are common in Cape Dutch manor houses. Equivalent analysis is rarely found at industrial sites.

    At many of the colonial sites on my South African itinerary, the move towards restorative justice through public storytelling seems to be happening slowly and incrementally. In the former stables of the magistrate’s house at Old Drostdy, a small installation about slavery sits next to the historical carriage and saddles. And in the main house, one of the rooms has been set aside for a short exhibition about the life of Nelson Mandela. Indeed, the inclusion of what might be termed a “Mandela room” has been undoubtedly the most frequent intervention towards telling the story of apartheid and the freedom struggle. This is true of almost all historic sites I’ve visited, including those with little to no historical connection to Mandela.


    At the McGregor Museum in Kimberley, one of the featured exhibitions highlights Mandela’s connections to the Northern Cape Province. Designed by D.W. Greatbatch, and completed in 1897, the McGregor Museum began its life as the brainchild of Cecil Rhodes, infamous British colonialist, diamond magnate, and instigator of the Anglo-Boer War. Having made his fortune in the diamond mines of Kimberley, Rhodes funneled much of his wealth into the architectural betterment of the city, including this building, which he imagined as a sanitarium. The “sanitarium” quickly became a hotel, and later served as Rhodes’s hideout through the Siege of Kimberley during the Anglo-Boer War. The ballroom, the best-lit and most prominent exhibition space in the museum, is now occupied by the Mandela material.

    Mandela, as a figure who is universally revered in South Africa, in public history settings has become a less controversial or objectionable way of acknowledging the apartheid past. If my experiences at Robben Island (where Mandela was held for 18 years during his prison sentence) or at his home in the township of Soweto are any indication, Mandela tourism is a big draw for both international and domestic audiences. The Mandela sites seem to be so attractive and effective in part because they give a face to the apartheid story. If we consider the spaces of apartheid as those meant to dehumanize through containment, surveillance, incarceration, and de-personalization, Mandela provides an entry point into that larger landscape. Consider Soweto (short for Southwestern Townships), a sprawling conurbation that today houses some 1.2 million people and during the 1970s and 1980s was a hotbed of resistance to apartheid. The environment of Soweto is one of seemingly endless houses constructed in succeeding waves as black Africans were displaced and relocated from their homes in and around Johannesburg. The scope of Soweto is staggering, but many visitors seem to find the connection to Mandela’s story a way of grasping Soweto. Sadly, the areas directly adjacent to the Mandela house (a block that also includes Desmond Tutu’s home) have been architecturally and economically transformed to suit the demands of tourism. As my husband put it, this area felt like “Disneyland Soweto,” sanitized for mass tourist consumption. Fortunately the same cannot be said for Robben Island. This inscribed UNESCO site has retained the full force of its austerity since its conversion from prison to historical site. The only material difference between Mandela’s cell in B-Block and the rest of the cells on the long corridor is the addition of a standard-issue red bucket, of the kind prisoners would have used as toilets.



    The photo of the roadside stand, taken by John Golden, is from an area of Soweto that was a men’s hostel (basically a fenced compound for workers) during apartheid. Note that you can buy a fat cake (fried dough) for 1 Rand, or about 7 cents US. The video, also by John Golden, shows a more developed portion of Soweto, comprised of houses built in the 1970s. Both are extremely different urban conditions from the area shown in the third photo, which depicts the streets around the Mandela and Desmond Tutu houses. Here, many of the houses have been upgraded over time, the roads are well-maintained, and space has been made for tour bus parking.

    If Mandela/Freedom Struggle sites and Cape Dutch architecture are the two major cornerstones of preservation right now—representing a pre-industrial colonial vision of the country, and the troubled time during and after apartheid—this still presents a narrow and incomplete reckoning of South Africa’s architectural heritage.9 What has been left out is the period between the beginning of mining consolidation and the official start of apartheid, between roughly 1890 and 1948. Critical for understanding what would come afterwards, it was during this period that much of the groundwork of apartheid was laid. Apartheid, as a spatial strategy of separation, was in large part made possible by the existing reconfiguration of the economic and built landscape of South Africa that accompanied industrialization. Many of these tactics had been first pioneered under slavery, but were radically accelerated and expanded during the early twentieth century, creating mass-produced spaces of racial segregation that mirrored the logic of industrial resource extraction and the manufacture of consumer goods.

