On the 21st of March 1960, South Africa’s Pan Africanist Congress organised a peaceful protest in township of Sharpesville. Black Africans burnt their pass books which restricted them from entering certain areas. Feeling threatened by this protest, the South African police opened fire on the crowd, resulting in the deaths of 69 people, including 8 women and 10 children. Hundreds more were injured. Many were shot in the back as they turned to flee.
This event, known as the Sharpeville Massacre, marked a turning point in South Africa’s history. It fueled the resistance movement, and the country found itself increasingly isolated from the international movement, resulting in fall of Apartheid on 1993.
In 2009, planning commenced for the Sharpeville Heritage Precinct – a framework to highlight areas of important cultural and historical significance, as well as turn the township into a noteworthy tourist attraction. The Phelindaba Cemetery, where the 69 graves of those killed is located, was identified as one of the prime areas.
It is here that the Sharpeville Memorial Garden is located and fulfils its role as a place of remembrance and gathering for the local community. The project was conceived as a ‘procession through the garden’ based of the concepts of memorial, gathering and viewing. Key elements of the project are the Memorial Wall, Amphitheatre and Flowers.
Constraints that affected the placing of the memorial on the site included a high water table and the close proximity of existing graves. During design and construction stages, extra care had to be taken to ensure that the graves located around the site where remained undisturbed. Furthermore, although the official number is 69, there is some contention as to the exact number of people killed on the day of the Sharpeville Massacre. The designers thus avoided the use of numbers, and aimed to created a ‘subconscious’ space rather than a literal expression.
The memorial wall, built from clay brick, has a skeletal row of raw-steel columns along its outer edge. Each column is topped with a granite flag. These steel columns are representative of people – standing in a row, all facing the same direction. A planter in the top of the wall contains a White Freylinia (Freylinia tropica) hedge with delicate white flowers which juxtapose the harshness of the steel and granite along the length of the wall.
Situated within the lawned space behind this wall the ‘flowers’, a series of 156 unique vertical raw-steel poles each finished off with a black and white granite ‘flower head’, serve as a permanent bouquet of flowers laid on the memorial – akin to those left daily on graves in the cemetery.
On the opposite edge to the wall, rows of indigenous River Bushwillow (Combretum erythrophyllum) and Wild Oilve (Olea europaea subsp. africana) trees delineate the edge of the memorial space and provide a sense of enclosure while providing shade to those seated on the benches below them. The River Bushwillow tree was chosen due to its ability to grow quickly in areas with a high water table while the Wild Olive tree was chosen due to its production of edible fruit, traditional medicinal value and its importance as a symbol of peace.
Since this memorial is located in a cemetery where daily burials take place, it was important to include spaces for both small intimate gatherings, as well as large political events – such as the annual gathering on Human Rights Day on the 21st March.
A lawned expanse gently slopes up along the northern side of the memorial wall and provides space for these larger gatherings, while the ‘flowers’ form a backdrop to the west.
Backing directly onto this space, a smaller, more intimate amphitheatre, consisting of a series of lawned terraces looks out to the distant horizon, dotted with power stations and industrial buildings, characteristic of this area.
A lawned plinth provides a backdrop to this smaller gathering space and the poem ‘I Remember Sharpeville’ by Sipho Sydney Sempala – laser cut from steel – hangs delicately from one of the enclosing walls.
The use of views and procession were important design generators in the conceptualisation of the memorial space within the context of the cemetery, and its broader context in the heritage precinct. On arrival, visitors are enticed towards the memorial space along a processional path through the cemetery and past the 69 graves.
The landscape architects felt strongly that the memorial garden should first be seen in relation to its setting. Placing it at a distance thus shifted the emphasis away from the designed space and onto the 69 graves.
The pathway from the 69 graves takes the visitor to the far eastern side of the memorial space and along the length of the Memorial Wall past the raw-steel columns and into the garden around the western end of the wall. There is a sense of anticipation as one passes the symbolic columns as to the future and what may await within the space. It is only upon entering the space that the visitor discovers the less monumental elements of the garden – the ‘flowers’ sculpture, the open lawn.
As a final movement the visitors finds their way up the slope behind the memorial wall and onto an elevated viewing platform. It is from this point that they look back across the cemetery towards the 69 graves as a final acknowledgment of the fallen.
The immediate area around the memorial space was rehabilitated with a mix of hand sown indigenous grasses to establish a natural buffer around the memorial space. Pools of water appear in the rainy season attracting birds to the site while the natural vegetation provides them additional habitat.
The construction of the Sharpeville Memorial followed a ‘raw-building’ process. All building work was done by hand and fine finishes were kept to a minimum. Clay brick and steel were left unfinished in order to provide the project with a unique and simplistic character. This aided in providing additional job opportunities and thus the impartment of knowledge and complex skills to the surrounding community.
Cut granites slabs were used to finish off horizontal surfaces and provide an elegant line contrasting the generally rough feel of the unfinished brickwork.
Due to the remote location of the project, the space was designed to be robust and maintenance is limited to cutting of the lawn and upkeep of the Freylinia hedge. The raw finish of the constructed elements requires little upkeep and saves the community from the financial burden of keeping it in a respectable condition.
In South Africa, landscape architects seldom get the opportunity to take the lead in the design of a project with such great heritage value. The challenges of engaging with the community and building contemporary architecture by hand were found to be highly rewarding and forgiving processes. This is evident in the pride and sense of ownership that the community has shown towards the completed project, which was completed in February 2011.
All images © and courtesy of GREENinc.