Manufacturing Memory: History of slavery and Public Art in Cape Town

We gather under a callow tree in Church Square on Spin Street for a conversation on history and memorialisation in Cape Town, which is hosted by writer and filmmaker Roger Young, and education manager at the District Six Museum, Mandy Sanger.

Where we are seated, in a bow around our hosts, is a paved square, which just a few years ago used to be a parking lot. The parking lot, back in early 18th century, was marked by swarms of slaves who waited for their masters in the whipping sun or pissing rain to pour out of the Groote Kerk every Sunday, for nearly 200 years.

Barely visible from where we are gathered is a memorial site, a plinth in the middle of Spin Street: here a tree stood under which the slaves would wait for their masters to finish with their prayers. Next to this negligible plinth is a dazzlingly cheap looking orange structure, a frustratingly orange thing, an artwork meant to memorialise the tree that sheltered the slaves on sunny afternoons.

“People are distant from the person who created it,” Mandy says about the orange thing snarling back at us from the middle of the street. Nadya Glawé, the artist who created the work, is among the people who have been invited to the conversation. “No one knows what the site means,” Mandy continues. “The common perception is that the material is cheap; the entire thing is removed from the people it hopes to address.” The indictment isn’t solely aimed at Nadia, who jumps in defense of the work by pointing out that the artwork was meant to create a dialogue, a goal that it – considering it’s been the centrifuge of our conversation for the past 15 to 20 minutes – might have achieved.

However, Mandy isn’t convinced, neither are any of us who are crammed in a half-moon around her. Although the Slave Tree is Nadya’s brainchild and partially funded by World Design Capital (WDC2014), Mandy points out that, without fail, when it comes to projects about monuments of memorialisation in the city, the Cape Town City Council seems to prefer proposals from white, affluent artists than those from people in the townships and fringe suburbs who are represented, in the main, by organisations such as hers.

The organisation for which she works is dedicated to the memory of District Six as a lived space; it memorialises the lives of the many families who were forcibly removed from their homes and their neighbourhoods in the bosom of the city and flung to the fringes of Cape Town by the apartheid regime in the 1970s – where they remain till this day. In Cape Town race is always implied in space: the segregationist spatial design of Cape Town bears testinomy to this fact.

There are two cities in this city, almost two planets. The challenge is how to converge these two disparate worlds. In creating spaces of inscription whereby all citizens have access to contribute to the accumulating narrative and history of Cape Town, we might shift the axis from a city obsessed with the interests of the affluent class to that of an open city, accessible to even those splayed on the rims along its margins. When the city council rejects applications from community-based organisations such as District Six, who workshop communities on projects such as the memorialistion of slavery, they are in fact refusing the historically marginalised access to the public memorials and narratives inscribed around the city on their behalf. This is a deliberate erasure of their history. In a city borne on brutality, the erasure of an experience as intimate – and as violent – as slavery re-enforces that historic violence in the present moment.

Behind our curved semi-circle, which has grown into a forest of faces fixed on our hosts, is Slave Memorial – a group of granite blocks that were commissioned by the city council to a pair of artists (unsurprisingly, both white), Wilma Cruise and Gavin Younge. They are unremarkable, almost negligible, as Roger Young points out, against the towering statue of Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr, standing just a few strides away. “We must begin with the removal of statues that celebrate the colonialists, starting” – of course – “with the removal of the Cecil John Rhodes statue at the Rhodes Memorial.”

Memory and memorialisation in public spaces is competition; the public space is a garden on which competing narratives of history play out. And by erasing the one narrative in favour of the other, by erasing the voice of the descendants of slaves and celebrating that of the descendants of the oppressor, we are effectively perpetuating the historic violence that founded Cape Town to begin with. This why, by the end of the conversation, the most poignant issue discussed is that of the manufacturing of memory: who gets to tell the history of the slaves? Sadly, the colonists have taken it upon themselves to do so and as such have distorted our history and present.

At the end of the debate we agree that the monuments and the memorials aimed at telling the history of the slaves and their descendants – those who continue to be excluded, both socially and spatially, in Cape Town – cannot be left to the bureaucrats in the city council who get to pick who transcribes and frames the memory and history of slavery. We agree that the city is in need of an inclusive narrative, that the “Other” residents of this city need to be allowed to inject meaning into the monuments built on their behalf. We speak of the mobilisation of the city’s citizens behind the efforts of community-based institutions such as the District Six Museum. After an hour and a half or so, our mini-circle disintegrates and vanishes into the web of the lit up city streets.

Originally appeared in Cape Town Partnership*

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