Too Late for the Gold Rush: Pilgrim’s Rest Part 2

Missed Part 1? Read it here first…

Driving away from Pilgrim’s Rest last week, I had little inkling that this little historic town on the geographic and economic margins of South Africa could be positioned at the nexus of so many shifting and competing heritage ideologies, local and global. As John and I have worked our way south and west, through more mining towns, port cities, and finally to the Cape Winelands, I’ve spent a lot of time considering the place and function of heritage sites in South African society. In South Africa, the idea that heritage can and should have a function (more so than being some mimetic record of the past) seems particularly pressing.

With the end of apartheid in 1994, the newly democratic South African government faced the task of not only planning for the country’s future, but reorienting towards a troubled and tangled past. “Heritage” under apartheid, insofar as it can really be termed as such, constituted narratives invented and controlled by the National Party (NP), the white minority party in power from 1948 to 1994. This approach to heritage particularly valorized the Boer’s intervention in South Africa, coming out of the NP’s history origins as an Afrikaner ethnic party. The NP sought to celebrate the “purity” of their Dutch ancestors, who ventured inland in the 1830s to escape British rule, and ostensibly seek religious freedom (also, the right to freely oppress the indigenous population without British meddling). If this approach to “heritage” sounds eerily familiar, it should come as no great surprise that certain radical factions of the National Party were inspired by the Nazi regime in Germany that had just been defeated in World War II. Indeed, resentment of South Africa’s involvement in the war and widespread anti-British sentiment eventually were what enabled the NP’s rise to power in the election of 1948, without winning the popular vote.

When John and I rode the Gautrain from Jo’burg to Pretoria a few weeks back, we had the chance to see the vestiges of the apartheid-era “heritage” preservation in action. The Kruger House Museum is an uncritical paean to the (in)famous early president of the Transvaal. Constructed in 1884, the house in its essence is a grander, more permanent version of many of the buildings at Pilgrim’s Rest. Dimly-lit period rooms with peeling wallpaper pay homage to “Oom Paul” and his family, focusing on the pleasant mundanities of daily life at the presidential residence. Halls of artifacts connected to the Boer leader’s political and personal life are accented with delicately cherry-picked quotes from contemporaries and modern scholars praising Kruger’s character and exploits. It is a relic of another time, a fabricated national mythology designed to legitimize the hegemony of the white Afrikaner minority. The nature and quality of the interpretation was really not that different from Pilgrim’s Rest, and are perhaps even more mired in the past. But centrally located in the major urban hub of Pretoria, and with the indubitable name of Kruger attached to it, this house’s persistence as a viable tourist site seems much more assured.

The front porch of Kruger’s House with its two lions. Apparently Kruger spent a lot of time hanging out on the veranda. Photo by SR. 

In 1994, as South Africa began its transition from apartheid minority rule to democracy, there came a moment of reckoning for “national heritage.” A government document, the “Report on Future Direction for Heritage Conservation in South Africa” (October 1994), situates heritage sites and their interpretation as key assets in accelerating the process of democratization, suggesting that “The conservation of our cultural heritage should be used to engender a multi-dimensional, democratic, non-racist and non-sexist national identity” (p.8). In this vision, heritage conservation and interpretation would have an active role in shaping the new nation’s identity, and providing healing and reconciliation in the wake of apartheid. This expanded articulation of national history stands in stark contrast to the previous construction of heritage as put forth by the National Party.

According to the aforementioned report, the state of heritage under apartheid created two primary imbalances. First, there was the inequality regarding which stories were being preserved and how. In the past, the document indicates, National Monuments typically highlighted and valued white contributions to South Africa. Sites marked as historically significant related to indigenous African cultures were, prior to 1994, typically paleontological areas dating to the distant past. As the report notes, “This assumption is based on the fact that African history is to be discovered in archaeological excavation and oral evidence rather than in architecture or the written record. Therefore, the extent of the South African cultural heritage needs to be redefined to make it more inclusive” (p. 7-8). The second disparity was geographical—as of 1994, about 3,000 declared National Monuments were located in the Western Cape region (i.e. the area surrounding Cape Town), while less than 1,500 sites existed in the rest of the country combined. Historically, the members of the National Monuments Council derived from a “white privileged social background,” which drove the “apparent preference for 17th and 18th century Dutch colonial buildings” of the variety predominately found in the Cape (p. 13).

