Hinterlands

This gallery contains photographs from a research project to explore the visible influence of colonial presence and, more particularly, “Britishness” on the built environment (both specific buildings and general townscapes) of small towns in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

The area (of about sixty thousand square miles) was the site of the single biggest migration of British people to South Africa, when some 5000 settlers arrived under a government-sponsored scheme in 1820. Comprising a broad range of classes and occupations the settlers gradually overcame the problems of local politics and the inhospitable natural environment, to establish a number of small towns in the hinterland. In these rural areas their fate and circumstances were intimately interwoven with those of the earlier Dutch-descended settlers who came to call themselves Afrikaners, and their culture therefore demonstrates dual layers of the hybridity so characteristic of the colonial.

Much 19th century “settler” architecture still remains in the smaller towns, alongside more recent evidence of the Apartheid and, now, post-Apartheid, eras. The settler buildings and built environment of this region therefore provide a precise trace of the shifts, both material and cultural, in the ambitions, co-ordinates and fortunes of a particular sector of white South African culture.

Today, people of settler descent are less than1% of the population of the rural areas in the region, and the formerly “white” centres of these smaller towns are characterised by the typical conditions of the “post-colonial”, inasmuch as they have been largely abandoned by the remaining white middle class, appropriated by local communities, and/or allowed to fall into neglect. They therefore serve both as a detailed reliquary of the settler culture that informed them, and as graphic barometers of a process of change and transition.