Anglican Cathedral to Presbyterian Church – the fascinating journey of a church with a history

Main door of St Saviour’s, Randjesfontein, 2012

Echoes of a Victorian theological controversy which played out in the British Natal colony are heard in the Presbyterian Church of St Saviour’s in Midrand, Gauteng.

In 1853 Anglican divine and mathematician John William Colenso was appointed Bishop of Natal by the then Metropolitan Bishop of Cape Town, the Right Reverend Robert Gray. Colenso came to his new bishopric, centred on St Peter’s Cathedral in Pietermaritzburg, in 1854 and was quite soon involved in controversy around two issues – the first was his liberal interpretation of certain Biblical texts and the second was his, for the times, radical approach to the black people of the colony, the amaZulu of King Cetewayo kaMpanda.

Bishop Colenso’s views on these matters, especially his Biblical

St Saviour’s Cathedral, Pietermaritzburg, 1870

liberalism, brought him notoriety (or fame, depending on one’s point of view) throughout the English-speaking world. The High Church party in Britain was particularly worried about the theological and political ramifications of Colenso’s opinions and Gray in December 1863 deposed Colenso after a church trial for heresy.

Colenso successfully appealed against this action but he was opposed by the Dean of his Cathedral, Dean James Green who on Colenso’s return left St Peter’s with his followers and set up a parallel Church in St Saviour’s in 1868.

Another Bishop was appointed by Gray, Bishop W.K. Mcrorie, who took his throne in St Saviour’s. Thus for a number of years there were two Church of England dioceses in Natal Colony, a situation which only came to an end after Colenso’s death in June 1883.

Looking up the nave towards the sanctuary.

The two church buildings however continued to function, with St Peter’s being an ordinary parish church, until St Saviour’s was de-consecrated in 1976 and set for demolition in 1981.

The lovely woodwork of the ceiling

Two men associated with the development of a residential township on the historical former farm Randjesfontein in Midrand, Gauteng, Charles Lloys Ellis and Keith Parker, heard of the imminent demolition of St Saviour’s and decided to buy the sanctuary, transepts, nave, chapter room and library and transport the fabric to Midrand. Here the former Cathedral was re-built under the guidance of architect Robert Brusse.

The north wall of St Saviour’s with the baptistry

The re-constructed church is beautifully simple and elegant, retaining much of the Victorian Gothic of the original. The roof is high with lovely Gothic-style trusses and the floor of red tiles is also remarkable.

On one side of the nave is an organ loft and on the other a small baptistry chapel. The entrance to the church looks still very much as it did in 1870.

St Saviour’s, Randjesfontein, was consecrated for worship on 16 May 1985 – appropriately, the Feast of the Ascension.

The beautiful grounds of St Saviour’s

The church is surrounded by beautifully-maintained gardens shaded by high conifers.

The building is still privately-owned and is rented to the Midrand Presbyterian Congregation. The beauty of the building has also ensured that is popular as a wedding venue and a venue for musical recitals and other cultural activities.

A gallery of more of my photos of this beautiful church can be found here.


Anatolia comes to Midrand – the largest mosque in the Southern Hemisphere rises on the Highveld

The Nizamiye Mosque seen from the north

Travelling north on the N1 highway from Johannesburg to Pretoria a sight can be seen which might have students and lovers of architecture rubbing their eyes – a three-quarter replica of the famous Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, Turkey, stands on a rise to the east with its four tall minarets like rockets ready for launching into space standing around an imposing dome.

Built in a period of 2-and-a-half years the Nizamiye Mosque was constructed by some 300 workers from South Africa and Turkey and is the result of the generosity of an anonymous man from Istanbul who wanted to build a masjid where the Ottomans had been unable to – in the Southern Hemisphere.

The building was supervised by South African architect Ahmed Shabbir Bham and follows the style of the original, which was designed by famous Turkish architect Mimar Sinan (c1490 – 1588) in the late 16th Century. He set out in the design of the Selimiye Mosque to disprove a saying common among architects in the Ottoman Empire: “You can never build a dome larger than the dome of Hagia Sophia and specially as Muslims“.

The dome of Selimiye Mosque was indeed slightly larger than that of Hagia

Looking up into the dome with its rich calligraphic decorations

Sophia and is characterised by a sense of airy space due to the positioning of the interior supports close to the walls.

“The sense of unity is likewise emphasised on the exterior by the placing of four high minarets close to the rising mass of the central dome,” – from the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architecture & Technological Change (London, 1979).

The minarets of Nizamiye are 55 metres high while those of the Selimiye are 83 metres. The dome of Selimiye is 83m high and that of Nizamiye is 62.25m.

The ceiling of the colonnade around the courtyard is richly decorated

The materials used in the construction of Nizamiye Mosque were locally sourced except for some specialised items such as the tiles, marble and carpets used.

The workers recruited from Turkey were specialists in calligraphy, art and marble work.

I asked Orhan Celik, director of the Aksan Property Development company why Midrand was chosen as the site for this imposing building and he told me it was because it was the only place they could find appropriate land of the required size located close to a city.

“Also Midrand is half way between Pretoria and Johannesburg and it is the seat of the African Parliament, so it has historical significance too,” he added.

Like its model in Turkey, Nizamiye Mosque stands in a külliye, a complex comprising a school, shops and a clinic.

The courtyard of the mosque. A huge banqueting hall is underneath this marble paving.

Under the beautiful courtyard of the mosque is a banqueting hall which can seat up

Basmala (the Bismillah phrase) – image via Wikipedia

to 1000 guests. In the centre of the courtyard is an ablution facility (wudhu khana) topped by a skylight for the hall below.

All worshippers who wish to enter the masjid need to do wudhu before entering. This is a ritual cleansing involving the intention to cleanse oneself and then washing the hands, face and feet, often accompanied by recitation of the Bismillah (in the Name of God).

The prayer hall of the mosque is always entered without shoes and there is usually

Looking across the prayer hall towards the qibla wall. The mihrab can be seen to the right of the picture

place provided for the shoes to be kept while the worshipper is inside the prayer hall.