Typical “heritage” in the Western Cape – the Drostdy Museum in Swellendam. Photo by SR.

The new National Monuments Council of 1994 (which also found itself considering a name change in light of how narrow and prescriptive “monuments” sounds) was thus faced with a double-headed challenge:

  1. How to include and incorporate more sites into South African heritage, reflecting the diversity of people and experiences in the fledgling nation.
  2. How to deal with existing sites, particularly those that were either selected as National Monuments or constructed during apartheid by the white minority government.

To address these concerns, the report suggests the following:

”The conservation of our cultural heritage must be made more representative of the aspirations and achievements of all the people. It must be non-elitist and non-sectarian. Therefore, the disproportionate bias towards Eurocentric values must be redressed. Any disproportion should, however, not be rectified at the expense of existing declared sites. Although deproclamation might help to redress an imbalance it would also denude the national cultural landscape.” (p. 9)


“Existing monuments, even those which may be regarded by some as disreputable, can be seen to have validity if presented as part of the history of the country, albeit a sad part of that history.”(p. 20)

What does all of this have to do with Pilgrim’s Rest? Pilgrim’s Rest occupies a strange position within the transformation of heritage interpretation and preservation. As an industrial site, it embodies certain aspects of the old vision of heritage and the newer, more progressive ones. Historically, it has been used predominantly to tell the stories a select group of white prospectors, owners, and soldiers. But, across its landscape— with its stores, houses, churches, bank, post office, printing press, cemetery, and the actual mine itself— it has the potential to tell a much wider range of stories.

Far from the picturesque white gables of stone Cape Dutch manor houses, Pilgrim’s Rest was not built to last. Its architecture was driven by expediency and the need for flexibility, intended to serve a mobile and itinerant labor force. As the town expanded and contracted alongside the oscillations of the gold mine and global gold prices, residents and mine managers were not looking to build a lasting edifice. Embedded in the built environment of Pilgrim’s Rest are bigger stories about the transformation of labor and capital that accompanied the consolidation and industrialization of mining in South Africa. As I’ve argued in previous posts, these processes—and the mechanisms of spatial control they entailed—set the precedent in many ways for the institution of apartheid. Given the right interpretation, Pilgrim’s Rest could function as the writers of the heritage report of 1994 envisioned, as an opportunity to redress the inequities through new public history and interpretation, incorporating but fundamentally transforming the heritage preservation that came before.

The old printing press at Pilgrim’s Rest. Photo by SR.

Yet Pilgrim’s Rest, like the Kruger Museum, remains very much rooted in the previous incarnation of “heritage.” Even the newest interpretive signage in the visitor’s center focuses almost exclusively on white stories: Transvaal soldiers minting coins during the Anglo-Boer War, high-stakes gold robberies, and so forth. The choice to retain this very narrow approach to public history, I would argue, has contributed to the town’s recent economic difficulties and the sense that preservation initiatives have started to pull away from the site rather than engaging with it.

Pilgrim’s Rest was declared a national monument in 1986, under what was still then an apartheid government. Since that time (I’ve been unable to determine exactly when), Pilgrim’s Rest was dropped from the monuments list and today retains only a provincial listing. Additionally, in 2004, Pilgrim’s Rest was added to South Africa’s “tentative list” of UNESCO sites. Inclusion on the tentative list is the first step a country takes towards an official nomination—a site must be on the tentative list to be eligible for later nomination. Pilgrim’s Rest was joined by several other significant industrial sites, including the Big Hole at Kimberley and related structures.

These industrial landscapes remained on the list until sometime in 2015, at which time they were suddenly excised without explanation. Preservation activists were angered and stunned, both at the abruptness of the changes and at the lack of public statements made about them. Today, only three modern cultural sites remain on South Africa’s list: the “Early Farmsteads of the Cape Winelands” (added 2009, updated 2015), the “Liberation Heritage Route” (added 2009), and a network of sites under the heading “Human Right, Liberation Struggle and Reconciliation: Nelson Mandela Legacy Sites” (2015).

