top of page

Properly African: properly a state by Julia Gallagher

South Africans, like other post-colonial societies, face the dilemma of how to replace and yet also reproduce the state.

The difficulty in finding an answer is reflected in discussions about what to do with old buildings. No matter how much you might want to renovate, replace and modernise, the thought of getting rid of what was solidly made leads to considerable anxiety. What methods, forms and ideas should be used instead?

A potential way to surmount this problem is to draw on ideas and imagery from the pre-colonial era. One example of where this has been tried is the Northern Cape Legislature building in Galeshewe near Kimberley.

The building is not well-known outside the immediate area, but many people who took part in our pop-up discussions in and around Pretoria and Johannesburg, seeing pictures of it for the first time, were impressed by its unorthodox structure and colours, and suggested that it looked like a properly ‘African’ building.

The Legislature is in the middle of scrubby bush. Looking at the site from the main road, you see a collection of buildings in earthy colours and various shapes – a cone, a horned building among them, strangely incongruous within the neglected landscape, flanked by the township beyond.

The aesthetic is based on pre-colonial ideas, in shapes and colours and in the use of outdoor space where locals are meant to gather and petition their representatives (who can receive them from a small balcony on the side of a building in the shape of a bull-horn).

If you approach on foot you pass through a litter-strewn landscape that smells of human excrement (dignitaries approach by the more salubrious road). This building makes no attempt to tame the landscape; locally sympathetic, it is meant to sit harmoniously within it.

Jonathan Noble argues that it deliberately eschews the ‘transcendental ideal’ of colonial-era buildings[1] and offers instead a ‘cosmopolitan representation’: ‘Narrative remains open, totality unresolved.’[2] Federico Freschi is less complimentary, describing the complex as a post-modern mess.[3]

The building makes several attempts to redefine the state. First, it bypasses the colonial/apartheid era and attempts to link democratic processes and popular accountability to a more ‘authentic’ African set of ideas, next to the homes of poor black South Africans, unlike the conventional state that was always out of reach.

And second, it describes a state that is thoughtful, even ambiguous, about the complex, diverse society it represents, avoiding the definitive statements of authority attempted by colonial and apartheid-era state buildings.

Local community activists say that ‘it belongs to us’, partly because of its location which makes access easy. And also because the building celebrates their struggle, decorated with pictures of local anti-apartheid veterans: ‘you can actually identify yourself with those pictures. So it’s more of a people’s thing’.[4]

Unfortunately the building, erected only in 2003, is cracked and in need of repair. But even this fact doesn’t seem to create much concern among locals who were confident that repairs would be completed soon.

Many express affection for the building’s unusual architecture, focusing on the cone structure in front of the open space which hosts community events, designed to evoke traditional forms of political gathering in the open, when people were summoned by the sounds of a bull horn.[5]

However, although the ‘African’ forms of the building seem to provoke a fuzzy sense of affection and pride, the ideas and engagement engendered by them are actually linked to more conventional forms of modern statehood than the open, cosmopolitan ethos that Noble suggests.

People spoke approvingly of the security around the building, ‘you feel like you are in a safe place’; it’s ‘feng shui’.[6]

One woman described the building in distinctly transcendental terms, saying that it has ‘that spirit’ of a Catholic cathedral, an atmosphere that ‘brings those goosebumps’.[7]

For those who were less involved in local politics, or impressed by state symbolism, there are more tangible benefits. One man explained: ’90 per cent go for the freebies’ handed out at public events.[8]

The horn itself also seems to symbolise something more modern. One young woman thinks it’s like a ‘giant lipstick’,[6] and an older man explained how ‘it’s built like a ship’ with a chimney.

His view was less that the building embodies a pre-colonial authority, but that it properly and finally realises a state project imperfectly executed under colonialism. ‘Jan van Riebeek was supposed to make a ship out of [the Cape Town Parliament], but he didn’t do that… he didn’t do it properly’.[10]

For this man, the Northern Cape Legislature is less a symbol of authentic African political authority and more a seeing through of a project only half-finished by the colonialists.

[1] Jonathan Alfred Noble, African Identity in Post-Apartheid Public Architecture: white skin, black masks (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), p. 93

[2] Noble African Identity in Post-Apartheid Public Architecture, p. 105.

[3] Federico Freschi, ‘Southern African Humanities – Imagining unity : the construction of an imaginary of 'unity in diversity' in the decorative programme of the Northern Cape Legislature building’, Southern African Humanities 18, 2 (2006), pp. 155-72

[4] Focus group with community activists, Galeshewe, 21 January 2019 (Kimberley_FG1)

[5] Focus group with workers in a care home, Galeshewe, Kimberley, 21 January 2019 (Kimberley_FG2)

[6] Kimberley_FG1

[7] Kimberley_FG1

[8] Focus group with care home employees, Galeshewe, 21 January 2019 (Kimberley_FG2)

[9] Focus group with youth volunteers, Galeshewe, Kimberley, 23 January 2019 (Kimberley_FG5)

[10] Kimberley_FG1


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page