A voter abroad

Andrew Donaldson writes on casting his ballot at South Africa House in London



TO Trafalgar Square and South Africa House where I voted along with thousands of expats. Fashionable as such declarations may presently be, I will not be revealing the political party of my choice. That remains my business, and mine alone.

I will however admit that I have not been swayed by chatter of voting “strategically”. Talk of a “long game” and “a bigger picture” is too what-what for my liking, the sort of thing the hard of thinking say when they think too hard. A sinking ship, my gut instead tells me, remains a sinking ship no matter whose hand is on the tiller.

That aside, it was good to be back inside the high commission, and not just because of the weather. It was Freedom Day, staff had made a tiny effort to mark the occasion and, at least in the hats and scarves department, the sporting of national colours was appreciably discernible.

Such sartorial boldness was absent the last time I had business there, in 2005, but I was pleased to see that very little had changed at South Africa House. The place remains a treasure trove of high nationalist kitsch, stuffed to the rafters, literally, with the sort of gimcracks and vulgarities that are the byproducts of identity politics and the crude pursuit of social cohesion.

Here and there, however, emerging from the muck on the walls, are some notable early 20th century South African works of art, one of which is a landscape by Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef hanging in the passage to the library where we voted.

Perhaps it struck a homesick nerve, but the Pierneef so moved a young couple in the queue in front of me that they stopped with the selfies and began snapping away at the painting. They were immediately told to stop by a passing bureaucrat with a funny hat. “You’re not allowed to take pictures,” she said, “because of various copyright reasons.”

This, of course, wasn’t the first time that an appreciation of the art at South Africa House has bothered the functionaries there.

Officially opened in 1933, the building was designed by Sir Herbert Baker in collaboration with then high commissioner Charles te Water to showcase not only the country’s arts, industries and natural splendours, but also, in a neat and tidily sanitised package, its rather troublesome and violent past. It was a task tackled with gusto.

According to the art historian Annie E Coombes, the overriding impression of Baker’s design are the constant references in the building’s decorative schema to “an ideal of nation and indigeneity”. She writes in her book, History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa:

“Most crucially, the interior of the building narrativises history with a persistence that is rare. Moreover, the paintings in South Africa House were understood by many at the time as accurate representations of passages in South Arica’s history, to the extent that a number of publishers of school history texts requested copies of the images as illustrations of events for their books.”

And it’s not only the paintings. On each floor, stonemasons and sculptors hammered into to the very building itself the selective symbols of that past: coats of arms representing Portuguese, Dutch, Huguenot and British explorers and settlers, along with Voortrekker wagons, muskets and powder horns, and much more besides.

This, then, is not a place for the Nelson Mandela Foundation. If, as they claim in their bid to have it banned, the old South African flag is a racist symbol of white supremacy and a painful reminder of the oppression of black people, then there is much that will exercise them here.

Many consider the foundation’s court bid mean-spirited and petty, a provocation that is bound to backfire. As Mrs Donaldson helpfully points out, “It’s like telling your daughter she can’t date the drummer.”

Quite apart from that, there are valid concerns about freedom of expression: what will the botherers next want to ban?

The first post-apartheid diplomatic mission to the Court of St James wanted to get rid of pretty much everything. As London’s Evening Standard reported with uncomfortable enthusiasm in November 2001:

“When a new wave of South African diplomats arriving in London to work at the country's High Commission found the building crammed with murals and paintings, it was soon realised they were an embarrassing reminder of the country's racist past.

“The art on display at South Africa House in Trafalgar Square included idealised images of landscapes from which black and mixed-race towns and people had mysteriously disappeared, inaccurate portraits of indigenous people in supposedly traditional dress, and even natives bowing contentedly at the feet of white masters.”

There were calls, the Standard said, for murals depicting black people “only in deferential roles” to be painted over.

But as Lorna de Smidt, the historian and political scientist charged with the building’s makeover, told the newspaper, “We had to acknowledge the past, and accept that it is there. You can’t just airbrush things out of history and pretend they didn’t exist.”

Lest we all get excited and point the Nelson Mandela Foundation in this direction, it should be noted that this acknowledgement of the past was not as a result of any pragmatism on the part of the new occupants. It was instead forced on them.

South Africa House has been a Grade II listed building since 1982. De Smidt was told by English Heritage that, in terms of its conservation rules, the building was part of English heritage, and the South African government therefore had no right to alter or destroy any aspect of its exterior or interior. What. So. Ever.

Some murals were covered with removable panes of glass upon which quotations were etched which placed the “offensive” original in “context”. An act of vandalism lite, you could say.

But other works were able to be removed, among them paintings by Pierneef’s great rival, Jan Juta, a “second-rate” artist, according to the Standard, “who only obtained his commission through nepotism”.

This grand tradition of artistic patronage no doubt endures today, and arguably explains the great wealth of “airport art” and other monstrosities in public spaces lionising a newer history that is, in itself, just as fabulous as the one it hopes to replace.

Juta, by the by, was so “second-rate” that he was commissioned to illustrate D H Lawrence’s 1921 book, Sea and Sardinia, now considered a classic of travel writing.

It was Juta who was responsible for the painting of local types grovelling at the feet of Simon van der Stel. It is obviously in our best interests, then, that, like so much of the art that used to hang in our public buildings, this sort of thing has been removed from the gaze of the general public.

Still, it is baffling that so many of these old pieces, offensive and racist as they apparently are, should find their way into the hands of the new elite. In this regard, ANC secretary general Ace Magashule has yet to offer a credible explanation for the disappearance early last year of a Pierneef valued at R8-million from his office when he was premier of the Free State.

One can only hope that it is safely locked up somewhere, and hasn’t suffered same fate as the SABC’s Pierneef, most of which was stolen in 2005. Thieves had attempted to cut the work from its frame where it hung on the 15th floor of the Radio Park building in Auckland Park. Unfortunately, they left a third of the painting behind.


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