Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

This site uses cookies. By using our services, you agree to our cookie use.
Learn more here.

The Imaginary of ‘Africanness’ in South African Architecture

The persistent use of imagery from the ruins of Great Zimbabwe points to a universal desire to connect with atavistic cultural roots

As one of the best-preserved examples of monumental architecture in the African subcontinent, the ruins of Great Zimbabwe have exercised an enduring allure for explorers, archaeologists, historians and politicians alike. Indeed, the very naming of the nation state of Zimbabwe after the site, and the incorporation of one of its archaeological treasures - the Zimbabwe Bird - into the national flags and currencies both of Rhodesia and Zimbabwe, attests to its cultural and political significance. Given its importance, it is unsurprising that architectural references to Great Zimbabwe have long been established as a trope both of the romance and exoticism of Southern Africa, and an authentic expression of ‘Africanness’. Here, I examine the complexities and contradictions inherent in these tropes, and consider the ways in which they continue to buttress imaginaries of national belonging in South African architecture.

Although little is known of its original inhabitants or functions, the archaeological record shows that Great Zimbabwe was begun in the 11th century by Bantu-speaking ancestors of the Shona and built over three centuries, reaching its climax in the early 15th century. Supporting a sizeable community, the civilisation began to decline by the mid-15th century, a victim both of the ‘growing strength of groups that its very prosperity had brought into being’ as well as depletion and disruption of its food supplies and trade. Large-scale dispersal and migration was the inevitable consequence of this, and although other kingdoms - not least that of Mwene Mutapa - briefly flourished, these never controlled the same wealth or labour or built on the same scale as Great Zimbabwe.

Indeed, it is the very grandeur of Great Zimbabwe that sets it apart from hundreds of similar, smaller structures on the Zimbabwean plateau. Its central edifice, or Great Enclosure, has 11-metre high walls extending over 244 metres constructed of dry-packed granite quarried from the surrounding hills. Variously described as the seat of the royal court, the residence of the monarch’s senior wife, the sacred centre of the community, or a premarital initiation school, the exact functions of the structure, with the solid, 11-metre high conical tower at its centre, remain a matter of speculation.


The outer walls of the Great Enclosure at Great Zimbabwe

Long venerated as a site of religious significance by the Shona, early European travellers and colonisers were so awed by the epic grandeur and fine workmanship of the ruins that they attributed their origins to a host of exotic - if not mythic - sources, from Prester John, to King Solomon, to the Queen of Sheba: to the colonial mind, it was unthinkable that indigenous Africans could be capable of the sophistication and mastery evidenced by them. ‘No Bantu people, surely,’ the author of a 1930 guidebook entitled Zimbabwe the Mysterious argued with unflinching racism, ‘ever possessed the continuity of effort necessary to achieve such masterpieces of architecture; nor can it be claimed in the light of our present knowledge of this race, that their civilization was so highly cultured as to be capable of such magnificent conception and the power to execute it.’1

These obnoxious sentiments were fuelled by absurd speculations as to the origins of the ruins that first appeared in the 1890s when Cecil Rhodes and his British South African Company began to exploit the region, and to plunder the ruins. Rhodes was convinced that not only was Great Zimbabwe the Ophir of the Bible, but that the ruins themselves were the remains of a Phoenician residence. By Rhodes’ uneasy logic, this somehow lent weight to his own imperialist mission, since ‘what the great British Empire is to the nineteenth century, Phoenicia was to the distant ages, when Solomon’s temple was built in Jerusalem’.2 His exploratory survey of 1891 concluded unsurprisingly that ‘the authors of these ruins were a northern race coming from Arabia’.³ Although such tendentious attributions were dismissed with the arrival of methodical archaeology in the early 20th century, the mystique engendered by the ruins’ mysterious origins and epic character found ready appeal among ideologues of various complexions.


Zimbabwe Bird, an archaeological treasure, proudly perches on Herbert Baker’s Rhodes House (1928) in Oxford

Not least of these is one of the most important architectural monuments to Rhodes’ memory - Herbert Baker’s Rhodes House in Oxford, completed in 1928 - which borrows liberally from the forms and imagery of Great Zimbabwe. By the time he came to work on Rhodes House, Herbert Baker (1862-1946) was already established as one of the most distinguished architects in the service of the British empire. Baker had been rapidly assimilated into Cape Town society after his arrival there in 1892, soon becoming Cecil Rhodes’ protégé. In Baker, Rhodes found a sympathetic architect who could give form to his Imperial ambitions, and Rhodes in turn was instrumental in shaping Baker’s worldview.4 Indeed, under the sway of Rhodes, Baker came to believe implicitly in the project of imperialism, and the ability of architecture to provide order analogous to that provided by colonial rule.5 Both a memorial to Rhodes and a headquarters for the Rhodes scholarship system, Rhodes House thus offers an unapolagetic celebration of the ostensible civilising mission of Rhodes’ imperialist aspirations, of which the Rhodes scholarships were an integral part.