In the prayer hall itself there are no pews and the hall is orientated towards the Kaaba in Mecca, Islam’s holiest shrine. The main entrance to the prayer hall is opposite the qibla wall, or the wall in the direction of Mecca. Worshippers kneel on the rich carpeting of the hall facing the qibla wall in

The wudhu khanna in the centre of the courtyard

which there is no door.

The direction of the Kaaba in Mecca is also indicated by the mihrab, an alcove in the qibla wall. This wall is at right angles to a line leading to Mecca.

Also against the qibla wall is the minbar or pulpit from which important prayers will be led by an imam or other spiritual leader. In the Nizamiye the minbar is raised quite high and is very ornate.

The minarets symbolise the striving towards Allah by the faithful and also had a practical purpose – they were used by muezzins to call the faithful to prayer. When raised up high the muezzin could be heard

Nizamiye from the north east

further than if he were standing on the roof of the mosque.

Cherif Jah Abderrahmán, president of the Western Institute for Islamic Culture, said in 2007, “… the architectural shape which best and more clearly indicates the presence of Islam, is the minaret, whatever its current function and whichever may be the social reasons which led to its construction.”

Certainly from a distance the minarets of Nizamiye are striking.

The mosque is due to be opened officially on 4 October 2012.

A gallery of my photos of this magnificent mosque is available at Please feel free to visit!










Atomkraft? – nein danke!

“They looked up and saw the eye of death.” – Time magazine, 7 August 1995

A man looks over the expanse of ruins left by the explosion of the atomic bomb on in Hiroshima, Japan. (AP Photo)

A group of schoolgirls were helping clean the streets of Hiroshima at about 08h16 on Monday, 6 August 1945, when a B-29 Flying Fortress flew high overhead. Their teacher drew attention to it – “There’s a B-san (Mr B)” and they looked up at it.

In seconds, their world, and the worlds of hundreds of thousands of others in that Japanese city, had been irrevocably turned upside down, and for many the world had simply come to an end.

There was a blinding flash of light which brought darkness to thousands in seconds after the bomb dropped by the B-29 detonated some 580 metres above Hiroshima.

It was the birth of a totally new chapter in the long history of humanity – a chapter which is still being written, and the denouement of which is still in doubt.

Albert Einstein put it well: “…the unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophes.”

The bomb dropped on Hiroshima caused an estimated 40000 deaths related to ionising radiation injuries, in addition to the

Formation of keloidal scars on the back and shoulder of a victim of the Hiroshima blast. The scars have formed where the victim’s skin was directly exposed to the heat of the explosion’s initial flash. (U.S. National Archives)

90000-odd deaths from the fires that raged after the detonation, and some 86000 injuries. The after-effects of the bomb were felt for many years afterwards with higher than normal cancer rates in survivors, and miscarriages and abnormal births at higher than normal rates among those exposed to radiation in utero.

Just three days later Nagasaki also was hit by an atom bomb, causing some 76000 deaths.

Since the bombs were dropped those dreadful August days in 1945 there have been many nuclear accidents both to nuclear power plants which have proliferated, and to bombs, though no nuclear bomb has been dropped in anger since 1945.

Atoms for peace?

The Chernobyl plant after the accident. It has been enclosed in a concrete “sarcophagus” built to last 20 to 30 years. The effects of the accident will be around for centuries

One of the major concerns about nuclear weapons and the so-called “peaceful” use of the power of the atom is the disposal of used nuclear fuel which typically is radioactive and so potentially very harmful to life.

This harmful potentiality typically lasts for a very long time – the half-life of some nuclear fuel can be up to 10000 years, during which time it has to be kept in tightly-controlled high-security containers to prevent harmful leakage.

How can we be sure in the long term that these containers will remain safe, or even that people centuries from now will really understand the dangers contained in them.

In the short term, the security needed to protect these containers is possibly not too compatible with democracy. It will take a high degree of authoritarianism to control access to these containers, which will be made more urgent by the danger of terrorist use of such materials.

Atomic energy is also often touted as a “safe” alternative to coal or other sources of energy but this I believe is not at all so. As physicist Amory Lovins has said: “Nuclear power is the only energy source where mishap or malice can destroy so much value or kill many faraway people; the only one whose materials, technologies, and skills can help make and hide nuclear weapons; the only proposed climate solution that substitutes proliferation, major accidents, and radioactive-waste dangers.”

The Fukushima accident of 11 March 2011 is an example of the risks to people and environment. Although it is not as great a calamity as the 1986 Chernobyl accident in the Ukraine it is still likely to be decades before the area surrounding the plant is decontaminated. Many lives have been irrevocably changed due to the effects of the accident.

Fukushima and Chernobyl give us a foretaste of what a nuclear holocaust could be like, and such a holocaust is by no means a distant possibility. With the levels of nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors around the world such a holocaust, though not an imminent likelihood, is certainly a possibility, especially as much of the nuclear weapons and reactors are located in politically volatile areas of teh world like the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent, China and the Democratic People’s Repbulic of Korea.

“A republic of insects and grass”

Bumper-cars in the Chernobyl fair grounds, one of teh most polluted parts of the town. Photo by Sophia Walker

Author Jonathan Schell painted a frightening picture of what such a nuclear holocaust could look like in his very informative book The Fate of the Earth (Picador, 1982), originally published in The New Yorker.

It is not a pretty picture at all.

The first sentence of the book lays the foundation: “Since July 16, 1945, when the first atomic bomb was detonated, at the Trinity test site, near Alamogordo, New Mexico, mankind has lived with nuclear weapons in its midst.”

Since that time successive governments of the United States, Russia and Great Britain, among others, have attempted to control the proliferation of these weapons. The numbers of nuclear warheads is not known accurately, nor is anyone fully certain which countries have such weapons.

What is certain is that however many there are, the effects of a war in which nuclear weapons are widely used would be calamitous to humanity and most other life forms, possibly excluding only insects and grasses, as Schell titles one of the chapters of his book.

As Schell wrote: “These bombs were built as ‘weapons’ for ‘war’, but their significance greatly transcends war and all its causes and outcomes. They grew out of history, yet they threaten to end history. They were made by men, yet they threaten to annihilate men.”

