You are walking on graves

2014-09-24 06:45

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To live in Cape Town is to be haunted, writes Roger Young about the city’s inability to recognise and memorialise its slave history – though that finally seems to be changing

Shopping at the slave farm

They waft into the market place through dappled light. Under the main tent, boutique vegan craft food. Salmon smoked with rare, indigenous, never-heard-of wood, bread made from ­impossible elements, perhaps vapours inspired by obscure Scandinavian folklore, jauntily fried foods, moustachioed men selling mustards. This is their domain, one that they at once own, yet dismiss.

The five girls – their hair bleached in shades of pastel, their loose batik midriff tops, their wide-brimmed black fashion hats – settle in the middle of the walkway to confer (“German sausage or Montagu nuts, Annabelle?”) and expand ­luxuriously as if in their own private boudoir.

Two men dressed in farm overalls approach carrying ­baskets of fresh produce to deliver to one of the stalls. They ­encounter the girls, who do not move. It’s not that the girls ignore the gardeners, it is simply that to them they do not exist.

When finally one of the men manages to penetrate their inane chatter, they leap aside, as if magical creatures had just stepped out a doorway from a mythical world.

This is the Oranjezicht City Farm, which stands on part of what was the farm belonging to the biggest slave owner in the Cape Colonies, Pieter van Breda, a man who quite possibly, as this was the custom of the time, would have forced himself sexually on his female slaves.

This is unremarked in Oranjezicht City Farm’s own literature. The website’s mention of his offspring Michiel van Breda’s private orchestra is treated with a Victorian flutter, rendering it charmingly old-timey without baring the fact that this orchestra was comprised of imprisoned slaves who had been roughly torn from Asia, Madagascar, Mozambique, southern Tanzania and the east African coast, as well as the Khoe and San from the supposed hinterlands beyond the ­Liesbeek River in the Cape.

Men and women desolate and constrained, in direct line of daily physical harm.

Much is to be learnt from this passage on the website: “On sale days, the bell sounded and a flag was hoisted, the signal for ships’ officers, burghers and their wives and children to visit the estate to purchase fresh fruit and vegetables. Produce was brought to a tree in the cobbled yard, where it was weighed on a scale hanging from an oak tree. The original hooks for this scale are still present and visible...”

The bell in question is a slave bell, as the website submits, but its main task was not to bring out the gentry to shop – much as they still do here centuries later – it was a call to these men ripped from their families to backbreaking labour in the unrelenting sun.

The history of an inanimate hook is more important than the lives given to hoisting it.

And here, as they loll about on the lawns sipping their beetroot, ginger and chai latte smoothie and allowing the light to shine on their greying heads and expensive accessories, it is a small wonder that no one observes that the only people doing any labour on the adjoining farm are the only possible descendants of those slaves present – people working for between R100 and R140 a day, when the Oranjezicht City Farm market is rumoured to bring in between R12?000 and R16?000 a week.

The Oranjezicht City Farm fits neatly into a new wave of breadbasket revivalism, from the new vegetable garden in The Company’s Garden (that we’re still calling it this is itself a problem) to wine farm tourist brochures that paint the history of the Cape as a pastoral wonderland and whitewashes the histories and hauntings that form the fabric of life in CapeTown today.

Remembering a graveyard

But how do you talk about all of these voices lost to history because they were invisible to the official record keepers?

This is the task relegated to monument makers and memorialisation initiatives – the District Six Museum, the Slave Lodge, the oral historians, those who run the walking tours of the Cape’s slave sites. It also falls now to the University of CapeTown (UCT) and those gathered by its recently announced Rustenburg Slave Memorial student competition to memorialise the Dutch East India Company graveyard that once stood where the School of Economics and All Africa House are now.

This graveyard existed when Cecil John Rhodes purchased the land, but in the 1930s was covered by tennis courts. ­Although clearly marked on the original land surveys, the site was only uncovered during construction in the late 1990s and mid-2000s. Since 2008, it has been marked only by a glassed-in section of the cemetery wall’s foundation on the ground between the two buildings.

The press release states: “The rediscovery of the Rustenburg burial ground provides UCT with the unique opportunity to remember and commemorate these forgotten people and the experiences through which they would have gone.”

At the competition launch, heritage activist and slave archivist Mogamat Kammie Kamedien said: “We have the official story we find in the archives, but there’s also, from my perspective, the narrative from the bottom up.”

Historian Nigel Penn spoke about the special oppressions that occurred in the Cape Colonies around sexuality, and the sudden loss of the slaves’ ability to communicate in their ­mother tongues.