Following precedents established in South Africa and India, Baker decorated Rhodes House with an abundance of inscriptions and heraldic devices, all of which serve as a permanent reminder of Rhodes and his vision. In character, the building is essentially ‘a fine house of the Cotswold type’6 with a Classical rotunda cobbled to the front. Quietly integrated into its staid Englishness are various references to ‘Rhodesia’, the country named for Rhodes and where his remains were interred after his death in 1902. Principal among these are various iterations of the Zimbabwe bird - in bronze on the dome of the portico; in wood on the banisters of the staircase, fanlights and panelling; cast in stone in low-relief on the facade.

The eight anthropomorphic soapstone birds found at Great Zimbabwe are widely believed to be stylised representations of eagles, which in turn have important symbolic resonances in Shona culture as intercessors of the spirits of royal ancestors.7 Baker’s birds at Rhodes House are not exact replicas, but rather conflate a number of their formal and decorative characteristics. Ever in thrall to the ‘romance and history’8 of Southern Africa in general and Rhodes’ legacy in particular, Baker’s birds are a tribute to Rhodes’s perception of them as ‘a favourite symbol of the link between the older civilization derived from the North or the East, and the savage barbarism of Southern and Central Africa before the advent of the European’.9 Baker, for his part, was at pains to deny any idea that the birds may have had an authentically southern African provenance, suggesting instead that they were derived from Egyptian lion-headed birds, which he featured in brass work. Asserting the preeminence of the North, one of these ‘holds a baby Zimbabwe to its breast’.10 This is in keeping with the popular conception of the mythic Northern origins of the Ruins that, despite increasing evidence to the contrary, continued to inform a host of popular histories of the site during this period.


The imposing conical tower lies at the centre of the Great Enclosure

It is interesting that at almost exactly the same time that Baker was denying Great Zimbabwe’s African origins and perverting its symbolism to celebrate British imperialism, the Afrikaner architect Gerhard Moerdijk (1890-1958) was claiming them for its antithesis: Afrikaner nationalism. One of a group of Afrikaner intellectuals and academics based at the University of Pretoria at a time when Afrikaner nationalism was maturing as a social and political force, Moerdijk aspired to create an authentic Afrikaner volksargitektuur (or ‘people’s architecture’) that would promote an Afrikaner identity that was distinctly different from the hegemonic Classical tradition associated with British Imperialism. For Moerdijk, this was achieved largely by superimposing decorative elements drawn from regional reference points (not least Great Zimbabwe) over modernistic, streamlined forms built from regional materials. In the best-known example of this style, the Voortrekker Monument (completed in 1948), this highly selective reading of a historical African vernacular subsumed within the streamlined modernity of the overall design carried an important ideological message: it served to make a claim for the authenticity of the modern Afrikaner’s uniquely African origins, and their consequently unequivocal claim to nationhood.

The first fully articulated example of Moerdijk’s ideas is his Merensky Library on the University of Pretoria Campus, completed in 1936. The library’s battered granite walls rising from their rusticated base create an impression of venerable monumentality, while the zig-zag stone course at the top of the building (later repeated on the Voortrekker Monument) is a direct reference to the outer walls of Great Zimbabwe. The zig-zag - a ubiquitous and enduring signifier of ‘Africa’ - is repeated on the spandrel panels and window panes. Other direct quotations from Great Zimbabwe include low reliefs of the Zimbabwe bird on the frieze, and a troupe of baboons (a motif taken from a carved soapstone dish found in the ruins) on the architrave. Unlike Baker, Moerdijk strongly supported the view that Great Zimbabwe had been built by indigenous Africans - indeed, it was fundamental to the ethos of volksargitektuur that its primary points of reference should be African.11 Nonetheless, his reading of its symbolic tropes renders them little more than tokens, and unblinkingly promotes the notion of the authenticity of the modern Afrikaner’s claim to ‘African’ origins and the consequent right to its bounty. In the context of an Afrikaans-language institution known for its nationalist sympathies this was provocative stuff indeed, and would be amply vindicated by the Nationalist Party’s victory in the 1948 elections.

