A semidetached residential house in Volksrust Mpumalanga South Africa, a building that once belonged to the Netherlands South Africa Railways. (Photo: Nicholas Clarke)

Footsteps Along the Tracks Project

This project aims to identify, assess, document and make an inventory of the built remainders of the Netherlands South Africa Railways

The project will be carried out by the University of Pretoria, South Africa and is supported by the Dutch Embassy to South Africa in Pretoria. This project on built heritage has the potential to unlock further projects concerning archives as well as intangible heritage.

The Netherlands has left behind many footsteps and fingerprints in South Africa over a number of centuries. The most well-known is the built heritage of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and, of course, the Afrikaans language. The built heritage of the VOC period, often referred to as Cape Dutch architecture, has been well described and preserved and is still in use. It has now even been included in the South African section of the World Heritage Tentative List.

Until recently, the extent of the 19th century Eclectic ZA-Wilhelmiens heritage was quite unknown. The name of this architectural style was coined in a 2014 publication by the University of Pretoria which brought renewed interest in this fascinating episode in South African architectural history. One of the main contributors to this architectural style was the Netherlands South Africa Railways (NZASM), which contributed massively to the economic development of the northern provinces of South Africa.

Much of this heritage is still in use, serving not only as railway stations and workshops, but also as shops and houses in both towns and countryside. Many of these buildings still belong to railway authorities. They are at risk due to a lack of awareness, physical decay, and capacity shortfall but also to insensitive development. The buildings are not only part of an important heritage, but often form a substantial part of the fabric of towns and villages and could potentially play in important role in urban regeneration.

The NZASM’s physical legacy is shared cultural heritage with a great potential for fostering cooperation on cultural heritage. This could positively impact the lives of South Africans through urban regeneration, job creation, added tourism and through an increasing expertise on maintaining, managing and exploiting railway heritage. For this to happen, the extent of the heritage, its location and legal status first needs to be known and made available, not only to researchers in the field but also to policy makers, to the project managers of custodians of this heritage and to local citizens.