Harare - A Photographic History

Book Review by Dr Robert Challiss

Soon after its launch this September, the French Ambassador to Zimbabwe hailed it as, “A great book, a must for all those who enjoy our beautiful city so much.” Those assembled in the St George’s College Beit Hall for Jonathan Waters’ talk at a Zimbabwe History Society event to mark the 125th Anniversary of the raising of the Union Jack in Fort Salisbury on 13 September 1890, were offered the book for the reduced price of $50 a copy. The book was immediately sold out but retails normally at several Harare bookshops at the price of $60.

This may sound like a lot, but this book is worth every penny. Packed with over a thousand photos, many of them in colour, and accompanied by detailed commentaries and anecdotes, this coffee table book by Jonathan Waters is the most comprehensive and intriguing illustrated record of our city’s buildings and amenities.

Born in 1969 and raised in Harare, Waters studied economics and journalism at Rhodes University and worked in various parts of the world before returning to live in his homeland in 2007. Waters is well- known in the city as a publisher and economist, and the book is the result of a seven-year quest for photos and information.

Harare: Urban Evolution – A Photographic History is the story of the rise of the buildings of Harare, focused mainly on the city centre from 1890 to the millennium. The city is presented in before-and-after photos, with some views taken from varied perspectives, including aerial. Chapters deal with alternately slack and rapid periods of development from the 1950s to the end of the Federal Era showing the transformation of a provincial town into a modern metropolis. The book ends with the downward spiral of the economy after 1997, followed by studies of various aspects of Harare’s historical landmarks and amenities.

To mention but a few, the numerous and varied topics include hotels – past and present – schools, the Anglican Cathedral and other places of worship, Avondale, the botanical gardens, Sam Levy’s Village, the industrial sites as well as profiles of some of Harare’s leading architects over the years.

Waters draws upon a huge canvas with clarity and in remarkable detail. His skills are particularly evident in a chapter about the names of some of the city’s streets and suburbs.

With incredible attention to detail, the artistic adornments of city buildings and other amenities are explained throughout the book. For example, we learn that a team of leading local artists, namely Arthur Azevedo, Helen Leiros and Albert Wachi, contributed to ‘The Protectors’ in the lobby of the 15-storey National Security Centre. Two other well-known local artists, Thakor Patel and Richard Jack decorated the $42 million Causeway Post Office headquarters. David Chudy, a less well-known artist, who impressed Waters as much by his personality as by his terrazzo sculptures in front of the new museum opened in 1964, is described by the author as, “A quintessential Renaissance man, having in his short life been a successful entrepreneur, an artist and a self-taught scientist.”

The British sculptor John Tweed is featured with his famous statue of Rhodes, gazing down Jameson Avenue (now Samora Machel) from 20 December 1928 until its removal to the grounds of the National Archives on 1 August 1980. Later in the book, four pages are devoted to Tweed’s statue of Alfred Beit, seated in an armchair, which travelled to three different locations before it was also relegated to the grounds of the Archives.

The large number of photos in the book mainly depict the numerous buildings that have come and gone in the city, with detailed attention paid to the cost of construction, their purpose as well as the architectural features. With reference mainly to economic rather than social and political considerations, the author has provided us with a valuable record. An added bonus is that a large number of architects have been profiled and their work receives close attention.

This is an excellent book, just shy of being definitive because of its lack of index and clearer source references for the commentaries and anecdotes. But any fan of the history of this city, particularly those interested in how our modern Harare skyline came to be, will be impressed by the information and the huge collection of beautiful and well presented photos within. Something for your Christmas shopping perhaps.