It would also establish the notion of ‘authentic’ African references as the necessary condition of progressive architecture in Pretoria and its environs, ultimately resulting in the style known as Pretoria Regionalism. The dominant style of postwar suburban Pretoria, Pretoria Regionalism is characterised partly by its use of regional materials and sensitivity to landscape, and partly by a self-conscious modernity inspired by contemporary Brazilian architecture, with generic ‘African’ inflections. As with Moerdijk’s volksargitektuur of the interwar period, there is an ideological component to this: as the nationalist agenda was increasingly being pushed after 1948, this insistence on the construction of an identity that was ‘authentically’ rooted in Africa, yet at the cutting edge of modernity, was an important component of the imaginary of Afrikaner nationalism as both legitimately ‘African’ and part of a forward-looking community of nations.


Luis Ferreira da Silva Architects, the Tower at the Northern Cape Legislature, Kimberley ( 2003) echoes the conical tower in the Great Enclosure

The most celebrated progenitor of Pretoria Regionalism was Norman Eaton (1902-1966), who actively promoted a regionalist style informed by the vernacular building traditions of African rural settlements. He also looked to Great Zimbabwe and Egypt, and promoted the use of locally fired bricks that had long been associated with the Pretoria building industry. Eaton was also interested both in Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic architecture and in Brazilian Modernism, having had first-hand experience of these in his travels to the Americas in the late 1940s, and was intrigued by the possibilities of an ‘authentic’ African language of form located within the broader rubric of Modernist functionalism. The resultant architecture - particularly in his domestic work - was unique in the context of mid-century South African architecture, and has been widely celebrated for its ostensible ‘deep understanding of the textural significance and poetics of African making’.12 His commitment to ‘being in Africa and of Africa’13 notwithstanding, and no matter how sincere his intentions, Eaton was nonetheless a primitivist par excellence, for whom indigenous Africans were prelapsarian, exotic creatures linked atavistically to the land they inhabited: ‘In his creative behaviour,’ Eaton wrote, ‘the Native is uncritical, he acts instinctively according to the laws of nature; he is the momentary vehicle for subjective expression of the spirit which flows from a source largely beyond his control’.

Despite his commitment to the ‘primitive’ simplicity of African vernacular building traditions, Eaton was not averse to monumentality. Unlike Baker and Moerdijk before him, his interest, particularly in Great Zimbabwe, was not one of decorative surface and glibly paraphrased symbolism, as much as of scale and spatial configuration. This is particularly evident in various domestic projects, where crudely mortared walls are used both to form dramatic outer perimeters and to create ceremonial passages. Strategically situated conical towers are used to conceal water cylinders or serve, as at ‘Dombeya’ (c1960), either as changing rooms for the swimming pool or servants’ outside lavatories. In effect, these elements create the effect of a Great Zimbabwe in miniature. However, despite their earnest commitment to a sense of genius loci, they are in effect more than a little redolent of the theme park; a white, middle-class fantasy of the ostensible African mystique where the tawdry facts of South African race relations are concealed, as David Bunn14 argues,’by an architectural fantasy about vanishing tribal identity and the past’.


Gerhard Moerdijk’s Merensky Library, University of Pretoria (1936). The zig-zag stone course at the top of the building is a direct reference to the outer walls of Great Zimbabwe

To some extent this persists in the recent work of architects like Peter Rich and Kate Otten, both of whom insist, in different ways, that solutions to South African architectural problems can and should be found in African vernacular traditions. Rich’s website describes this tendency as ‘a fusion of modernism and tradition born from a deep understanding of African iconography and vernacular’, while Otten’s characterises it as ‘a search for an African identity in architecture that reflects the uniqueness of our landscape, context and way of life’. At best, this offers a meaningful alternative to the egregious proliferation of ‘Tuscan’-styled speculative projects in South African suburbs, whose bewildering fantasy of pseudo-regionalism continues to conjure the spectre of Rhodes’s Cape-to-Cairo imaginary whereby Southern Africa is seen as Mediterranean rather than African.15 At worst, it perpetuates odious notions of the ‘primitive’ mystique of Africa, and results in little more than a gimcrack regionalism in which the imperative to capitalise on the neoliberal tourist economy reduces indigenous cultures to little more than ‘Hollywood versions of themselves’.16