Perhaps as frightening is the realisation that has grown since Chernobyl and especially Fukushima, that nuclear weapons are not the

Nature has been reclaiming the abandoned town. Wild boars roam the streets at night. Birch trees have been shooting up at random, even inside some apartment blocks. Photo by Phil Coomes of the BBC

only things that threaten humanity with extinction. The effects of the Chernobyl accident are still being felt and the area around the plant is still a no-go area with radiation levels far exceeding what is safe for people or other animals. The accident was directly responsible for 56 deaths on site, but the fall out necessitated the evacuation of 350000 people and damage to property in the region of $7 billion. An estimate states that a further 4000 could still die as a secondary result of the accident. The town of Prypiat and the plant itself are abandoned yet still present threats which necessitate constant surveillance of the area.

At Fukushima the effects are also terrifying, and will continue to be for years. The tsunami-caused accident has been described by one nuclear energy expert, Arnold Gundersen, as “the biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of mankind.”

An October 2011 study found that Fukushima was “the largest radioactive noble gas release in history not related to nuclear bomb testing.” The nobel gas involved is Xenon-133 which is not absorbed by humans or the environment.

At the same time, hot spots of radiation are being found 60 to 70 kilometres away from the plant, further away than those from Chernobyl.

Since the start of the atomic era there have been an estimated 99 accidents at nuclear power plants, 56% of them in the United States. Considering the risks and potential damage caused by such accidents, especially the long-term effects, this is not a promising fact.

As one observer, journalist Stephanie Cooke, has written about Fukushima, in reaction to those who claim that nuclear power is “safer” than conventional power generating plants:

“You have people in Japan right now that are facing either not returning to their homes forever, or if they do return to their homes, living in a contaminated area… And knowing that whatever food they eat, it might be contaminated and always living with this sort of shadow of fear over them that they will die early because of cancer… It doesn’t just kill now, it kills later, and it could kill centuries later… I’m not a great fan of coal-burning. I don’t think any of these great big massive plants that spew pollution into the air are good. But I don’t think it’s really helpful to make these comparisons just in terms of number of deaths.”

The way ahead: allies of death or of life?

Children in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine have been suffering from the effect of the radiation released in April 1986. The Rechitsa orphanage in Belarus has been caring for the huge population of sick children.  Photo Credit: Julien Behal/Chernobyl Children’s Project

“It can be said that the world faces the greatest danger ever experienced by humanity. It could become the first step toward the ultimate catastrophe of the whole world. Suffice it to say that radioactive waste equivalent to one million Hiroshima atomic bombs are to be accumulated in the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant.” – Mitsuhei Murata, Former Japanese Ambassador to Switzerland, Executive Director, the Japan Society for Global System and Ethics (read the full article here)

Schell, in his book writes about the “two paths” which lie before humanity: “One leads to death, the other to life. If we choose the first path – if we numbly refuse to acknowledge the nearness of extinction, all the while increasing our preparations to bring it about – then we in effect become the allies of death, and in everything we do our attachment to life will weaken; our vision, blinded to the abyss that has opened at our feet, will dim and grow confused; our will, discouraged by the thought of trying to build on so precarious a foundation anything that is meant to last, will slacken; and we will sink into stupefaction, as though we were gradually weaning ourselves from life in preparation for the end.”

This is the discussion, the conversation, we as members of the great human family, must have if we are to be allies of life ionstead, if we are to, in Schell’s words, “break through the layers of our denials, put aside our fainthearted excuses, and rise up to cleanse the earth of nuclear weapons.”

I would only add that we need to cleanse the world of all nuclear apparatus. It is too dangerous, and not enough is really known about it, and it is politically problematic, to carry on. The dangers have been dramatically shown by the accidents that have occurred, especially Fukushima. The long-term effects are still somewhat unknown and we cannot really have the needed control over the long term to make disposal of nuclear waste safe. Most importantly for me, the very danger makes it likely that more and more authoritarian, indeed, draconian, government control will be needed to make it even slightly safe as the technology spreads. Whether such control can be compatible with an open, democratic society is really the question for me. I doubt it, and that’s why I say, “Atomic energy? – no thanks.”


Port Elizabeth’s “great gale” of 1902

“Never before in its history has this port suffered under such overwhelming disaster as we record today. On Sunday morning some 38 craft rode at anchor under the leaden sky. Heavy rains had fallen and the wind gradually rose until, as the shadows of evening hid the shipping from view, a fresh gale was blowing in from the south-east, which, as the midnight hour was reached, had developed in to a hurricane. As the turmoil of wind and wave continued, so the toll of ships mounted, until 18 vessels were aground, with a raging sea adding a high toll of human lives.”

So read a report in the Eastern Province Herald in Port Elizabeth on 2 September 1902.

A gale force south easterly wind came up during the evening and night of Sunday 31 August 1902 when some 38 ships were riding at anchor in Algoa Bay. Huge waves battered the ships and several of them began to drift onto the bight of the bay.

The first distress signals sounded were gun shots which were heard just before midnight. The local rescue team, consisting mainly of a rocket brigade, went to the shoreline to see what they could do. In spite of their efforts the wind made it almost impossible to get lines to the distressed ships.

Four local men, Frank Gregory, A. I. McEwan, E. Hayler and John Mannie went out to attempt to get a line across but all were drowned in the attempt. Mothers and children were among those who succumbed in the raging seas.

By the time the storm abated on the Tuesday there were perhaps 38 people known to have died and about 300 rescued. From that day funerals became a daily occurrence as more bodies were washed ashore. The victims were buried in Port Elizabeth's Southend Cemetery, where there is also a monument recalling the tragedy. On the monument are recorded the names of all the ships, those victims whose names are known, and the names of the local men who made the rescue attempt.

The disaster remains the largest marine disaster ever to hit South Africa – though there have been others with greater loss of life, never before or since have so many ships come to grief simultaneously on the treacherous South African coastline.

