Thursday, January 28, 2010

Interview on Radio Today by Joburg heritage maven Flo Bird

I was interviewed on 1 December 2009 by Flo Bird, whose programme Heritage Today runs on the station Radio Today.  Here is the transcript:

Flo:  Now today I'm speaking to someone who has great and colourful meaning for us all, for all Joburg people, and that's Hermann Niebuhr, who has just opened an exhibition at the Anglo Gold Ashanti Gallery in Turbine Hall.  It's called "mine."  It has a double meaning, but it's about the mine dumps.  Welcome!

Hermann:  Good morning!  Thank you, Flo, and good morning to all your listeners.  It's a great pleasure to be here.  Just as you were talking about the Rissik Street Post Office [in the previous segment, about the historic building that burned down in the city centre and whether it would be restored or not], I sort of took my cue with the work I do, which is documenting Johannesburg, I took my cue from a line, and I can't remember exactly where it comes from, that "Johannesburg is a city that doesn't remember itself."

And it sort of struck me, like, "What's going on here?" that there's no books on Joburg, you know, you go to Cape Town and there are a gajillion coffee table books available in every bookstore.

Until Nechama [Brodie]'s The Joburg Book came along, there was to me a real lack of memorialising the city, celebrating the city, and documenting the city, in fact.  I know there were people doing stuff, there was stuff going on, but generally in the mainstream there just seemed to me to be a lack of it, and I was struck by that, you know -- the greatest city in Africa, effectively.  And we're not remembering it.

The work you're doing, and the work The Joburg Book is doing, and hopefully some of the work I'm doing and other people are doing is to elevate the city. I mean, we're going to have several visitors here next year [for the 2010 World Cup]...

Flo: We do hope for a little more than that!

Hermann:  Exactly!  And we've got a great city here.  Anyway, so my journey of documenting the city, of looking at it -- this is the third part of an exhibition trilogy of work I've done around Joburg, this one being the mine dumps. 

The first thing I did was the inner city, and especially the inner city at night as this sort of no-go, scary, noone can go here zone, but exploring that, within the psyche of South Africans and Joburgers.

Then the second exhibition was entering the city.  So it was the streets, and then it was going into the buildings, and I did a whole series of lobbies in buildings in the inner city, in Hillbrow and also in Berea and Yeoville.  So that was kind of entering the city.

And then this is the third part which is the mine dumps.  It's basically:  "this is what the city's about."  It's a mining town.What helped me so much to understand this city, in all its glory and in all its cruelty and all its meanness and all its generosity as a city of paradoxes, is:  it's a boomtown.

It's a mining town.

Built on a gold rush.

And reinventing itself as many other things.  But if you think of it as a gold mining town, a lot of stuff makes sense.

Flo:  You mean that's why we haven't quite grown up yet.  And although we're a hundred years old, we still keep knocking everything down.

Hermann:  Exactly!  I think that is set to change as soon as we can get this into people's consciousnesses and minds, that this is our city.

You know the thing about heritage, it works very well in retrospect:  "Oh, remember when..."  And that's such a flaw in the formula.  Heritage is:  "Look, this is what we have."  Not, "Oh, remember that was there."

A lot of the work I did especially on these mines, speaking to people in my father's generation, they'd say, "Oh, remember that mine dump, and remember that mine dump."  And they're disappearing, fast and furiously.  And that was a lot of the impetus that I took to make this work, was that these things are disappearing.

The reasons they are disappearing is one thing, but the fact remains, we are losing something that I consider intrinsic to the identity of Johannesburg.

I've got this fabulous quote from Herman Charles Bosman [South Africa's famous writer], which I want to read, to do with the mine dumps.  Let me paraphrase; he said:

"The mine dumps are no less an expression of the majesty of the African continent than are the Pyramids.  And the mine dumps are more mysterious. The mine dumps have no entrances."  [laughs] It's a beautiful --

Flo:  Yes, look, I would agree with you, I think that's a wonderful one, and perhaps it's one that we should be using a lot more frequently in the battle to try and save what's left now, such as the Top Star [a drive-in cinema, built high on a mine dump, overlooking downtown Joburg].  Because to me, they are so very much part of me, and part of my home, that I get quite bitter at the loss of them.