Of course the tropes of authenticity and Africanness implicit in Great Zimbabwe have also been irresistible to post-democracy ideologues. Indeed, as irrefutable evidence of a flourishing pre-colonial African civilisation, this fed directly into Thabo Mbeki’s notions of the ‘African Renaissance’, and has been liberally quoted wherever such a link is sought to bolster the new African democracy. Notable examples include the Northern Cape Legislature (2003), and heritage sites like the Walter Sisulu Square in Soweto (2006), and Freedom Park (2010), outside Pretoria. Along with the Mpumalanga Legislature (2002) and the new Constitutional Court in Johannesburg (2004), these are among the few large-scale government projects commissioned since 1994 with the express intention of extolling the post-apartheid nation state. The spectral presence of Great Zimbabwe features in all these projects in one way or another: in the tower at the Northern Cape Legislature; at the Freedom Charter Monument at Walter Sisulu Square; in the ubiquitous walls, some on a monumental scale, of dry-packed stone at Freedom Park. In the case of both the Northern Cape Legislature and Walter Sisulu Square, the towers are essentially symbolic - at the former the tower serves no practical purpose other than providing an orator’s platform (and housing the public lavatories), while at the latter it is the symbolic centre of the museum; a mausoleum-like space whose sepulchral gloom is relieved only by a gaslit perpetual flame and a cross-shaped oculus that allows a ballot-box ‘X’ of light to traverse the interior with the passage of the sun (and thus recalling not only the Pantheon but also the ray of light that symbolically illuminates the sarcophagus in the Voortrekker Monument). This facile intertwining of the stock tropes of European democracy with an ‘authentic’ African monumental tradition is more than a little ironic, and warrants more space than I can give it here.

In conclusion, the persistence of the imagery of Great Zimbabwe in South African architecture points to an apparently universal desire on the part of competing constructs of identity to connect with atavistic cultural roots. It is common cause of nationalist theory that nations seek to validate themselves at once by their newness and disruptive break with the past, and by claiming authenticity from an imagined past: it is a necessary condition of all nationalisms, it seems, to imagine themselves as ancient.17 In these terms there is a certain poignancy in the attempts of the examples above to claim the grandeur and grace of Great Zimbabwe. Ill-informed and contradictory as these endeavours may be, they ultimately seem to be about a desire to belong, to claim out of the ever-fraught geopolitical space of this complex and contradictory country a sense of place, identity and legitimacy, and the imagined refuge of history.


1 Southern Rhodesia Publicity Bureau (1930), Zimbabwe the Mysterious: The Great Zimbabwe Ruins, Southern Rhodesia, 12

2 A Wilmot (1896), Monomotapa (Rhodesia): Its Monuments, and Its History from the Most Ancient Times to the Present, 48

3 JT Bent (1895), The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland: Being a Record of Excavation and Exploitation in 1891, 2


5 J Ridley, (1998), ‘Edwin Lutyens, New Delhi, and the Architecture of Imperialism’, in P Burroughs & AJ Stockwell (eds), Managing the Business of Empire: Essays in Honour of David Fieldhouse, 67-83

6 GE Elton (1956), The First Fifty Years of the Rhodes Trust and the Rhodes Scholarships, 1903-1953, 118

7 TN Huffman (1985, May), ‘The Soapstone Birds from Great Zimbabwe’, African Arts, 18(3), 68-73 & 99-100

8 H Baker (1944), Architecture and Personalities, 132

9 H Baker (1929), Cecil Rhodes and Rhodes House, 16

10 Ibid

11 R Fisher (1999), ‘The Native Heart: The Architecture of the University of Pretoria Campus’, in H Judin & I Vladislavic, Blank: Architecture, Apartheid and After, 221-235

12 M Le Roux, Revisiting Making: The Space in between Africa and Modernism in the Work of Norman Eaton (1902-1966), retrieved 7 January 2012, from…/AAT_Roux

13 Ibid

14 D Bunn (1999), ‘Whited Sepulchres: On the Reluctance of Monuments’, in H Judin & I Vladislavic, Blank: Architecture, Apartheid and After, 93-117, 115

15 P Merrington (2001), ‘A Staggered Orientalism: The Cape-to-Cairo Imaginary’, Poetics Today, 22(2), 323-342

16 Bunn, ‘Whited Sepulchres’, 116

17 M Edelman (1995), From Art to Politics: How Artistic Creations Shape Political Conceptions

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.