    This critical epoch in South Africa’s history is notably absent even at actual industrial heritage sites with intact buildings and material culture dating from this period (including those removed from the UNESCO tentative list in 2015). The Kimberley Mine Museum and historic village, a DeBeers-funded spectacular complete with tiny, intricate dioramas of the historic mine and a flashy, outrageous “diamond room,”10 seems to pointedly sidestep the period after the mine’s consolidation. Compared to many similar historical sites in South Africa, which are sadly understaffed and underfunded, the Kimberley complex is a festival of high-production-value multi-media installations. But underneath all of that flash, the museum ultimately emphasizes a relatively narrow story—one that ends precisely before the initiation of industrialized mining.

    In many ways, Kimberley was the site that triggered the “Mineral Revolution” of South Africa. After the discovery of diamonds in 1866 sparked the first major diamond rush in the region, Kimberley generated much of the wealth and capital that then fed future mining exploits in and around Johannesburg and further east towards Cullinan, Pilgrim’s Rest, and Barberton. The diamond and gold mining boom fundamentally altered the political and economic landscape of the region, triggering the accumulation of wealth into the hands of a few, and the aggregation of people and culture in new urban metropolises such as Pretoria and Johannesburg.



    Kimberley was the first city in the Southern Hemisphere to install electric street lighting, some of which has been preserved as part of the historical complex near the Big Hole. It also featured an early electric streetcar system, which for 10 Rand (about 75 cents), visitors can still ride. The most exhilarating part of the trip was when the streetcar unexpectedly departed the historical village and continued out onto modern roadways outside the complex. Given that the streetcar only runs when there are enough passengers to fill it, its appearance on the streets of Kimberley must not be terribly frequent, which would explain the surprise and confusion of pedestrians and drivers we encountered.

    At Kimberley, the initial mining process was one of individual claim owners mining small tracts of land, often no more than 4 x 4 meters. Miners dug these claims with hand tools and the assistance of inexpensively hired indigenous workers. However, once the holes became too deep to be profitably mined by hand, and makeshift scaffolding began to cause insurmountable safety problems, more machinery and organized labor were required to construct underground tunnels. The requirement of more industrialized means of extraction necessitated the consolidation of the mining industry. At Kimberley, the DeBeers company eventually amassed a monopoly and took complete control of the mine. In Johannesburg, where early surface-level mining quickly gave way to heavily engineered deep mining, the diamond magnates of Kimberley bankrolled the digging of gold mines, and further enriched themselves in the process.



    Some of the more subtle and effective interpretive devices at Kimberley were the painted “claims” that covered the floor of the main exhibition hall. It was helpful to actually experience these claims at scale, which, given the size of the Big Hole, gave some sense of just how many miners might have been working in the early days of the mine. The subsequent dioramas show the contrast between the early decades of opencast mining, where miners maintained individual claims and constructed scaffolding as the mine went deeper, versus the capital- and machinery-intensive underground mining process of the consolidated DeBeers company.

    The interpretive apparatus of the Kimberley Mine Museum places an overwhelming emphasis on the period before the consolidation of DeBeers. The twenty-minute movie that is at the heart of the visitor experience tells the story of a British journalist and a native African laborer who separately travel to Kimberley to seek their fortunes. With its raucous saloons, diamond markets, and brothels, the cinematic portrayal of early Kimberley recalls popular conceptions of the American Old West. The film concludes with the two protagonists disenchanted and abandoning the mine in the late 1880s. This tendency to romanticize the rough-and-tumble scrabble for gold in the mine’s early years is carried on throughout the museum, where the exhibits play up the “heroic” actions of early diamond magnates, the geological processes through which diamonds are created, global myths and traditions about diamonds, and the present-day manufacturing of diamond jewelry. The life and experiences of workers in the mines during the period from roughly 1890 to the mine’s shutdown in 1914 are peripheral at best. Any discussion of the function and operation of the modern DeBeers corporation is markedly absent.