And I know I was quite touched when I read, I think it was [finance minister] Trevor Manuel, on returning to South Africa, looking down, coming into the airport looking down, seeing the mine dumps, and [saying] "When we see the mine dumps, we know we're home."

Now if you associate mine dumps and home, then how awful the attack on your home is, when they just bulldoze it away because they can get some money out of it.  Now there are a few things in our lives that we wouldn't sell, if we were going to make money, but we don't sell our homes lightly.

I think anything that has that kind of meaning -- you just can't imagine New Yorkers saying, "OK, well, Dubai would like to buy the Statue of Liberty."  I mean, would they sell?  Regardless of the price, no, they wouldn't. We know that they wouldn't, and I really do agree with Bosman on the mine dumps.

And the exhibition -- I loved the exhibition!

Hermann:  Thank you!  Great!  Can I just add something:  what really kicked me into motion was the Top Star, was seeing the Top Star starting to go, and I was like, "You know what, recycle the mine dumps, I get it, there's gold in there, there's money to be made -- leave us the Top Star.  This is the most wonderful monument to industry.  This is a worker's monument.  Let's call it that.

I'm afraid I was there recently, and there's very little left of it. The screen is pretty much what's left of it.  So it's a sad day.  You know what struck me, and I would like to lobby for a more activist approach among the listeners, maybe, I'm not sure what form it would take, but when I said to a lot of people, "You know, the Top Star is going," they went, "Oh, really.  Oh, that's a pity."  And I thought, "No, hang on, it's a crying shame!"

Flo:  It's much more than a pity.  Look, I agree on your point on being much more active about the Top Star, and you know that the Provincial Heritage Resources Authority of Gauteng did declare the dump, provisionally, and I believe there was something wrong with the declaration, and so the [mining] company went ahead [with its destruction].  You know this is one of the things I find really offensive, and as far as I know, DRD, Durban Roodeport Deep Gold, so for all the listeners, if you've got shares in the company, dump them!

Hermann:  [laughs]

Flo:  Because they [DRD] dumped you! This is the part I want to make clear.  They started taking the dump away from behind.  People phoned me up and said, "Do you realise they're taking the dump?"  And I'd drive past there, and no, you couldn't see anything, until you came up from the south, you didn't see it.  So, in other words, the insult was that they were doing it by stealth, they were doing it from the back, they don't care.

Now the irony of Durban Roodeport Deep Gold is that in Berlin they are building a hill.  Nothing quite on the scale of the Top Star, but it's trying to get there.  Here we are removing a hill.  And their hill is going to be an entirely artificial hill that has no intrinsic meaning.  They just want to improve the landscape of Berlin.  We've got this wonderful place, it has many fantastic memories, and not just in terms of its mining heritage, but also in fact as the only movie house in the world situated on top of a mine dump.

That wonderful view!  It's an incredible view from up there.

And the colours.  I know that these dumps are wicked and evil and there's lots of awful stuff in them, but for beauty, the dumps really are outstanding.  And that's why I loved, I really loved, your exhibition.  I loved going through and seeing those wonderful colours coming through -- and in a way, knowing they're poisonous -- in Joburg we live dangerously!

We're not a bunch of wimps here!

You know, we'll clean the rivers with reed beds.  But the idea that we should lose our identity because DRD is going to make a fortune out of it, I find really offensive.  And I find most of the mining companies have always been very offensive.  They have no interest whatsoever, and they always tell us their loyalty is to their shareholders.  Well, OK, if their loyalty is to their shareholders, then let not one person who values mine dumps have a share in Durban Roodeport Deep.  Sell today!  That's my advice.

Hermann: Strong views from Flo today! [laughs]

Flo:  No, I'm absolutely serious. We should have principles as well. We can't pretend that we want to keep the dump if we also want to keep the profit.

Hermann:  Can I just highlight another thing, which you just mentioned in passing, which is a fabulous thing about the mine dumps, is that paradox of reclamation, like at the old Turbine Hall.  It's a great opportunity.

Flo:  Anglo Gold Ashanti Gallery in Turbine Hall.

Hermann:  Thank you very much, Flo!

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