The list of ships which were beached that day included:

Oakworth – a British cargo sailing vessel of 1242 grt was on route from Port Pirie with a cargo of grain;

Emmanuel – was a German sailing barque of 1147 tons under the command of Captain Tuitzer on route from Port Pirie with a cargo of grain;

Coriolanus – was a German sailing barque of 978 tons. under the command of Captain Gotting on route from Wallaroo with a cargo of wheat;

Hans Wagner – was a German iron barque of 938 tons under the command of Captain Millman was on route from Melbourne with a cargo of grain;

Agostino Rombo – was an Italian sailing barque of 827 grt, en route from Buenos Aires with a cargo of forage under the command of Captain Vassho (Captain Vassho is listed on the Memorial SE cemetery at Port Elizabeth);

Waimea – Norwegian ownded ship was carrying a cargo of wood, with loss of Captain Oredorp and 7 crew on passage from Fremantle (Captain Oredorp is listed on the Memorial to the dead in the SE Cementary of Port Elizabeth);

Arnold – was a German iron sailing barque of 854 grt under the command of Captain Ahlars and carrying a general cargo

Sayre – a British cargo sailing barque of 735 grt was on route from New York with a general cargo ;

Nautilus – was a German sailing barque of 745 grt that dragged her anchor in the great storm of the 1st September 1902 and was wrecked at North End Beach, Algoa Bay. She was under the command of Captain Assing and on route from Adelaide with a cargo of wheat. Captain Assing and 11 crew lost. Their deaths are listed on the Memorial SE Cemetery, Port Elizabeth.

Content – was a Swedish sailing barque of 547 grt. under the command of Captain Gustafsen. She was on route from Rangoon with a cargo of rice when she was wrecked on North End Beach, Algoa Bay on the 1st September 1902.

Iris – a transport schooner of 522 tons;

Kimara – I have been unable to find out anything about this ship;

Hermanos – was a Norwegian sailing barque of 498 tons under the command of Captain Gunderson which was on route from Banbury with a cargo of wood;

Thekla – was a German sailing 3 masted schooner of 350 grt on route from Mauritius with a cargo of sugar;

Constant – was a Norwegian sailing barque of 292 grt that was wrecked at North End Beach, Algoa Bay on the 1st September 1902 under the command of Captain Jacobsen when on roure from Rio de Janeiro with a cargo of coffee.

Clara – was a British Steam tug of 139grt;

Gabrielle – was a British sailing schooner of 78 tons on route from St. Johns with a cargo of wood;

Scotia – was a British cargo steamer of the Clan Line;

Countess of Carnarvon – was a wooden British steam tug of 38 tons;

Cavaliere Michele Russo – was an Italian ship of 1,529 tons on route from Newcastle, Australia with a cargo of Grain. 17 crew members died;

Inchcape Rock – was British full-rigged ship under the command of Captain Ferguson on route from Portland, Oregon.

My source for most of the above information about the ships involved is The Wreck Site.

The photos accompanying this post come from the collection of my late father, Murray McGregor. I do not have any idea of the name of the photographer.

For the identification of the photos I am grateful to FaceBook friends Valma Meier and Derek Watters.

Greenmarket Square – a sense of place in Cape Town

“The search for a sense of place in a city is also a search for that place where the city is most itself. For me this is Greenmarket Square.” – from Sea-Mountain, Fire City by Mike Nicol (Kwela Books, 2001)

For around three centuries the heart of Cape Town has beaten in Greenmarket Square.

It started in 1696 when the authorities at the tiny refreshment station, founded by the Dutch East India Company (or VOC, for Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) 44 years earlier, decided that a building should be erected for the Burgher (Citizen) Militia (or Burgher Wacht) which had been established in1659 as a force for both policing and defence.

The members of the militia were given wooden rattles which with they signalled the hours, as well as sounding a warning to loiterers and others up to no good.

Mothers in the Cape taught their children a little Dutch ditty:

Moederlief, ‘k geloof vast

Dat hy op de dieven past,

Goede klaper houdt de wacht;

Ik ga slapen – goede nacht.

(Dearest mother, I firmly believe

that he catches the thieves,

the watch has a good rattle

I’m to bed – good night)

The Burgherwacht Huys was built in 1696 on what was to become Greenmarket Square. It was a simple building and no doubt a fire-trap too! Fire was a constant hazard at the little settlement at the time and one of the duties of the Burgher Wacht was to act as a fire brigade.

In 1710 the Council of Policy, the highest authority at the Cape, decided to erect a more permanent building for the Wacht and in the same resolution set aside land for public use. The land so set aside was what is now Greenmarket Square.

The building for the Wachthuys was started in the same year. It served not only the Burgher Wacht but also served as a meeting place for the Burgher Council (Raad), until in 1755 it was demolished to make way for a new Wachthuys. The foundation stone of this new Wachthuys was laid by a member of the Court of Justice, Baerendt Artoijs, on 18 November 1755. The silver trowel used for the ceremony is still in the building.

The Old Town House across the Square. Photo taken in 1967

The Old Town House across the Square. Photo taken in 1967

The new building was completed in 1761, although it had been in use for some years before already. The façade, still largely unchanged to this day, was designed by Matthias Lotter whose father was a stucco-sculptor in Augsberg.

The balcony in the front of the building was used to make proclamations and citizens were summoned to the Square to hear these by a bell in a tower above the balcony, now replaced.

When in 1804 Cape Town was given a Coat of Arms, this was placed in the cartouche above the door to the balcony. From this time onwards the Wachthuys was used for civic functions, which is why it acquired the name the “Old Town House”. It served as Cape Town’s Town Hall until the present Town Hall was built in the early years of the 20th Century.

The square in front of the Old Town House was used as a market by the market gardeners on the outskirts of Cape Town, hence the name Greenmarket Square. The square was first mentioned officially in 1733 but by then had already been long in use.

Slaves on Greenmarket Square. Drawing by Johannes Rach, 1762.

The square was also a favourite gathering place for slaves during their infrequent free time, when they would gather there to gossip and relax. It was also popular with visitors from all over the world when their ships called at Cape Town, the square being a jolly meeting place offering travellers all the amenities of bed and board.

One of the travellers who spent time in the Square was Norwegian Johannes Rach who visited Cape Town in August 1762, staying for a fortnight. While in Cape Town Rach captured the early spirit of Greenmarket Square in a series of drawing like the one here.

During the 1960s and 1970s Greenmarket Square entered into a period of what Nicol described as “sterility”, weighed down by the dark mantel of apartheid and its denial of life. It became primarily a car park.

People relaxing under a tree next to the once-disputed toilets.