    Consolidated mining companies such as DeBeers frequently owned company towns and exerted extreme control over the built environment of their workers. Under the justification of “preventing diamond theft,” black African workers were increasingly restricted to tightly controlled compounds characterized by overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, and insufficient food. Workers were subjected to invasive strip searches each day when moving between mine and compound. During the early twentieth century, the compound system rapidly spread to other industries, becoming in many ways the precursor of the townships and hostels that predominated during apartheid. Compounds were planned on strict geometries, which enabled maximum surveillance and control. Different tribal groups were not allowed any contact, a move that mine owners typically justified as “preventing ethnic strife,” but which, in actuality, helped prevent the organization of labor across tribal lines.11


    Although most major industrial sites in South Africa had associated worker compounds at some point in history, few of these sites have survived, and even fewer are accessible to the public. One exception is the fantastic Worker’s Museum in Johannesburg. This museum, which unfortunately did not allow photographs, very convincingly argues that the struggle of apartheid was largely synonymous with the struggle for organized labor. Housed in a 1913 compound that was home to the workers at Johannesburg’s electric utilities company, the museum’s main “artifact” is the historic built environment itself, which is effectively cast as a microcosm of the larger demographic and cultural shifts that accompanied urbanization and industrialization in South Africa.

    Situated in the heart of Newtown in Johannesburg, the Workers Museum is further distinguished by its location near the original worksite of the laborers—the electric utilities building across the street. The former turbine building is one of South Africa’s outstanding examples of industrial architecture adaptively reused, and a topic for a future blog post.

    The workers who lived in compounds like this one came not only from the local area, but migrated from other parts of South Africa in search of better work and opportunities. Many of the rural hardships experienced in the late 1800s and early 1900s were strategically manufactured to “encourage” (read: coerce) rural men to leave their families and seek work in urban areas. Artificially high “hut taxes” and other forms of exploitation made village living so difficult that many men had no choice but to try their chances in a job where they would be forced to live in a compound for nine months out of the year. Reproductions of letters of complaint written by compound residents testify to the harsh conditions of daily life, as do the buildings themselves. The main exhibition space at the museum is one of the dormitories where black workers lived in crowded, filthy conditions—a stark constrast to the separate houses where their white counterparts resided in the very same compound. Recreational spaces for the black workers were incidental rather than part of the design (the yard could also be used for chatting, games, or the “gumboot” dancing developed by miners as a pastime). By contrast, disciplinary spaces occupied an outsize position in the complex, with corporal punishment carried out in the central courtyard as a warning to other workers. However, as much as compounds confined and restricted movement, they were also sites of resistance and frequently fertile ground for organized labor movements. The Worker’s Museum charts the development of union action through the twentieth century, crediting organized labor with some of the most effective actions taken against the National Party’s apartheid regime.12 Given the role of organized labor in the freedom movement, it is not surprising that South Africa’s constitution now guarantees the right of workers to unionize.



