A towering cultural icon

The massive cooling towers are receiving
a bright and colourful makeover.
(Image: MaOblata Bloemfontein)

“The Suncatcher” by the late Father Frans
Claerhout, a Bloemfontein-based Roman
Catholic priest, is one of the subjects shown
in large scale and glorious colour.
(Image: MaOblata Bloemfontein)

The Soweto towers are a popular cultural
destination, and one that is also sought
after by crazy thrill-seeking visitors.
(Image: Soweto Towers )

Janine Erasmus

Bloemfontein, the City of Roses, is looking even more cheerful these days. The city’s cooling towers are receiving a facelift and will soon be covered in vibrant home-grown artwork, courtesy of First National Bank (FNB), one of the country’s major banking groups. FNB is a major sponsor of the 2010 Fifa World Cup, and in line with its sponsorship of the much-anticipated event, is transforming the skyline of one of the host cities.

Bloemfontein, also known as Mangaung (place of the cheetahs), is a city rich in cultural heritage and has played a significant role in South Africa’s growth as a nation. Many of the city’s most acclaimed citizens and distinctive features will be immortalised in the gigantic works of art that are soon to completely clothe the vast surfaces of the cooling towers.

Two of the four towers, which belong to a currently decommissioned power station, will carry FNB’s 2010 Fifa World Cup branding. The other two will take on a bright and colourful depiction of the area’s heritage and are expected to become a source of community pride.

Sieg Maier, who heads up FNB’s Free State division, said that the company is proud of its investment. “The physical and psychological landscape of Bloemfontein will be transformed into a more positive and vibrant place that beams with hope,”

The artworks are reproduced on canvas – about 12 800m2 of it – and the wraps weigh between 700 and 900kg each. The project, which is not yet complete, is expected to consume 12 000l of paint, while the artistic team will take about 720 hours each to complete their sections. Each tower is 60m high with a circumference of 120m at the bottom and 70m at the top.

A city of pioneers

Bloemfontein is something of a pioneering city, and its residents are responsible for many notable milestones and inventions both at home and abroad. Among them are Olympians Ryk Neethling, a member of the first South African swimming team to win a gold medal, and record-breaker Zola Budd, who was the first Olympic athlete to run barefoot.

The significance of the city goes back much further than that, though, and the area abounds with rock art paintings that show the lifestyle of the San people, its first inhabitants. Later the city, after its establishment in 1912, became an important military base with both an army and air force presence. The Rooivalk (Afrikaans for “red kestrel”), South Africa’s attack helicopter, is based at Bloemspruit air force base.

Bloemfontein is renowned as a centre of learning and literature, as well as science and engineering. J.R.R. Tolkien, renowned author of The Lord of the Rings, was born in Bloemfontein in 1892. The city is the judicial capital of South Africa, and the country’s current ruling party, the African National Congress, was founded in Bloemfontein in 1912.

In 1955 the first parking meter in Africa was installed in the city, and later Fred Brownell, who went to school in Bloemfontein and became the State Herald, was the principal designer of the new South African flag. The flag made its début on 10 May 1994 at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as South Africa’s first democratically-elected president, and is the only six-coloured national flag in the world.

There are two international astronomical observatories within the city limits – the Boyden Observatory and the Lamont-Hussey Observatory, which is now a cultural venue known as the Observatory Theatre. While the latter was still in operation it housed the imposing 27-inch Lamont refractor which at one time was the largest refractor in the southern hemisphere.

Soweto towers

In 2003 FNB performed a similar feat on the cooling towers of the mothballed Orlando power in Soweto. The two towers can be seen for miles around and have become cultural landmarks in the area. A number of contemporary artists lent their talents to the initiative, which is now an important tourist attraction in the area.

Not only conventional, but also adventure tourists are keen to visit the site, because the Soweto towers have been transformed into a popular vertical adventure centre. The centre, which opened in July 2008, boasts a 100m-high viewing platform at the top of the west tower with a 360 degree view of Soweto. The platform leads to a power swing and a tandem swing, both of which allow thrill-seekers to plunge downwards for 40m and then swing between the two towers – either alone or with a friend. The towers are also used for base jumping, rap jumping and abseiling.

FNB commissioned a mural that would depict slices of life in Soweto. Notable features, in much larger-than-life size, are a smiling Nelson Mandela, who lived in Soweto’s Vilakazi Street, famous singer Yvonne Chaka Chaka, the Madonna and child, which is a symbol of Soweto’s Regina Mundi Catholic church, a football stadium, a female vendor selling her wares, taxis, and many other iconic images of the bustling township.

The other tower bears the FNB branding. The mural, which took six months to complete, is said to be the largest in Southern Africa – but soon it will have competition.

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