One of the stories about the Square in that era concerns the farmer from the Free State Province who was visiting the Cape and had to make use of the toilet facilities in the Square. He found himself standing next to a coloured (creole) man at the urinal and was outraged. He wrote to the City Council demanding that the toilets be declared for white use only. The Council did a survey to establish who used the toilets most and found that coloured people were the most frequent users. They therefore decided to proclaim it a “coloured” facility.

The cobblestones of the Square

The square and surrounding streets were paved with cobblestones in 1967 when the whole area was proclaimed a National Monument. This proclamation has ensured that the façades of the surrounding buildings will not be encroached on by high-rise buildings which would destroy the human scale of the Square.

In the late 1980s the Square was opened up for trading again and became a “noisy, friendly, raucous” place – it has become, as Nicol writes, “A meeting place again.”

Drawing of Greenmarket Square in 1833 by Sir Charles D'Oyly.

Nicol writes of the 1833 drawing of the Square and the Old Town House by Sir Charles D’Oyly shown here: “…the mountain rises behind Town House and the buildings that enclose the square in a warm embrace. I can stand where he stood, see the Town House he saw. I can imagine, then as now, disappearing into the market jostle, becoming part of the city.”

Square, while the Metropolitan Methodist Church (right) offers comfort to the lost and lonely, as it has done since 1879.

The Old Town House (centre) still keeps guard over the Square, while the Metropolitan Methodist Church (right) offers comfort to the lost and lonely, as it has done since 1879.


Visiting Old Oom Paul and historic Church Square in Pretoria

Public spaces in cities usually attract interesting characters – especially if the spaces are also tourist attractions.

Church Square in Pretoria is no exception – and has the added characteristic that it is a favourite gathering place for the start of protest marches and trade union demonstrations.

Chicco (left) and Vincent (right) tending the pigeon

On the morning when I went there to take the photos accompanying this article I immediately noticed two people holding a pigeon, of which there are thousands in the Square, and bending over this bird with an intensity that immediately made me curious.

I went over to see what they were up to and found that they were, with great patience and care, removing some cotton that had gotten wound around the poor bird’s legs.

Chicco is all concentration as he cuts the cotton from the pigeon's leg

“It will lose the leg if this cotton stays on it,” explained Vincent, one of the two men. Meanwhile the other man, Chicco, was doing the “surgery” to remove the cotton – and indeed I could see that the leg was already in rather poor shape because of the cotton which had made quite deep indentations in each leg, just above the feet.

It turned out that Vincent and Chicco were flower sellers, with a stand at the western entrance to the square. Their bunches of flowers around the pylons at the western entrance made a colourful and fragrant display.

Freelance photographer Phala in his "studio"

A little further I came across a man with a sign leaning against a plastic bottle crate reading “Same Time Photos” and I noticed on his sleeveless jacket an insignia: “Freelance Photographer.” Intrigued, I introduced myself to him and we got chatting. His name is Phala and his studio is under one of the trees on the square. He noticed that my camera is a Canon and proudly showed me his – also a Canon!

All the while the sound of a “vuvuzela” was blaring hoarsely over the square. The sound was coming from a group of members of the South African Municipal Workers’ Union standing in front of the Old Raadzaal waiting for their comrades to begin a march to the municipal offices down Vermeulen Street, some of whom were attracting attention to their cause by blowing their vuvuzelas.

Along the paths crossing the square were people of all walks of life, some hurrying, not doubt to offices, others strolling, no doubt waiting for something else to happen.

In the middle of the square Old Oom Paul (better known outside of South Africa as Paul Kruger, formerly the President of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) when the Anglo-Boer War broke out in 1899) stands darkly brooding over Pretoria’s central Church Square, with his top hat often providing a useful perch for pigeons.

Anton van Wouw's statue of Oom Paul

The Gereformeerde Kerk on what is now Church Square. Drawing from around 1865

The statue of Oom Paul was sculptured by renowned South African artist Anton van Wouw (1862 – 1945) and was first erected in Pretoria West, then moved to a position in front of the Pretoria Railway Station before being placed in its present position in 1954.

The name “Church Square” is derived from the fact that, on the very spot where Oom Paul now stands brooding there was a church – in fact three churches were sequentially built on that spot, the first in 1857, the last demolished in 1905.

The particular character of Church Square also derives from the series of interesting and mostly quite old buildings which surround it.

The Raadzaal

One of the most impressive is the Raadzaal on the south side of the square, built to house the Volksraad (Parliament) of the ZAR. It was designed by Sytze Wopke Wierda, who had been brought from Holland to the ZAR by Kruger as Government Engineer and Architect in 1887, and who was responsible for a number of other buildings in Pretoria, including the Palace of Justice which stands facing the Raadzaal across Church Square..

The Palace of Justice

The building is in an Italian Renaissance style with a figure said to be of Athena at the top of the tower which dominates the roof line. The Volksraad first met in this building in May 1890.

The Palace of Justice has twin towers and a semi-basement housing cells. The most famous trial held there was the so-called “Rivonia Trial” of 1963/4 in which Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and nine of his comrades stood accused of sabotage and which led to their incarceration on Robben Island off Cape Town until 1989 and 1990.

The old Reserve Bank building on the left

Also on the north side of the square is the Herbert Baker-designed Reserve Bank which pre-figured his later design for the Union Buildings.

Tudor House

To the east of the square is the interesting Tudor Towers built in 1904 by tycoon George Heys, who had the famous Melrose House built for his family. This building housed his offices as well as other businesses owned by him.

The jugendstil Cafe Riche built in 1905

On the other side of the square are the jugendstil Café Riche building and the General Post Office.

© Text and photos copyright Tony McGregor 2011


Voices of the past, voices of the present – re-imagining our history a pre-requisite for peace

“If you can’t see the country’s past, if you can’t hear the voices from the past then you can’t understand the present.” – Anglican priest Michael Weeder, quoted in Mike Nicol’s Sea-Mountain, Fire City (Kwela Books, 2001).

“On its own the passage of time neither heals injustices nor pacifies antagonists.” – Bernard F. Connor OP, The Difficult Traverse (Cluster Publications, 1998).

When ANC Youth League president Julius Malema made his now-infamous statement that “all whites are criminals”, in reference to what he termed the “theft” of land by whites from blacks, the response of most whites was defensive – taking the form of either an aggressive denial or a personal attack on Malema himself.

