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The year rolls gently to a close. Your blogger has been laid up with a touch of summer influenza. Not an altogether unpleasant experience, dozing off while outside the wind brings in some overdue rain.

I’ve been ploughing through Denys Reitz’s superb trilogy, Adrift on the Open Veld. Commando is the classic memoir of the Boer War. And his subsequent soldierings through East and West Africa and the First World War are a vivid account of hell, breezed through in high spirits. Later, as a Member of Parliament, Reitz travelled widely in SA and there were frequent political meetings on the platteland. These often ended  – or began – in fisticuffs, heckling and chair throwing, such was the enmity between Jan Smuts’ followers and General Hertzog’s fervent Afrikaner Nationalists. Does this ring any bells, COPE, ANCYL etc?  Finding the present reflected in the past is comforting. In this case at least, we continue a proud tradition of misbehaviour.

As the nation prostrates itself beneath the sun, we get a break from the deal makers and turf pissers who so vocally thrust themselves into our psychic space. You know the ones. There’s a brief lull as they emerge from their tinted German sedans to sun themselves. Enjoy it while you can, for they shall be back…

tuscan townhouses anyone?

Pierneef parking out on the stoep with Gustav Preller, sometime in the 30’s. I stopped off at Preller house on the way to find the Hartbeespoort Dam site. Preller, a pioneer of Afrikaans, edited Ons Vaderland and wrote a book on Piet Retief and other volumes on the Voortrekkers. His house is on a sunlit koppie with views of the Magaliesberg to the North. The use of nearby stone, slate and thatch makes a dwelling that perfectly fits its surroundings.

preller se plek

The place is a bit run down and there’s no-one else around. Around the back there’s a courtyard and some rondavels.

It was in one of these that the poet and naturalist Eugene Marais, worn down by decades of morphine addiction, spent his last days. The scale, shape and colour of the dwellings is deep South African, the work of people  in touch with their landscape. There’s a modesty of scale here that reflects early Afrikaner Nationalism, if you like. And just over the hill is the nuclear research facility of Pelindaba – the love child of a rampant lust for power.

So in 1870, John Ruskin was installed as Oxford University’s first Fine Arts Professor. Thus was born the modern art institution, where the production of theory is at least as important as knowing the craft of artmaking. And Ruskin wasn’t short of ideas. Or ambition. His inaugural lecture was a call to arms:

“We are undegenerate in race. We have the firmness to govern and the grace to obey. Will you youths of England make your country … a mistress of learning and the Arts? This is what England must do or perish: she must found colonies as fast and far as she is able … seizing every fruitful piece of waste ground she can set her foot on, and there teaching these her colonists that … their first aim is to advance the power of England by land and sea.”

In the audience that day was the young Cecil Rhodes, and we all know how keenly he took up the project:

hier kom Cecil!

Ruskin also thought it important for the youngsters of the chosen race to do a bit of physical work, so he set his students to digging roads. Cecil, who was frail, did not partake, but toiling along with the rest was an icy young man called Alfred Milner. Later on, he got rid of Paul Kruger’s rustic Republic and dragged the Transvaal into the modern age.

With cane in hand. Mr Milner

So what has this to do with Pierneef, I hear you ask? Well, the Boer War was a cataclysm for the Afrikaner people.  Aside from creating a bitter sense of loss, it unified the Volk and gave them heroes.  Those are crucial ingredients for the birth of Nationalism. And Afrikaner Nationalism is a subject that often crops up when Oom Henk is mentioned.

O Hel!

J H Pierneef’s Station Panels are cornerstones of South African landscape painting. They were placed in the old Johannesburg Station as adverts to travel the country.

But did these alluring places ever really exist? And how have they changed?

Taking up the invitation to travel 80 years later, Carl Becker set off to find out.

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