    The week after my visit to the Workers Museum, I spent several hours 763 meters underground in the Premier Diamond Mine, an operational mine located in Cullinan, about an hour northeast of Johannesburg. After resurfacing, I attempted to track down the mine’s historical worker compound. Before the mine tour, I’d spent the morning wandering around Cullinan’s Main Street, which is comprised of quaint, stone houses converted into shops and cafés (previously occupied by white miners and managers). It’s very easy to buy a diamond in Cullinan, or to see a recreation of the Cullinan Diamond, which is now part of the British Crown Jewels. And a visitor can view virtually any piece of historical mining equipment, thanks to the free open-air museum and children’s play area (“You climb on the machinery at your own risk!”). However, as far as I could discern, visiting the worker’s compound is currently impossible for a tourist. A panel about the worker’s compound in the small mining museum played up the “upgrades” made to the compound over time, which provided the workers with more recreational options over the years. The museum did not, however, include any indication of where the compound was located on the site or whether it was open to the public. Using what little information I could find online to locate the old worker’s compound, we drove out on a dirt road until we were eventually confronted with a concrete barricade and a barbed wire fence. A report on the Heritage Portal concerning South Africa’s most endangered heritage sites noted that the Cullinan compound is currently in danger of subsiding into the open mine pit, irreparably damaging this complex, and with it, severing the architectural connection to the stories of thousands of workers over the course of the twentieth century.13 Although apartheid officially ended in 1994, its aftereffects certainly echo in places such as Cullinan, revealing the disparities in whose history is being preserved and made accessible to public audiences, and whose history is hidden behind a barricade and left to the forces of time and gravity.



    Part of the challenge I’ve faced in this first six weeks of travel has been to develop a working method for decoding richly-layered and complicated public history experiences like those at Cullinan, Kimberley, and the Worker’s Museum. The public storytelling component of my project has added a “meta” layer to what I’m looking at in any given site; not only am I investigating the historical architecture itself, but also analyzing all of the other narrative devices and aspects of that architectural experience. As part of my documentation process, for instance, I’ve been creating audio recordings of the various places I’ve visited. This process has heightened my awareness of how auditory cues are deployed to evoke certain experiences, and the ways in which that sensory input alters the visual and bodily experience of moving through a historical space. Particularly interesting have been the instances (such as the one heard in the sound clip below) where certain media or devices are telling one story, while another story is being told by the lived experience of the site. This will be a topic to which I will be undoubtedly returning in future blogs.

    In contrast to the vision of pre-industrial Kimberley given by the main exhibition hall, movie, and open-air historical village, the audio installation included in a small mock-up of the underground mine tells a different story. In this sound installation, which includes a dramatic simulated dynamite explosion near the beginning, the industrial process of underground mining (of the type that happened from the late 1880s through 1914) is vividly brought to life. The intensity and volume of the sound gave some slight indication of the poor working conditions faced by underground miners, foreshadowing Mandela’s description in the epigraph of this post of a cacophonous 1940s gold mine in Johannesburg.

    On my second day in Kimberley, having toured the Mine Museum and seen the famous Big Hole, I arrived at the Africana Library, which advertises one of the best collections of historical photographs and records in the Northern Cape. This beautifully-preserved 1887 building originally functioned as Kimberley’s first public library, its collection assembled largely out of donated books brought to Kimberley by those who had come to seek their fortunes in the mine. Our tour guide, Michael, also serves as an assistant librarian and archivist. A longtime resident of Kimberley, all of his training has been in-house, conducted on an as-needed basis. Faced with a harsh, arid climate and limited resources, the library has been forced to triage the preservation of its collection, digitizing the oldest and most fragile works before they disintegrate. Michael glowed with pride as he described the recent purchases made possible by a grant from the National Lottery: a new book scanner and a climate control system for one of the rooms in the stacks. Despite his white-collar job, Michael wore the ubiquitous blue jumpsuit with green neon reflective stripes donned by so many workers in South Africa. His garb brought me back to my conversation with Praise God, whose crew wore the same attire. Beyond providing a decent living, heritage work was clearly providing Michael with a means of engaging with the past and future. Further, jobs like Michael’s promote greater inclusion in the production of public history, expanding who has a true stake in the creation and performance of heritage. In South Africa, it’s not nearly enough to increase public access to historic properties, or to simply include more and varied sites on the UNESCO tentative list (though these things are certainly important as well). More people need to feel like stakeholders in heritage; included in the ongoing and still troubled process of reconciliation. Facing a lack of funding and pernicious government corruption, it’s unclear how the country will execute such a feat.