The Slave Lodge in Cape Town. Under a tree close by this building weekly slave auctions were held.

While understandable, these responses are not helpful, and also show a very basic misunderstanding of the history of this complex country. Perhaps such misunderstanding is not surprising, given the many years of racist propaganda to which many whites have been subject for so long.

Certainly Malema’s statement was calculated – and he is too clever a politician not to have calculated this – to excite his followers and to provoke his white opponents. He certainly succeeded in achieving both those outcomes, though his very success raises many other questions.

The most basic question is, what sort of South Africa do we want? And how do we want, in this envisaged country, to relate to our past? We need to ask these questions, and to begin to search for answers, before we can move on, because we will not be able to move on until our relation to our past is clarified. The experiences of Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, Chile, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Argentina and even the United States, attest to this, as indeed do the responses to Malema’s statement.

Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas who lived through a time of unparalleled violence against his fellow-Jews wrote:

“Violence does not consist so much in injuring and annihilating persons as in interrupting their continuity, making them play roles in which they no longer recognise themselves, making them betray not only commitments but their own substance, making them carry out actions that will destroy every possibility of action.”

Police supoervise the destruction of Modderdam on the Cape Flats, August 1977. Image from "A Shanty Town in South Africa" by Andrew Silk, 1981.

South Africa has certainly experienced much of this type of violence in the more than 500 years of white intrusion onto the soil of this southern tip of the great continent.

The first violence in this intrusion took place in 1487 when Portuguese sea captain Bartolomeu Días, using his cross-bow, shot and killed a black African at the place he called São Bras, which we now call Mossel Bay.

In the light of the later propaganda about who was here first, it is perhaps relevant to note that the people who were seen on that fateful shore in 1487 were “blacks, with woolly hair like those of Guinea” – i.e. most likely Bantu-speaking people and not Khoisan, indicating that the apartheid discourse that whites moved into empty land when moving east from the Cape Colony and that the Bantu-speaking people arrived there at about the same time was a lie.

Emblem of the Dutch East India Company carved above the entrance to Cape Town Castle Circa 1680. Photo by Andrew Massyn via Wikipedia

When the Dutch arrived at the Cape and started to develop their replenishment station below Table Mountain in 1652 they found Khoikhoi people already in residence there and began systematically to displace them. The first “apartheid” barrier was the almond hedge planted by Jan van Riebeeck to keep the Khoikhoi out of the Dutch East India Company’s gardens growing on land that the Khoikhoi had for generations considered “theirs”. This was perhaps the first “land grab without compensation” in South Africa’s history. The first, but by no means the last.

The planting of the Dutch settlement at the Cape was also a grave interruption of the continuity of the indigenous people. It interrupted the continuity of the grazing of their cattle; it interrupted their freedom of movement across the land and interrupted the natural power relations between groups by introducing outside influences.

The very beginning of what we now call South Africa was steeped in violence and the voices of those who suffered need to be heard, even at the distance across time of more than 500 years, as do those who suffered after.

Can you hear the voices whispering in the mists coming down Hoerikwaggo?

We all in South Africa at the beginning of the 21st Century need to open our ears to those voices which call to us down the centuries, those voices which, if we are still and listen, we might hear carried on the winds which blow down the crevasses and kloofs of Hoerikwaggo (or Sea-Mountain, as Table Mountain was called by the Khoikhoi), or in the hot winds of the Karoo or the gales across the Highveld, the songs and laments of Khoisan, of slaves, of Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, Tswana. We might, if we listen carefully, also hear the cries of children and women and old people trekking through the unknown, fearful and tired.

History, it has been said, is always written by the victorious. In Africa we also have a saying, that until the lion tells his story, the hunter is always the hero.

And so I think we have to re-imagine our history. We have to use our minds’ eyes to see how people have lived and died, and begin to re-interpret the meaning of that living and dying. We have to try to imagine what it must have been like for those people on the shore at São Bras to have seen these strangers arrive, and to have seen one of their own killed by this hither-to unknown weapon.

It is important too that we try to understand the feelings of Khoikhoi at the Cape when Van Riebeeck planted the Dutch flag (or was it the flag of the Dutch East India Company?) on their soil. And the fears of the Dutchmen who were given the task of making the Cape a viable investment for that company – what were their feelings about being stuck in this strange land, surrounded by people who were so different?

Ven. Michael Weeder, now Dean of St George's Cathedral, Cape Town. Image from

To quote Michael Weeder again (from Nicol’s book) talking about the Slave Tree monument in Cape Town: “Families were destroyed here. Children sold to one person, their mothers sold to another. A woman sold to a farmer in Stellenbosch, her man sold to a merchant in Cape Town. Can you Imagine that? Can you just imagine what it was like, all the misery that happened here on the ground beneath our feet?”

The great chief Maqoma

The great chief Maqoma. South African Library, Cape Town

Can you imagine how the great chief Maqoma felt, lying on the ground with the booted foot of that hyperactive Governor of the Cape Harry Smith on his neck?

Can you imagine the pain of a young mother dumped with her little children in the veld at Dimbaza in the middle of winter?

Image from the film "Last Grave at Dimbaza"

Can you imagine the anguish of a father watching the home he had painstakingly built for his family at Modderdam or Crossroads being demolished?

Can you imagine how a descendent of Sekwati (chief of the Pedi at the time of the Great Trek) must feel every time he or she sees the Voortrekker Monument?

South Africa is a complex country with a rich history which, like all histories, is an interpretation of what we have been taught, what we have read, what we have experienced. No one history or interpretation of history, can adequately do justice to where we are today in this country.

If we are to make something of this country, we need to listen and understand each other, and that takes patience and a willingness to learn. A willingness, a humility, to allow another person’s history, in a sense, to become my own.

Typical apartheid sign. Image via Wikipedia

Typical apartheid sign. Image via Wikipedia

Of course we cannot change the past – what has happened has happened. There can be no turning back of the clock – indeed to which time would we turn it? But we have to deal with the past some creative way without denying anything in it. As Beyers Naude said, “No healing is possible without reconciliation, and no reconciliation is possible without justice, and no justice is possible without some form of genuine restitution.”

