Taking as a starting point this key moment of incursion, I set out in 2007 to make a photographic document that would ask: what are the material traces and evidence of this particular ‘Settler culture’ after nearly 200 years in Africa, and how has it been absorbed, transmuted, maintained, obscured, abandoned or reinvented?
This visual essay engages with an historical tipping-point, in which the evidence of past occupation is graphically present as a sort of architectural ossuary, while the hints of a future to come are still hesitant. It is not, however, a ‘document’ of the region or any historical moment. Rather, the images explore the subjective dimensions and influence of settler culture through the ways it remains inscribed on the landscape and in architecture. They also reflect ways that settler presence has been changed, effaced, or re-appropriated under current ‘post-colonial’ conditions. They are as much about invisible and subjective dimensions as outward forms, and the subject of this project is as much a country of the mind as a physical space.
To those familiar with the ideological history of white South Africa, this modest house with its nouveau-Cape-Dutch gable will immediately recall the climate of the 1920s, when in the years after union, still embittered by memories of the Anglo-Boer war, a new ‘South African’ identity was being consciously forged to bring together ‘Boer’ and ‘Brit’, and the United Party stood for the bridging of a ‘race problem’ that entirely ignored anyone not white.
Back yard, Willowmore
The back yard, or ‘werf’ was a key zone of South African white identity. Neither garden nor free land, it gave proprietorial boundary to an area set aside for dogs, servants, and the functional underpinnings of the home such as the washing of clothes and motor cars. In that sense it was a vital demesne of seigneurial ownership. So to have it so seamlessly open to the pavement is a pure sign of the dissolution of an order at both a public and private level.
‘Coloured’ area, Aberdeen
A generation after the end of Apartheid this area of Aberdeen with its mud houses remains occupied by those, and their descendents, who were put there under the Group Areas Act which divided every town into racially exclusive zones. The fact that the streets are unpaved is not, however, exclusive. The only road in Aberdeen ever tarred was the highway that led straight through it, and that has been bypassed for half a century.
The fence is perhaps the primary indicator of civilised presence; it sets the bounds for what is ‘ours’ and what is, both literally and figuratively, ‘beyond the pale’. Inside is garden, order, law, civility; outside wilderness and savagery. Whether circling the compound or the colony itself, it is a defining marker of colonial presence. These binaries operate even when, as in this case, the fence is itself a loose collage of materials, putative functions, and cultural statements brought together by unselfconscious pragmatism.
Township and veld, near Adelaide
The towns of the settler area are all similar in their demography: a small and thoroughly decayed colonial centre, with sprawling and populous townships on the surrounding plains and hills. These comprise four layers of habitation: pre-Apartheid houses of wattle and daub, Apartheid-era townships of ubiquitous brick matchboxes, shantytowns of ragged ‘informal’ dwellings fetched up from tin, planks, cardboard and anything that comes to hand, and post-Apartheid ‘RDP’ (Reconstruction and Development Programme) cinder block government-issue structures even smaller and more basic than those of the Apartheid era. There is virtually no employment, goats graze the veld to the point of destruction and new graves abound. The town of Adelaide was founded as a garrison in 1834 and named after the wife of King William IV.