The man behind St James’ menhirs
“Each stack represents the strength humans can embody in the face of adversity,” says Sipho Njengezi, the man credited with creating some of the rock installations spotted in Kalk Bay.
“I was running past [the beach] when I saw a guy building structures with rocks; the way they stood made me contemplate the balance of my life and the tough journey that it’s been,” says 20-year-old Sipho Njengezi, one of the artists credited with erecting the menhirs spotted in Kalk Bay. He was prompted to create his own garden of rocks when he spotted somebody else balancing rocks at the Dalebrook tidal pool when Level 3 began.
“I didn’t offer to help the guy or ask him what his plan was, I just felt compelled to do what he was doing. And I had hoped that even though my execution would probably differ from his, because our intentions and beliefs may not be the same, my work would resonate with others his did with me.”
As we were having this conversation on the phone, Njengezi explained his sense of the symbolism of rock ‘towers’. His observation is framed around the idea of resilience, with each stone playing a key part in upholding the structure.
“The way I see it, if you want the installation to be stable and not quickly destroyed by elements [near the ocean], each rock has to be placed strategically. The huge stones at the bottom balance the structure and the smaller ones that go on top are as important because they contribute to the design and steadiness. One miscalculation could result in the whole thing being washed away by water or blown over by the wind. Each stack represents the strength humans can embody in the face of adversity” he said.
Njengezi’s life has had its own share of triumph over adversity. He was separated from his family when his mother, who was HIV positive, abandoned him in a Johannesburg hospital as a baby. He was kept there for three months while being treated for HIV, and then moved to a baby care centre when the virus could no longer be detected in his system. After living there for three years, he was connected with a foster family from Cape Town that lived with him in KTC (Gugulethu) until he moved to a children’s home in 2013. He matriculated as the head boy at Batavia School of Skills in 2017 and went on to complete a rugby development programme at Western Province Academy.
Creating six rock formations could take Njengezi up to four hours to do, depending on their height. He finds the process to be meditative, helping with his mental and physical strength, and chooses to do the work alone. He knows the sculptures won’t stand forever, but he’s inspired by the reflective conversation they have allowed him to have on his own – and with members of his community who have either participated or been invested in highlighting the importance of the monuments.
Art isn’t always defined by its material endurance; sometimes it only serves to spark pertinent discussions that outlive the actual object. Techniques like sandpainting embrace transience in their intended purpose, and the ephemeral has been influencing new renderings in contemporary art since the late 1950s, with some works being purposefully exposed to natural elements so that they are altered. Those explorations laid the foundation for the concept of “ephemeral art,” a term that is fundamentally flexible and covers performance and installations that only survive in documentary form.
Then, on 22 June 2020, it was reported that the rock sculptures in Kalk Bay had been demolished by the municipality over public safety concerns. This caused an outcry from disappointed residents. However, Sipho Njengezi was unfazed by the news of his menhirs being flattened by the City of Cape Town.
“At first, I couldn’t understand the safety issue because the rocks had been standing there for about two months and kids I had seen playing around them seemed to love them, but I realise that it’s better to be safe than sorry. I’m inspired to find other ways to create beautiful things now.”
Njengezi worries about falling back into a fast-paced lifestyle that keeps him emotionally detached from nature. “We’re so busy and don’t have our own time. This lockdown period has given me a moment to pause, take in the world around me and get to know myself and the people who are special to me.”
At the moment, Sipho Njengezi plays rugby at the False Bay Rugby Club. He says the sport teaches him to strive for excellence and value the process of working toward greatness. Even if he never gets to play professionally, his principles drive him to give his best shot at everything he tries.
He hopes to carve out a career path that inspires his peers and encourages him to discover more about himself and what he has to offer. DM/ML/MC
Ever wondered what is the story behind rock cairns and menhirs? “They imply meaning, but we do not know what. Do they give direction or denote time? Are they places of sacrifice or warning?” While on a stroll in St James in Cape Town, journalist, author and photographer Don Pinnock stumbled upon “not exactly cairns or precisely menhirs, [balancing rocks that] seem to come out of the same urge to celebrate or mark something important”, his curiosity was sparked. He pondered and scratched at the mysterious history of the standing stones.