Franco Frescura

The proponents of historical conservation in South Africa were probably inspired by romantic ideals similar to those expressed by Italo Calvino, when he wrote that "a town without old buildings is like a man without a memory". As a result to date some 3828 of this country's buildings, sites and artifacts have been declared national monuments. 97% of these celebrate white culture, 83% are located in urban areas, and 75% may be found in the Cape. One outcome of this bias has been to reinforce some black preconceptions: that whites are overly pre-occupied with the conservation of old books, buildings and artifacts whilst having a throw-away attitude towards their parents, marriages and children.

The declaration of monuments has also had some unexpected and unwanted repercussions at a material level. Buildings singled out for national status are automatically elevated to the position of "cultural objects", and are thus separated from their urban contexts. Surrounding buildings not accorded such recognition are somehow deemed to be "less worthy" and therefore become more vulnerable to demolition and redevelopment. The proclamation of a monument, therefore, has often led to the destruction of its immediate surrounds. Cuthbert's Building, in Johannesburg, stands testimony to such failure.

Debates currently taking place in South Africa indicate that present national monument policies will have to undergo a dramatic reorientation of emphasis if our historical built heritage is to survive. In part this will mean replacing the Monument Council's predominant white, male and conservative terms of reference with ones more reflective of this country's rich and varied cultural fabric. Since 1936 the Council has been served by 86 executive members. To date only three have been women, two have come from outside the white community, and at least 30 are known to be Broederbonders.

It also means that conservation efforts will not be focused entirely upon individual historical buildings, or even groups of structures, but upon whole environments. Special attention will have to be paid to preserving a community's quality of life, and the financial opportunities that such environments can engender. South Africa cannot afford monuments whose only function is to house museums, nor can it allow the values of our ancestors to dictate the lives of the living. New and appropriate uses will have to be found for old buildings, and new ways of preserving the ephemeral will need to be explored.

The objective of such moves would not be to freeze growth, as many people fear, but rather to permit development and work-generation within the framework of a valuable and non-renewable resource. The commercial viability and tourist value of historical environments has been more than demonstrated at the Waterfront in Cape Town, and the city centres of Pietermaritzburg and Stellenbosch. Even Johannesburg which, over the years, has imploded its historical heritage as part of a sustained programme of Sunday entertainment, revels in the prepackaged historical confections of Gold Reef City. Tourists also clearly prefer the charms of Fransch Hoek, to those of Vanderbijl Park, and successful business people are retiring to historical Montagu, not Welkom.

The conservation of whole environments will also make it possible to preserve some of this country's indigenous architecture. Important settlements may be found at kwaMatabeleng near Pretoria, Mukumbani in Venda, and Mapungubwe near Messina, which dates back 1050 AD and is presently the site of an SADF army camp. A new attitude towards monuments also means that the status of some structures will have to change.  I do not believe that too many tears will be shed when Verwoerd's cottage at Betty's Bay is deproclaimed. A radical change of image will also be needed in the case of Uitenhage's prime civic landmark, the Victoria Tower, which once housed the Security Police HQ.

Distinction will also have to be drawn between "monuments", buildings which belong to the national heritage, and "memorials", which are normally structures of little architectural merit. Post-colonial Africa has an excellent record of maintaining both, and South Africa will probably not prove the exception. However, I foresee that a strong case may well be made at some future time for the privatisation of the Voortrekker Monument, and personally I think that a valuable piece of real estate such as Strydom Square, in Pretoria, will not remain a jacuzzi for horses for very long.

One major change, however, is likely to be the devolution of the conservation process into local and regional structures. Local communities are best qualified to judge the memories they hold dearest and wish to hand down to future generations. This means that, while a central agency (like the NMC) will continue to take responsibility for the national heritage, local historical societies, museums and interest groups will be able to identify and preserve structures of regional value.

It is clear from negotiations, however, that a large body of consensus already exists upon many of these points. The need to preserve our historical environment is no longer a matter of cultural romanticism, but is likely to form a major component of this country's future economic development.


This article was originally published in the Star, Johannesburg, 21 November 1992

Copyright @