Skip to content

walking the ecotone


babayeOne of my favourite childhood reads – and to be honest – well into adolescence, was CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia – his series of stories for children set in a fantasy land accessed by magic. You reached it by chance – pushing through the winter coats in the huge, old wardrobe which suddenly had no back and opened into a snowy landscape in the control of a wicked, dictatorial witch complete with sinister secret police (shadowy wolves) who had banned celebration and joy and decreed eternal winter. Certainly you only got there by magic: – one time through a train accident, which at the moment of impact tumbled you onto a deserted beach decades forward into time into a palace overgrown and a system crumbling – another time through a painting, washed by waves onto an adventure ship on a quest to the end of the world.

The very first time – in the Magician’s Nephew – the back story of the series, it was with magic rings. Which took you to the Wood between the Worlds a hushed forest – green and gold – scattered with calm pools. This wood was a transition space where nothing happened – an in between space neither here nor there. The pools were doorways into other worlds – those full and sparkling were new worlds – fresh, young – at the dawn of creation. The crusty, drying pools were worlds ending – with dying suns and decaying empires.

The potential in the Wood between the Worlds was limitless, a myriad of pathways and open opportunities. But the wood itself was still, inert, soporific.

The Ecotone on the other hand is awake and lively. It is a transition space – but in this space things are happening. Change is bubbling – often invisible, underground and not yet surfaced, but there is movement.  A biological term for the zone where different plant communities meet and integrate, the ecotone is dynamic rather than passive. There is energy in the ecotone – it is a place of connection, of exploration.

In common with other transition spaces – the wood between the worlds, attic passageways, airplanes in flight –the sense of potential and opportunity is boundless.

This blog aims to explore those spaces. The spaces where we can’t see what is happening, but where things are moving, seeds are growing, communities are coming together and landscape is shifting. The ecotone is the place of the future. I want to walk it


visiting the apartheid museum

Many people have recommended a visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.  I am not sure what I expected. I knew you were designated – blanke or nie blanke (white or non white) at the entrance and so immediately segregated from other members of your party. I had heard people – mostly foreigners from far away countries, or youngsters who had not experienced first hand apartheid at its height – report on the emotional experience of the encounter.

I didn’t expect to be so deeply moved myself. I didn’t expect such a hauntingly beautiful building, stark, sparse – embedded in its landscape occupying overground and underground space – in the midst of reclaimed mine dumps and old mine heads that litter the city of gold. Against the skyline its silhouette is reminiscent of a concentration camp, echoes of the holocaust in the seven tall concrete monoliths which represent the pillars of the South African constitution. The building is the colours of the bleached winter grass in the calm, zenlike garden. Built of concrete, gabions, steel, wire mesh and stones – from quarries and mines – the exterior and interior powerfully evoke separation, imprisonment, confinement and loss.

Designed by Mashabane Rose Architects, this is a building that resonates with its subject. Described as a memory space, the museum allows insight into the early days of the Johannesburg gold rush which brought together an enormously diverse array of people and takes us on a journey through the horror of apartheid, while at the same time paying tribute to the strong spirit of struggle, and commemorating the many heroes and ordinary citizens who endured this inhumane system and eventually brought it to an end.

‘A white person is one who in appearance is, or who is generally accepted as, a white person, but does not include a person who although in appearance obviously a white person, is generally accepted as a coloured person. A native is a person who is in fact or is generally accepted as a member of any Aboriginal race or tribe of Africa. A coloured person is a person who is not a white person nor a native.’

From the population registration act 1950

This is some of the nonsense that greets you as you enter an area of low light through a tunnel bounded by high fences – through which you can see fellow visitors and other rooms – but not enter. This is the nonsense that masqueraded as law for so many decades.

Coming out into the pale winter sunlight – we are guided up a ramp alongside life size mirrored visuals of South Africa’s array of citiziens. Some well known anti apartheid fighters, others descendants of some of Joburg’s first inhabitants. The museum is surprisingly personal – bringing alive individuals and groups – displaying personal belongings, photos of loved ones, shoes, a special tool, letters, the hated ‘passes’ along with artefacts from across the decades.

Descending underground the nightmare of apartheid begins – with recreations of scary solitary confinement cells, old television broadcasts of SA propaganda, BBC interviews with ANC fighters and multi-media displays recreating the notorious past. In one room hundreds of nooses pay tribute to the many who died in apartheid prisons. A recreation of a Robben Island cell reverberates with the sound of the sea, waves on sand, seagulls and stone chipping – the forced hard labour of prisoners for decades.

The memories are harrowing. It’s an emotional journey. As you leave the space you are invited to walk outside into freedom. This is a very special museum honouring the past, celebrating freedom and acknowledging that apartheid is exactly where it belongs – in a museum.