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Analysis of Specific Visual Spaces In South Africa

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Spatiality is defined as any property relating to or occupying a space. When one examines this notion one will find that it is extremely broad in its nature. The various relations such a property can have to its space that it occupies ranges from physical spheres to symbolic and even historic spatial spheres. The majority of the spaces involved are layered under numerous ideological and mythical layers. These elements deal with various power and control structures that are able to be analyzed and revealed. (Spatiality: 2008)

Choosing a space specifically in South Africa creates opportunity to analyze or examine a space that is worthy of critical discourse and rich in controversy and heritage because of our past. Here I believe that various elements such as ideological and mythical systems will be revealed many times over regarding the specific landscape I choose to examine. The space I chose to examine is a newly built shopping/entertainment centre in Irene which is called Irene Village Mall. A brief overview of Irene and its history will follow as well as an in depth examination of the Irene Village Mall regarding its relationship to the various spatial spheres.


The earliest historical writings record that a tribe called the Bakwena or the Crocodile people lived in the Irene area in the 1800’s. The tribe was later driven away by the Matabele people with their leader Mzilikazi. In the early 1830’s a Boer Voortrekker called Daniel Erasmus sought economic and politic independence and settled on a farm in Irene that was called Doornkloof which was also nicknamed the kerkplaas. In 1889 the late Alois Nellmapius bought two thirds of the Doornkloof farm and started to develop the land even more. He renamed the Doornkloof farm after his daughter, Irene and so it exists today as the Irene Estate. (Irene, Gauteng: 2008)

De Beer (2008) states that in 1902 Irene was established and claimed as a township by the new owner Johannes van der Byl who represented his family name which exists today in its fifth generation. The Van der Byl’s are responsible for building up the large herds of dairy cows around Irene as well as developing the forestation within this area. During the Second Boer War, Irene was also a site of one of the Concentration camps which led to the end of the war. In 1908 General Jan Smuts bought a third of the original Doornkloof farm and his ashes was later scattered across the Smut’s Koppie near the Doornkloof farm. (Irene, Gauteng: 2008)

Today Irene is still a large attraction for many individuals and families. Over the weekend the Village converts into a flea market that is believed to be one of South Africa’s best markets today. It has various landmarks rich in its history like the Smuts House which exists today as a museum open for the public. The Van der Byl family also opened the Irene Estate Dairy for attraction and hosts many people in their traditional restaurant and Dairy shop. The Village cemetery is also in the near vicinity which is a tragic site as it became the final resting place for over 1000 Concentration Camp prisoners in the early 1900’s. There is no doubt that Irene holds an immense amount of historic inheritance and legacy. Also because of the nature of the Afrikaner a lot of pride is expressed when the issue of Irene is in discourse. But this leads to one of the most important elements in my discussion which revolves around how the Irene Village mall encapsulates that pride, nostalgia and mythical characteristics of the Afrikaner. (De Beer: 2008)


Figure 1: Restaurant area of Irene Village Mall, Irene, 2008.

Photograph by the author.


For the following section I will frequently refer to the two articles that appeared in Pomp (2008) magazine. In regards to spatial articulation and manipulation Viljoen (2008) writes that the village mall has been built right next to the R21 highway that leads to South Africa’s biggest airport. Because of this, this space is an area which receives thousands of by passers every day. Viljoen (2008: 178) also explains that in contradiction to the conventional way of situating an entertainment mall in such a way that its appearance attracts people, Irene village faces the highway the wrong way. It’s lesser aesthetic side faces the road leaving its front and most welcoming side hidden. The road leading to the mall is also an element of interest as Viljoen explains that before you actually enter the mall area you first drive by the late Jan Smut’s old house. This is significant because of Irene’s history and the cultural significance that a figure like Smuts has to South Africa and Afrikaners in particular. When confronted with this notion one is immediately directed to consider the history of this location. (Viljoen 2008: 178 - 184)

Dodson (2000: 414) notes that places of consumption like Irene Village Mall can be seen as three dimensional advertisements. The shops are packaged in a similar way as products and also marketed in the same degree. In totality a mall like Irene Village can also be seen as a commodity which is packaged and marketed to be consumed in a real or symbolic way. With this mall and Irene Village as well, Viljoen explains that the architects turned to European styles as a conceptual guide for articulating the space. A resemblance can be seen between Irene and traditional Italian villages. Although, architecturally, Irene Village Mall differs in essence from most European architectural styles. Viljoen explains that the overall character of the mall reflects the rich Irene heritage and acts as an idiom for that specific period. One of the most important elements in this notion is the dark coffee colored tones with which the mall is painted with. More aspects that are notable are the building plinths and barrier walls that are distinctly famous in the old Irene. The barrier walls are made out of rough stone and rocks that were dug from the Irene area and then cemented together to form the pillars and main décor of the buildings. These elements can almost be seen as the features that define the old Irene architectural style. All these elements carry much weight in creating the commoditized symbolism of the mall which will be discussed later on. (Viljoen 2008: 180 – 181)