An investigative blog post on The Heritage Portal, a site maintained by South African preservation activists, attempted to make sense of the removals. After interviewing several people familiar with the nomination process, Jacques Stoltz of the of the Heritage Monitoring Project identified several reasons that a site might be delisted, which I’ve paraphrased here:

  • Lack of human/technical resources – Pursuing a nomination takes a lot of time and skilled labor, which some nations simply cannot expend across too many different sites.
  • Lack of financial resources – The sites delisted in 2015 are located primarily in economically struggling provinces of South Africa that may simply not be able to bring the sites up to UNESCO standards and maintain them in the long term.
  • Degradation of listed sites – When a site sits on the tentative list for long enough, the site itself may physically deteriorate to the point of being no longer suitable.
  • Changing cultural norms – As we saw with the changing ideas about heritage at the end of apartheid, it may be that a site is no longer seen as representing a culture’s values.
  • Avoiding complexities of ownership – Some of the delisted sites are located in areas that have multiple and conflicting owners.
  • Refocusing national preservation efforts – With a smaller number of tentative sites, a country might be better able to hone its nominations and have a better chance of actually attaining UNESCO status.

I am still relatively new to the world of preservation, but it seems like there is vicious cycle built into all of these justifications for delisting a site, particularly in a place like South Africa where funding for heritage sites is decidedly limited. UNESCO status has the potential to attract tourism, but the process of attaining that status can itself be costly, enough so to dissuade regional or national governments from pursuing nomination for sites that would need substantial restoration or documentation. But without the international prestige (and increased visitor numbers) that come from a UNESCO listing, many of these sites simply do not have the human or economic resources necessary to maintain the physical structures and artifacts that make them unique. As Len Raymond, the Heritage Association of South Africa (HASA) spokesperson told Stoltz regarding the recent tentative list removals:

”…we are deeply concerned about the delisting of an entire group of highly significant industrial sites at Namaqualand, Kimberley and Pilgrim’s Rest – these sites we believe carry huge value to the peoples of Southern Africa and beyond – given the extent of the labour footprint we are talking about – the sites therefore undoubtedly deserve international recognition. We are also particularly concerned about the poor state of conservation at these sites – even the Public Protector stated that the management of Pilgrim’s Rest is shocking.”

As of now, Pilgrim’s Rest has a few valuable assets. It still has an excellent set of unique historic buildings that together form a larger, cohesive cultural landscape. It also has a municipal population that seems eager for employment, and given the right opportunities and education, could make significant contributions to creating a positive visitor experience. What the site lacks, however, is any kind of substantive curatorial oversight, which could insure that the architectural treasure of Pilgrim’s Rest was being leveraged to tell inclusive, nuanced stories about South Africa’s industrial past. And sadly, it seems that whatever resources existed previously to keep the buildings in relatively good repair may be substantially diminished. And without those buildings, the value of Pilgrim’s Rest as a historical site is severely diminished if not obliterated.

As of 2016, Pilgrim’s Rest ranked as one of The Heritage Portal’s most endangered historic sites in South Africa.

“If there is no intervention, further degradation of the site will erode the remaining tourism and other local economic benefits the site holds for the area. This will also threaten its existing Provincial Heritage Site Status and any future efforts to reconsider the site as a potential Unesco World Heritage Site… The town is neglected and is not being maintained by the Mpumalanga Provincial Government.”

Since leaving Pilgrim’s Rest, we’ve driven through Kimberley (another threatened industrial site), and along the coast to the Cape Wine region. Situated in Franschhoek, we are now at the heart of one of the three remaining modern cultural sites on South Africa’s tentative UNESCO list. The historic buildings here are immaculately conserved and restored with private money, and tourism is booming. It seems a million miles away from the quiet desperation of Pilgrim’s Rest.

Things will likely be a little quieter on the blog for the next few weeks as I write my longer posts for the Society of Architectural Historians and the National Trust. But John and I will still be keeping up our podcast, and our newsletter will be coming out as usual. Stay tuned.


Heritage Monitoring Project. “Our vanishing heritage – South Africa’s top ten endangered sites 2016.” The Heritage Portal, September 22, 2016. Accessed August 19, 2018.

“Report on Future Direction for Heritage Conservation in South Africa.” South African government document, October 1994. Architectural archives at the University of Witswatersrand.

Stoltz, Jacques. “SA removes sites from the UNESCO world heritage tentative list.” The Heritage Portal, October 25, 2015 (originally published July 24, 2015). Accessed August 19, 2018.

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