In the Interim Constitution, which was the basis for the elections of 1994 and the subsequent Government of National Unity, a statement about reconciliation was included which might be a basis for our moving forward. The Interim Constitution spoke of the “need for understanding but not for vengeance; a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not for victimisation.”

In the Preamble to the Freedom Charter is the statement “that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people.”

In his recent speech at Stellenbosch, which has aroused the fury of so many whites, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu said:

“Our white fellow citizens have to accept the obvious: You all benefited from apartheid. But that does not mean that all are responsible for apartheid.

“Your children could go to good schools. You lived in smart neighbourhoods. Yet so many of my fellow white citizens become upset when you mention this. Why? Some are crippled by shame and guilt and respond with self-justification or indifference. Both attitudes make that we are less than we can be.”

We are all here now and belong here simply because we are here. There is absolutely no profit for any of us in self-justification or indifference.

To make our future together we have to let go of guilt and let go of the need to justify any of the evils of the past. We have to understand where we come from by hearing those voices from the past and make active efforts to change ourselves, to, in Gandhi’s famous words, “be the change we want to see.”

We defeat ourselves if we wallow in guilt or recrimination, or, with indifference, wait for the passage of time to heal the many injustices and antagonisms that have arisen in the course of our complex, rich and fascinating history.

We can be so much more.

© Text and photos, unless otherwise indicated, copyright by Tony McGregor 2011

The search for our intrinsic nature – in search of the San

“…the evident longing of our times to understand through these delightful people the intrinsic nature of our species and of human alternatives.” – from Frontiers, by Noël Mostert.

When whites first settled at the bottom end of Africa they encountered a group of people they did not understand, a group so different from themselves they could hardly see them as human, and as a result they began to treat them quite literally as vermin.

This group of people were known by the Dutch settlers as “Bosjesmans” or “Bushmen” – people who lived in the “bush”, people who “could appear and vanish as though materializing from or dissolving into sand or grass.” (Mostert, Frontiers, p31).

From the 17th to the late 18th Century Bushmen, or San, as they were called by the Khoikhoi, were hunted as vermin by the settlers, and, to some extent, by the Bantu-speaking people who came into contact with them from the eastern regions of Southern Africa.

Only in the second half of the 20th Century were their real significance acknowledged and a beginning was made in an unbiased assessment of their importance in human history.

Sir Laurens van der Post, famous South African writer, published the first popular studies of Bushmen in his books The Lost World of the Kalahari (1958) and The Heart of the Hunter (1961). These books promoted a kind of “noble savage” image of the San, a highly-romanticised vision of them.

A very different view is that taken by photographer Paul Weinberg in his wonderful book In Search of the San (The Porcupine Press, 1997), a collection of Weinberg’s highly evocative photos linked by his commentary on his trips to Bushmen settlements in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana spanning the years 1984 to 1996.

In an introduction written by Riaan de Villiers the gut-wrenching reality of Bushman life in the late 20th Century is put into the context of the conflict between development and conservation.

Early morning - perhaps the most appealing of the photos in the book (at least I love it!)

The Bushmen suffered displacement on a large scale by the development of nature reserves and the destruction of the conditions which made their lifestyles viable. Some Non-Governmental Organisations are helping the Bushmen adapt to a market economy and to develop the skills needed for survival in the 21st Century, including the development of art schools and retail outlets for their arts and craft.

But, as De Villiers notes, “…these trends do not mitigate the dispossession of the Bushmen, and should not serve to obscure it. The vast majority continue to drift further and further away from their culture as they struggle to survive.”

Weinberg noted in his entry for Tjum!kui in Namibia: “At the weekend, social dislocation reaches a crescendo. Ghetto blaster rule: men and women alternate between traditional rhythm,s and township jive. Alcohol takes its toll; some people pass out, others fight. The modern world and a stone-age culture have met – with dire results, it seems.”

One of those dire results is the continuing exploitation of Bushmen and their culture as tourist attractions. Weinberg relates how a group of Bushmen in Kagga Kamma reserve near Ceres in the Western Cape are used to provide the illusion of Bushman culture: the advertising brochure reads “Enjoy a trip with the small people. Participate in an informal experience with a Stone Age culture.”

Admittedly, for all the inauthenticity of the experience, the Bushmen themselves are better off in this set up – Weinberg notes that the clan’s “standard of living has improved dramatically,” because they are able to keep the proceeds of sales of their crafts and have land on which to farm with chickens and turkeys.

Perhaps the saddest photo in the collection - buying liquor

The book is full of such interesting and insightful reading, mercifully free of the kind of sentimentalising that so often comes into writing about the San.

The main impact of the book is made by the superb photos which, in documentary style, show the contemporary lives of Bushmen in all their many facets – from typical hunting to drunken fights, from cute children to army recruits.

There is a richness in the images which helps the observer to get a strong sense of the impact of the collision of the modern world on the culture of what was a hunter-gatherer culture, and the impact is not always pleasant.

Another aspect brought out by the book is the fact that the Bushmen are not a homogeneous group – there are many different clans or groups which speak different languages and have different cultures.

Dusk - a hunter

The book is not a “coffee table” book and neither is it an anthropological text – though it has aspects of both. It comes across mainly as one person’s response to a continuing unfolding of a changing culture – a culture which in many ways provides a link between the reader’s time and a time in the almost unimaginable past.

As Weinberg notes in a sort of foreword: “I join a long line of outsiders who have studied, filmed or photographed Bushmen over the past 100 years or more. With these image, I hope to depict a once harmonious culture in a state of flux and struggle. I hope they bring the reader closer to the real San of southern Africa.”

The book, and espcially the photos,  is a constant reminder that people, however we might classify them, remain people with their own sense of dignity and worth. The Bushmen are not tourist attractions but real people with the needs and wants of all people for respect, understanding and involvement. In that Weinberg has achieved what he set out to do.

A book for all South Africans now

“We were on a coast of centuries of sea tragedies, and of millennia of prehistoric habitation. A great deal of the strange and incomprehensible surrounded one there, and one was credulous of many things that one would not believe elsewhere. Such belief is a form of affirmation of that sense of wholeness that is so distinctively African, and upon which I have several times remarked, a purity of bond with the unfathomable, the unknowable and the long reach back that reduces the human immediate to a great littleness. It was what I chose to remember throughout the writing of this book.”

