I'm sure it has lovely handwriting: The 1820 Settlers National Monument
The 1820 Settlers National Monument in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown), South Africa, is exactly what it says on the tin: “A monument to the achievements of the 1820 Settlers and their descendants in the development of South Africa.” This is the inscription on the ‘precinct stone’ that was unveiled on 3 September 1962 by President Charles Robberts Swart when he dedicated the site for the Monument that was but a square, grey twinkle in architect Jock Sturrock’s eye.
The Monument was opened on 13 July 1974 by President Jim Fouché, during the inaugural National Arts Festival. For what it was worth at that point in South Africa’s history, Fouché dedicated the building to “all that is good and for the healing of a nation.” The dedication is complemented by the inscription in the Monument’s central Fountain Court, “That all might have life and have it more abundantly.” It may not be a politically correct building from a historical perspective but the desire for good, for healing and for abundant life has never been more valuable than in the daunting world in which we live, so let’s run with that. I'm sure the family in Ivan Mitford-Barberton's scultpure would have liked that idea too.
The building is the dominant feature of Makhanda. It has a landmark hilltop position above the city that makes it hard to miss, and this is why it’s the focus of this first ‘Homescreen’ feature. I’ve lived in Makhanda for a while now and the Monument is always there, hovering over the city like a grumpy aunt whose milk tart recipe is being modified by the in-laws. It’s much better inside though, with features like the massive panels by Cecil Skotnes and it’s an active building that’s filled with life a lot of the time. During the National Arts Festival in particular the Monument is brightly lit and stuffed with people enjoying themselves. Well, mostly, except the ones who chose the wrong shows.
In June 2022 I took the opportunity of the first post-lockdown Festival to make a photograph that shows the Monument at the centre of the action, animated by the light trails of the many vehicles going up and down its hill.
The contrast between the Monument and its township backdrop is poignant. It can seem a bit like a fortress on guard against the townsfolk, which plays quite nicely into the regional ‘Frontier Country’ marketing slogan that trades on the historical conflicts of the area but doesn’t do much for mending historical tensions. I made this photo in June 2021 as a bush fire crept around Gunfire Hill and the riots were happening in KwaZulu-Natal.
As you look at the Monument you might notice the two masts on the roof, like Christian crosses but a bit more nautical. It seems the building was intended to represent the ships on which the 1820 Settlers arrived in Algoa Bay. It’s hard to see it most of the time but I think I’ve managed to capture it at a ship-like angle in the sunrise photo below. SAS Monument’s bridge would be behind the windows on the left of the building but there’s actually a pub there now which is a very good idea indeed. You can get the local Featherstone Brewery beers in there during the National Arts Festival. Don’t rush in, though, the pub is only open now and then but you can always get the Featherstone beers at their beer garden.
Below: SAS Monument docked at the end of Donkin Street.
The more I look at it the more I see that there is beauty in this building. One of the things I love about photography is the way it can change the way we see things, because it means that even in the darkest times, literally thanks to load shedding, art can give us reasons for hope. Rebecca Solnit writes, “Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.”
Whether you love it or hate it the Monument is a conversation between our past and our present and it is possible for that conversation to have a hopeful eye on the uncertain future. There is space around the it for the creation of something to ease its lines, something that may allow the building to enjoy a gentler and more significant engagement with the uncomfortable history remembered in its angles and glass and with the landscape upon which it sits. My fantasy runs to an installation of lights and lasers but conspicuous energy consumption is no less offensive than publicly dunking your Rolex in your Johnny Walker. Fireworks upset my cat so that’s out too.
Maybe the Monument can become a celebration of all South Africa’s languages. Maybe there could be great sculptural letters spelling out the names of our eleven official languages across Gunfire Hill to cast their shadows on the building. Maybe there could be huge books open to massive leaves, with the stories of our past and present and our hopes for the future inscribed upon them. Whatever happens up there on Gunfire Hill, writer Henry Dugmore has some good advice: ‘We must take root and grow, or die where we stand’. Maybe the Monument can extend its roots and write something new on its hill.
All of the photos in this edition of 'Homescreen' are available as prints. Give me a shout at firstname.lastname@example.org or just get in touch.