In regards to the manipulation and construction of the building it is typical of modern entertainment and shopping centers. Emmison & Smith (2000: 162 - 163) explains that the modern layout of a generic mall is made out of an array of shops strategically placed around large corridors of walkways which attracts the buyer and spurs the physical circulation within the mall. In Irene mall it is evident in its racetrack-like pattern as a visitor would never come to a dead end and will always be lead to the beginning of his journey. This helps with the continues flow of shoppers and influences them subliminally as it signifies the characteristic of shopping; the fact that there is no end to it. The most modern malls are constructed in a non-linear way with ‘curvy’ designs which creates more interest for the shopper as it offers a sense of mystery or discovery when exploring the space (Emmison & Smith 2000: 162 - 163), (Viljoen 2008: 183).  

Emmison & Smith (2000: 162 - 163) lists the various elements that are evident in most spatial arrangements of shopping mall these days. Firstly there are alternative activities which appeal to even more people. These activities include cinema theatres, restaurants and baby-care services. In Irene mall there also a large number of art pieces that compliment the milieu of the area. A popular feature is the fountains in the most centered space of the mall between all the restaurants. This has become a large attraction for bored children to play whilst their parents are shopping or drinking coffee. Another important element is the fact that the mall is themed. De Swart & Van der Merwe (2008: 175) uses the words ‘moo-mall’ to describe it. The mall is filled with various features that represent cattle. There are the large mosaics of different gendered cows signifying the restrooms. A few sculptures can be seen around and in the mall like the massive The Udder Side by Angus Taylor or the large living sculptor Trixie which made out of plants that bloom only in the summer. All the drain lids have cow labels imprinted on them and the mall is divided into streets with names such as Vrieskoeistraat. Emmison & Smith (2000: 167) explains that a mall should be able to blend within its local narratives. Whilst doing this it creates a symbolic identity that is true to its surroundings and ultimately compliments itself and the space around.

With this mall this identity becomes the centre of attention. By adding these elements like the cattle sculptures and old Irene Village architecture it refers to the area and its space in an archaic manner. By referring to the Jan Smut’s old house, the farmhouse buildings and the Van der Byl’s Dairy the mall does exactly what is expected of it. It creates an icon for Irene; an identity. This identity is what is most important about the mall.        


When I read De Swart & Van der Merwe’s (2008: 170) article I found that this identity is subtly expressed through it. In South Africa today I feel that the Afrikaner community is in a self- stifling war. Disregarding the current generic situation of South Africa with all the crime and corruption the Afrikaner within themselves, are forced to find their identity again in the modern world. Being an Afrikaner I feel it impossible to take my past in consideration or use it as a basis for living in the modern world. The general perception of almost anything Afrikaans and its past is in some way linked to Apartheid and then deemed wrong. This leaves the Afrikaner in a spiral of confusion searching for a politically correct identity. De Swart & Van der Merwe (2008: 170) describes a very current idea of what Afrikaners are. It gives a vague outline of what Afrikaners used to be and still want to be. This notion portrays a large amount of nostalgia that co-exists parallel to Afrikaner pride.

There are numerous reasons why an establishment like Irene Village Mall would exist. One major reason is this element of nostalgia. Ellin (2001: 872) explains that nostalgia is a form of evading the fear that people feel in an urban lifestyle. Another would be that this sense of nostalgia creates a sense of belonging within a scattered community. Whatever the case, this sense of safety or belonging is packaged and presented to the consumer in the form of a shopping mall. This is the point where one must recognize that there is an immediate structure of ideology and myth involved. With this said one must also agree that there are certain power struggles involved. Foucault (1993: 136) comments on figures of domination as he notes that an architect, typically the figure that designs a mall like Irene Mall, does not have direct power but deals with all the elements involved. Organization and implementation is used by architects to create spaces and this enables them to have a certain percentage of control. Foucault (1993: 137) claims that the architects influence over a space must be examined with direct regard to his or her attitude, mentality and opinion.