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    1. Trading Economics, “South Africa Unemployment Rate.” Last updated July 31, 2018. Accessed August 29, 2018. https://tradingeconomics.com/south-africa/unemployment-rate ↩︎
    2. Johannesburg, which is now one of the leading urban, economic powerhouses of Africa, is less than 150 years old. It has the distinction of being a city whose history coincides with the age of photography, and has been extensively documented in the photographic medium. For more on the early architectural history of Johannesburg, see Gerhard-Mark van der Waal, From Mining Camp to Metropolis: The Buildings of Johannesburg, 1886-1940, Pretoria: C. van Rensburg Publications for the Human Sciences Research Council, 1987. ↩︎
    3. For more on the motivations and goals of my Brooks Fellowship project, you can listen to the pilot podcast of Sundowners (https://anchor.fm/sarah-rovang/episodes/Sundowners-Episode-1-e1s5rq), or read the transcript at https://rovangeye.com/2018/07/28/sundowners-ep-1-conversation-at-a-party/. ↩︎
    4. For more about the 2015 UNESCO de-listing, and its possible consequences on the ground for these endangered industrial sites, visit my two-part blog on Pilgrim’s Rest. https://rovangeye.com/2018/08/14/there-is-no-law-here-the-pilgrims-rest-mystery-part-1/ and https://rovangeye.com/2018/08/17/pilgrims-rest-part-2/ ↩︎
    5. Jacques Stoltz, “SA removes sites from the UNESCO world heritage tentative list,” The Heritage Portal, October 25, 2015; originally published July 24, 2015. Accessed August 19, 2018. http://www.theheritageportal.co.za/article/sa-removes-sites-unesco-world-heritage-tentative-list ↩︎
    6. UNESCO World Heritage Listing of inscribed and tentative sites in South Africa. Accessed August 29, 2018. https://whc.unesco.org/en/statesparties/za ↩︎
    7. The Old Drostdy Museum in Swellendam. Accessed August 29, 2018. http://www.drostdy.com ↩︎
    8. According to a “Report on Future Direction for Heritage Conservation in South Africa.” South African government document, October 1994. Architectural archives at the University of Witswatersrand. ↩︎
    9. Preservation activists are actively addressing the ways in which heritage in South Africa neglects or ignores certain kinds of narratives and agents. As the summary of a 2006 conference on the state of the country’s heritage preservation noted, “State-led commemorations of nationalist achievements and struggle histories have been highly selective, liable to elevate ruling party histories and heroes over others, often ignoring unions, youth or women, and dealing with violence selectively or not at all.“ In other words, even though heritage sites related to the Freedom Struggle and apartheid expand public understanding beyond the kinds of colonial, Eurocentric sites privileged in earlier eras, they too come packaged with their own set of biases and assumptions. JoAnn McGregor and Lyn Schumacher, “Heritage in Southern Africa: Imagining and Marketing Public Culture and History,” Journal of Southern African Studies 32, no. 4 (December 2006): 655. ↩︎
    10. https://www.debeersgroup.com/southafrica/en/who-we-are/de-beers-in-south-africa/kimberley.html ↩︎
    11. Nelson Mandela explains the organization of the compounds by tribes this way: “The mining companies preferred such segregation because it prevented different ethnic groups from uniting around a common grievance and reinforced the power of the chiefs” (Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, Chapter 9). By contrast, signage at Kimberley gives an explanation of the compound system that does not explicitly mention race: “Throughout the 1870s, theft and illicit diamond buying (IDB) was a major concern among claim-holders. Stricter controls and searching systems were introduced, which paved the way for the closed compound system in 1885.” At Cullinan, the given explanation reads: “Due to internal fighting between the different ethnic groups the mine split the shifts along ethnic groups and accommodated them in compounds according to ethnic groups.” ↩︎
    12. http://www.newtown.co.za/heritage/view/index/workers_museum ↩︎
    13. Heritage Monitoring Project. “Our vanishing heritage – South Africa’s top ten endangered sites 2016.” The Heritage Portal, September 22, 2016. Accessed August 19, 2018. http://www.theheritageportal.co.za/article/our-vanishing-heritage-south-africas-top-ten-endangered-sites-2016 ↩︎
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