These final sentences of Noël Mostert’s great, wonderful book Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People (Pimlico, 1992) are really a summing up of the experience of reading this long and absorbing book. There is so much in this book of the unknowable, of the “long reach back”, and the final littleness of our human existence.

On one level the book is a chronicle of the incredible arrogance of white encroachment on black existence, the piecemeal and yet dogged conquest and appropriation of the land which the Xhosa-speaking peoples of the Eastern Cape regarded as their ancestral birthright.

At another level the book is an exploration of humanity, of what makes us human, what leads us to forget our common humanity, and so the book rises above mere history to become a philosophical meditation on the human condition, and especially on that condition in the South Africa in which we find ourselves in the early years of the 21st Century.

On this level the Frontiers of the title are not only the moving borders on the colonial map but also the interface between two civilisations – the white European and the black African. On this “frontier” the missionaries who came to “civilise” the black people in South Africa were key, and highly controversial, players.

The missionaries mostly brought a high Victorian sensibility to their work among the Xhosa-speaking peoples, which caused misunderstanding and conflict. The attempts at “civilising” the blacks meant that the missionaries became associated with the colonising forces in the eyes of the Xhosa-speaking people, and their message of salvation was treated respectfully but critically. This “frontier” remained largely intact even as the lines on the map shifted and changed.

In a sense, if we want to understand South Africa now, this book is essential reading. If we want to understand our fellow-citizens in this strange land, black and white, this book will deliver deep insights.

Mostert, Cape Town born and of a long line of ancestors stretching back to the early white settlement of the Cape in the mid-17th Century, is a masterful writer who manages to hold attention while delivering masses of information; drawing on a wide variety of sources his narrative has a weighty authority.

Chief Maqoma

From the background of the broad sweep of the historical events colourful characters abound who stand out and command attention. There is the frontier giant at almost seven feet tall Coenraad de Buys who married many women (none of them white) and fathered a people, the Buysvolk of the northern parts of South Africa; there is the very human and yet very interesting James Read (Snr) who came to South Africa fired with enthusiasm to uplift the “Hottentot” (Khoikhoi) people and lived as one of them, marrying a Khoikhoi woman and championing their cause against the white settlers; there is the brave and ultimately tragic chief Maqoma who in the end wanted nothing but to live like a white farmer; the little braggadocio governor Sir Harry Smith who, understanding almost nothing of Xhosa culture, claimed himself to be their “Paramount Chief”; there is the sad chief Sarili who had a deformed leg and was regarded by many as a weakling, but who was the “last great independent chief of the Xhosas” and whose final tragedy was to be the chief over the great cattle killing of 1856 which brought about the end of the Xhosa-speaking people’s independence.

Sir Harry Smith

As Mostert notes, in spite of the way the British had treated his father and his people, “…there had never been anything in Sarili’s demeanour that suggested a hatred or a longing for vengeance. He appeared in every respect to be a larger man than that.”

Sarili, as he comes through in this great book, epitomises the tragedy of the Xhosa-speaking peoples. The various groups of Xhosa-speaking people seem to have gone out of their ways to accommodate and appease the colonists in hopes of being left in peace to continue their lives in the way they most wished to, and at every turn, they were frustrated by the demands of Britain and the colonists. They saw their land and cattle taken from them and even when they were innocent were accused of cattle rustling.

The cruelties visited on the Xhosa-speaking people were unbelievable. And yet they tried to maintain their dignity, to maintain as much of their customs and beliefs as they could in the face of the colonial and missionary onslaught. Their land they lost. As they said, “ilizwe lifile (the land is dead)” – “You kill our country by taking away our customs.”

Paramount Chief of all the Xhosa-speaking peoples, Sarili

So, as Mostert says, South Africa was born in a great tragedy, symbolised by the death of Sarili, who died in hiding at the age of 83, in 1893.

With the defeat of the amaZulu in neighbouring Natal the British had “achieved the military conquest of the two great black groups which had offered the main resistance to the white domination of South Africa.

In a final ironic twist of history, though, as Mostert noted, “It was through the Xhosa-speaking peoples, however, that African political leadership in South Africa mainly continued to express itself.” The list of 20th Century leaders who came from among the Xhosa-speaking peoples and have shaped the new democratic South Africa is impressive, among them Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Raymond Mhlaba, Wilton Mkwayi, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu, Steven Bantu Biko, Chris Hani, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, to name but a few.

Frontiers is an essential and absorbing read for anyone wishing to understand South Africa today, and an enjoyable trip through history, thanks to the skill of the author.

© Text copyright by Tony McGregor. All illustrations from the book Frontiers: the Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People by Noël Mostert (London, Pimlico, 1992).

Fort Klapperkop – one of Pretoria’s historic forts

In the months prior to the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in 1899 the government of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR – the South African Republic) four forts were constructed to defend the capital, Pretoria.


The entrance to Fort Klapperkop

One of these, Fort Klapperkop, was built at a cost of £50000 and was handed over to the government of the ZAR on 18 January 1898. Included in the fort was the Central Magazine, also handed over that day.

The entrance to the Central Magazine

By the following January the fort was manned by 17 troops, increased to 30 six months later, although only three months later the number had been reduced to 16.


A replica of the “Long Tom” cannon stands guard over the southern approaches to Fort Klapperkop

By October 1899 the armaments of the fort included a “Long Tom”, a 37mm Maxim-Nordenfelt and three Martini-Henry hand-maxims.

The “Long Tom” was sent to Ladysmith (Natal) by train to assist the Boer forces there. A 65mm Krupp mountain gun was the only armament left at the fort, with two Martini-Henrys, by 7 November 1899.

The fort had a reservoir under its floor fed from the Fountains Valley some distance away.

Communications with the outside world were by means of heliographic and overhead telegraphic links as well as telephone.


The generator which supplied power to the fort

The fort had electric power supplied by a paraffin engine and generator.


Part of the moat around Fort Klapperkop

Unlike the other Pretoria forts Klapperkop had a moat and drawbridge, though the moat seems never to have been filled.


A display in the museum

The fort is now a museum with some well-planned displays.