One of the most interesting forms of control is that which exists within the Irene Village Mall through myth. De Swart & Van der Merwe (2008: 171) explains how the mall is constructed in such a manner that kids can run around under parents surveillance. By creating attractive pin points within the most centered space of the mall the kids are drawn to it. This enables the parents to peacefully sit, drink coffee or read a book while they feel that their children are safe and always under their watchful eye. This is what people who visit a mall desire. Emmison & Smith (2000: 168) explains that safety within a space is one of the most important aspects of any space, public or private. As we have discussed there are various elements that creates this myth of safety within this space. The fact that the construction of the space is done in such a way to convert all hidden spaces into visible spaces, with surveillance cameras, security guards, armed response, personal holding cells and safe parking all create the notion of fortification. Malls have become the urban forts of the modern day. (Ellin 2001:  874) This notion is contradictory as there have been numerous occasions where criminals just enter these premises and create havoc within the safety spaces.

The illusion that these premises are safe, as seen in De Swart & Van der Merwe (2008: 170) explaining how shoppers can go by their business without any concerns or fears are masked by the unification of public and private spaces. Dodson (2000: 419) explains how the boundaries between public and private spaces are blurred and that these spaces that seem public are actually controlled via the private spheres of society. Almost every mall today is privately owned with their own private ‘police’. With that said the major element of control is the fact that an identity is created and made into a commodity. This identity is expressed in the article Irene Village Mall as De Swart frequently uses textual codes like platteland se plaasgemeenskap, plaasonbyt, plaasatmosfeer and koöperasie. These are all elements that help create this nostalgic identity.

This is interesting because after examining the space you come to see that almost everything is made out of visual codes of the past that stimulates the feeling of nostalgia. It is no secret that most Afrikaners yearn for the past and to their idea of the ‘good old days’. De Swart & Van der Merwe (2008: 176) even differentiates Irene Village Mall as being exclusive and more intimate than other malls. De Swart & Van der Merwe (2008: 176) also believes the mall to be far more peaceful and relaxing than other places. The most significant part of the article is where it says: …”Skielik voel jy weer deel van ‘n gemeensaamheid. Deel van ‘n gemeenskap van vriende wat werklik omgee en uitreik na mekaar.”… This is what Afrikaners yearn for most, the fact that they feel a sense of brotherhood and belonging. This all then creates security and a safe community that care and look out for each other (De Swart & Van der Merwe 2008: 176).

It seems that today we are in a war but the Afrikaner is completely alone and vulnerable. The Afrikaner keeps on yearning for that belonging, but also a politically correct belonging. Irene Village Mall in its ideological and mythical structures provides just that. It seems to be a safe haven where it feels like the visitor is in his or her own back yard drinking coffee and having their children play and run around. But it provides even more when one considers it in a symbolic way. The fact that it is built in such a historically significant space and that it resembles the Afrikaner’s most triumphant and also most tragic period makes it a monument of identity.  Marschall (2004: 34) claims that any monument does not have any specific meaning. This has many meanings that are accepted by various individuals in various ways. The meaning here is dependent on their attitude and beliefs.


The direction in which a space like Irene Village Mall would want to control certain social spatiality is evident. It is without a doubt a subtly exclusive space for people familiar with the visual cues and codes embedded within the architecture, surroundings and historical interests. This mall symbolizes the ‘Afrikaner plaas’ which is a place with a caring mother and a hardworking father. The ‘plaas’ is a space that is loved by the whole family or community and which loves them back in a different sense. It symbolizes a hint of hope for the future in the sense that it shows what the Afrikaner was and how they could still exist, proudly as themselves within political concurrence and the modern world. Irene Village Mall is a commercially produced commodity that offers escapism. An escapism that leads to the identification of a lost nation. But like any commodity it has a price and this one has a going rate of R5 an hour and manifests itself in the form of a parking ticket and an entertainment mall.

Sources Consulted

De Beer, J. 2008. When Sleepy Irene Comes Alive… Available:


Accessed 15 August 2008.

De Swart, S & Van der Merwe, L. 2008. Pomp. Irene Village Mall. 170 – 176.

Dodson, B. 2000. Are we having fun yet? Leisure and Consumption in the Post-     Apartheid City 91(4), 412-425.

Ellin, N. 2001. Urban Studies. Threshold of Fear: Embracing the Urban Shadow 38(5-6), 869 - 883.

Emmison, M & Smith, P. 2000. Researching the visual. Images, objects, contexts  and interactions in social and cultural inquiry.

London: Sage:152-189.

Foucault, M. 1993. Space, power and knowledge, in The cultural studies reader.               London: Routledge:134-141.

Irene, Gauteng. 2008. Available:


Accessed 15 August 2008.

Marschall, S. 2004. The signifying power of the monumental image. Image & Text 11:33-41.

Spatiality. 2008. Available:


Accessed 15 August 2008.

Viljoen, M. 2008. Pomp. Koeispene en die Goue Snit. 177 - 184

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