“There is a real, haunted history to this ­special piece of ground that we’re standing on,” he said.

It’s clear that the Rustenburg site is an opportunity to ­memorialise not just the graveyard itself, but the hauntings and silences that surround Cape history. Based on the visible memorial evidence, it would seem that CapeTown has failed its slave and Khoe past.

The memorial in crisis

The Memorial to the Enslaved on Church Square, created by Gavin Younge and Wilma Cruise and unveiled in 2008, ­received criticism on three counts: its similarities to Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe; that the memorial seemed to cower in the shadow of a colonial statue; and that its creators were white.

The Justitie Plaats memorial has faced similar charges. The Treaty Tree in Woodstock memorialises a British treaty rather than the thousands sold into bondage under its branches. The Prestwich Memorial at the start of Somerset Road marks the old underclass, slave and outcast graveyards that stretched from Strand Street to Gallows Hill. It houses an ossuary, but its entrance is hidden behind an information panel. Visitors are mostly oblivious to the remains of about 3?000 people that sit on shelves mere meters away.

The past is always present, but in CapeTown it seems it is not present enough. The archive is faulty; it would be ­pointless to embark on a project such as the Stolpersteine of Europe because we have no names to grace the blocks.

Another site of slave history has recently received a new, albeit temporary, memorial. The Slave Tree site, where economic activity around slavery moved after the building of the Slave Lodge (where Van Breda most likely did most of his trading) was the centre of the economy of the early colony (and therefore is the fulcrum of South Africa’s economic and labour structures). It used to be marked by a small, almost illegible plinth.

Nadya Glawe, who lives nearby, felt the site needed to be made more visible. Utilising a partial grant from World Design Capital and getting all the city permissions herself, she erected a wooden tree memorial. Tested at AfrikaBurn, and distinctly of that aesthetic, Glawe’s tree has borne her many criticisms.

Asked why she chose, for a memorial to brown people, to make the tree white, she relies that the whiteness of the tree had nothing to do with race, she was simply providing a blank canvas for people. It was her hope that they would write messages to their ancestors on the branches and leaves. It has not been embraced to the extent she hoped. While there are some messages of support, the most telling message reads: “This tree is too white.”

Glawe’s frustration with the outcome is real – she honestly believes that she was drawing attention to a site that needed more overt memorialisation, and that no one in the city was doing anything. Now she feels attacked for attempting to make history visible. When I tell her that an activist I spoke to wanted to burn her tree down, she welcomed the idea.

“I didn’t make this for me, I made it to draw attention to the site, if destroying my memorial makes for a better memorialisation, then I am all for it.”

The restless bones

After the launch of UCT’s gravesite competition, attendants are taken on a site inspection. The space between the two buildings feels thin – it’s about 5m wide and perhaps 20m long. As we make our way to the site, a young guy in a baseball cap says under his breath: “Should we even be walking here? I mean, we might be walking on my ancestors’ graves.”

During question time, someone asks if the ground is sacred, if there are still bones here. Sally Titlestad, a co-author of the historical report on the site, says that no evidence of human remains have been found, but there is a good chance, due to the nature of the soil, that they might have decomposed beyond exhumation.

But Kamedien has a different take, intimating to me later that according to oral history they were, at some point, “dumped in the harbour”.

There is no archival evidence of this. But the absence of measurable evidence cannot be used to discount a site’s significance.

In the case of the shrine of Sayed Abdul Malik, near St Cyprian’s School in CapeTown, no archeological evidence was found to support the claims attested to in cultural and oral history, and yet a negotiated agreement was reached for a heritage project at the site.

In the Prestwich ossuary, I am struck by this piece of information listing the accidental uncovering of burial sites: “On the Grand Parade when the Post Office tunnel was excavated in the 1960s; in Vredehoek when a driveway was being reconfigured; below the site of the new 2010 Green Point Stadium, Mechau Street; Buitengracht Street; Chiappini Street; Milnerton beach and Melkbosstrand.”

I am struck by the breadth of these sites, struck that some may be slave sites, some may be Khoe, that some traditions demand that we refrain from empirical examinations, that we respect the burial site. The measuring of skulls has done much damage.

All that is left to do is to listen to the voices, historical, fragmentary, whispers, hauntings, shivers, rages, echoes, ­hunches, that which has passed out of hearing, that is no ­longer physical, and to reflect these voices into the present, to respect the palimpsest of this moment, to listen. To live in Cape Town is to be haunted.

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