Whose tradition is it anyway?

Bridget Hilton-Barber

I love those moments, even in the now not-so-new South Africa, when I picture the architect of apartheid, that evil old pig-dog Hendrik Verwoerd, turning in his grave. I had a particularly good one the other day. I was at the Mpumalanga provincial legislature canteen, having lunch with a colleague.

Vusi gave himself an enthusiastic helping of mala mogodu (tripe). “I love that they serve traditional food here,” he said. “My wife is gonna be so jealous when she’s what I had for lunch!”

The cow’s stomach lining proved too much for a semi-vegetarian mlungu like me, so I went for pap, morogo, mashed sweet pumpkin and a dollop of zingy Indo-African chilli sauce on the side. What a far cry from the days of metaphorical melktert at Tuynhuys, I thought to myself happily. Here in Mpumalanga, there’s not one whiff of nationalist or colonial heritage. Not in the canteen, not in the ethos and most certainly not in the architecture.

The officially entitled Mpumalanga Provincial Legislature and Government Complex is one of the most beautiful and modern buildings I have seen. It’s a bold civic expression and a bold defiance of all things Edwardian, Victorian, Calvinist, Baroque or Tudor. There are no broekie-lace verandas, no ornate cornices, no frilly wrought-iron embellishments. There are no sloping Alpine roofs, no Greco-Roman columns or Spanish plaster.

The legislature is a sexy, modern and climate-appropriate building. And thankfully, unlike much of Nelspruit and adjoining White River, there is absolutely no trace of Tuscany either. Best of all, it was designed by an Afrikaner-owned firm called Meyer Pienaar Architects. Turn, Verwoerd, turn!

Coming in at an impressive 90 000 square metres, the legislature complex was the first major civic building to be commissioned in the new post-1994 democratic South Africa. It is set along the confluence of the Crocodile and Nels River, overlooking the Nelspruit Botanical Gardens.  A series of office buildings hug the tree line along the river in a gentle curve, and the central feature of the complex is the giant parabolic dome, measuring 28 metres in diameter, that houses the provincial parliament.

Visually it is an anchor for a place of gathering, says the architects’ website. It is a beehive, a basket, an African leitmotif. There are earth elements, reed elements and glass elements. It uses natural energy to represent not only the spirit of renewal but a culture that cares for the planet and its future.

In the weeks leading up to South Africa’s fourth democratic elections that may be pushing it a bit, but for me the point is that the legislature is a wonderful functional and aesthetic space to inhabit. It’s got great décor, good karma, and the sound of water provides a soothing backdrop to the thrum of public servant chatter and the squeal of expensive car tyres. The spaces flow, people actually have to walk around, instead of taking lifts up and down high-rise hideousities.

What few people know is that the legislature also houses one of the most comprehensive contemporary collections of South African art in the country, including works by William Kentridge, Esther Mahlangu, Noria Mabasa and Jackson Hlungwane. The nearby House of Traditional Leaders also has a fascinating permanent exhibition. I can just imagine Verwoerd being led humbly through the electronic security gates to view the brilliant art of the natives, gasp!

From inside the premier’s office, there are pleasant views across a big granite koppie, so characteristic of the Nelspruit landscape, with the downtown urban skyline in the distance, dominated by the aggressive Absa Square. In front of the legislature complex are lawns studded with acacia trees, fever trees and the odd sprawled out worker in overalls.

Sadly this is where it all ends. Next to the Mpumalanga legislature is what they call in urban planning terms, “a commercial satellite node”, which in this case is the Riverside Mall, the Emnotweni Sun and Casino and an American style value mart.  It’s fabulously convenient of course for our conspicuously consumer-driven civil servants, but a horrible exercise in ersatz architecture.

Bridget Hilton-Barber is a well-known travel writer based in Limpopo province. She has worked as editor of South African Airways’ inflight magazine Sawubona, debut editor of Lowveld Living, travel correspondent for Radio 702 and travel editor of FairLady magazine. She is the author of seven books.