When I was about six or seven years old, my mother brought my sister and I to the Cape Town City Centre, near the Foreshore. On a street alongside a construction site, barricaded by a corrugated iron fence, my mommy carefully handed us lit candles and flowers and told us to find gaps in the fence to slot them in. I cannot remember what she explained to us about why we were there, as I know she would have, but I remember words like “slaves”, “burial”, “bones” and “illegal”. There were friends of my parents present; the usual crowd who gathered at what I then had a rudimentary understanding of to be political events. The mood was somber and so I acted accordingly. I carefully placed the candles and flowers in the fence, wanting to make pretty what I could not quite comprehend. I always wanted to look thoughtful and engaged at these political events of my parents’; I knew vaguely that one day it would be my turn to attend of my own accord, and for my own meaning.
Sometime in the last year, my partner mentioned wanting to go to Truth Coffee HQ in Town, the one near Green Point, and so I googled the menu, because I always google the menu. Along with the cake and coffee results, I somehow came across articles on Google exclaiming the “truth about Truth Coffee HQ” (Kilfoil, 2012; Kamaldien, 2016; Kashe-Katiya, 2010; Pather, 2015), and the grounds of the site housing an ossuary of the remains of enslaved people, some between 180 to 270 years old (Pather, 2015). The ossuary was erected eventually and named Prestwich Place Memorial, which houses Truth Coffee HQ. I suddenly remembered the corrugated iron fence. It hit me that what I had attended as a child was both a protest and a memorial, an acknowledgement of the human lives being disregarded once again, this time by capitalistic property developers. I understood in a way I had not quite before, the reality of who this city center was built for, built by, and then built over. Behind the corrugated iron fence, beneath the soil marked as prime property, the bones of enslaved people had been exhumed, to make space for a shopping mall and parking. All over the CBD, we walk over histories, remains and long forgotten pain.
I have recently been feeling a connection to this pain more than ever, since my partner and I moved to a small apartment complex near the Company Gardens. It matters to me that my partner in fact bought this flat, and that they own it, but I do not yet like to ruminate too much on what it means that they had to buy back land stolen from people like us. Sitting in the flat alone as I write this, there is a lump in my throat to think of what may be buried deep into the ground, beneath the “original Oregon pine floors” advertised on property24. And if not buried, I can only imagine the iterations of violences enacted right here on this ground, given how close it is to the Company’s Gardens, established by the VOC. The Gardens host the VOC’s Vegetable Garden, Jan van Riebeeck’s piece of his “refreshment station”, which Google Maps tells me is a mere 150 metres from my front door. The symbols of slavery are in the fabric of the city, yet easy to ignore if one does not ponder too long or hard. If you look, or try to read, you will find a jolly retelling of history, where enslaved people were “hard workers” who “merrily celebrated New Year’s Day on the 2nd of January every year”. I worry that if I do not find a way to co-exist with this historiography, the city will swallow me whole, like the remains of my ancestors. Through this writing, it will become evident to you, and I, that I am living in an ancestral space directly linked to me, which has rarely ever been acknowledged as such.
I intend to reimagine Fuentes’ historiographical archive through Bridgetown according to the scarce details of my own projected paternal matrilineal history, and my own material existence in Cape Town today. Fuentes cites her writing as a partial fulfilment of the “desires as historical scholars to uncover what may never be recoverable” (Fuentes, 2016: 12). I will apply Toni Morrison’s concept of “rememory”, as outlined by Gqola (2010: 8-9). Using the city, I will examine what still exists of slave memory, for the city and its slave descendents, but I do not believe I can “reconstruct” the enslaved existence through it, as rememory suggests (Gqola, 2010: 8). I will transform rememory to tie it into the post-colonial Cape Town; my own Cape Town. Here I will see where my great-great grandmother’s past meets my present. My rendering of Fuentes’ piece, though ultimately fictional, is an exercise in rememorying pieces of my ancestry, so as to connect myself to the history of the broader city and province in which both sides of my family have resided for at least 200 years, from slavery until today. This is partially evidenced by my parents’ birth surnames; Isaacs and Abrahams. Both hark to slaving name traditions, taken from the bible. I know surnames change over time and find their ways into families through various means; however, this fact that these names persist among us today, to me, prove my 200 years hypothesis to potentially be true. This writing also serves as a tribute to the women in my family, for existing, for disrupting and for always reminding me that I have a right to know, to dream and to learn. I walk through the city knowing it is not I who should be ashamed of its past.
Upon speaking to my Auntie Carol, who partially raised me, it was confirmed what I had briefly heard as a child: my paternal grandmother’s grandmother, my great-great grandmother, was enslaved, or, by virtue of having arrived at the Cape from St. Helena in the 1800s, was directly descendent of those intended to be enslaved. She is the only such person in my family of whom I can claim knowledge of, and that she lived is all the knowledge I have. I took the time to research the timeline of slavery at the Cape, and given my grandmother’s age, I’m not sure how these timelines would work. Nonetheless, for the purposes of the exercises, I am going to believe this story tentatively passed down to me. Auntie Carol and I discussed that there are no people indigenous to St Helena, prior to its colonial occupation and status as a go-between for enslaved people to be transported around the globe. We noted, nearly in unison, that my great-great grandmother could have “been from anywhere”. Her great-great granddaughter, my paternal grandmother (my ma Winnie) grew up in Hudson Street in Cape Town before moving to Woodstock with her family. Hudson Street, I thought before completing my walk, is an easy walking distance from my flat, the Company Gardens, the “Old Slave Tree”, St. George’s Square and the Castle, to name a few of such sites. I thought this because I remembered seeing its title off Buitenkant Street as a child. I will outline my mistake later, but Hudson Street is actually very close to Prestwich Place Memorial in Green Point. That ma Winnie at one point lived in proximity to these spaces thoroughly enveloped in the slave trade, means that my great-great grandmother likely lived nearby as well, although her subjection to these spaces would have been completely different than ma Winnie’s and, now, mine. Ma Winnie’s “maiden” surname was Thompson, an English surname furnished by her English grandfather. I know this Englishman’s relationship to a potentially enslaved woman could not be of equitable balance; it potentially could have not been of anything resembling “love”. However, I was frequently told by my ma that he visited her family home, whether on occasion or frequently, I do not know; and that he was particularly fond of her. These stories were relayed to me from a point of pride; of English heritage, of white elevation, of an erasure of anything relating to blackness. I am grateful to auntie Carol for disrupting these notions from as early on as I remember. In this way, both my mother and Auntie Carol transgressed coloured tendencies to adore the benevolent slave master’s hierarchies, by presenting me with images and icons of black womanhood, both in my family and in the public domain. Without the voice of Maya Angelou guiding me through my childhood, I would not be able to engage in this piece with you.
I know my great-great grandmother, likely having been born somewhere in the mid-1800s, may not have truly engaged with the sites I will track here; she was an individual with a story that cannot only be tied to these sites. Furthermore, she would have lived through the abolition of slavery at the Cape, yet not escaped the realities of once having been branded as such. The point is what she could have traversed and the point is what her body could have encountered here. I thus traverse these spaces cloaked in my individual body, and political body as per its current status in Cape Town’s political economy, tasked with viewing the material post-colonial Cape Town in its ever-colonial memory. I will be walking to rememorialise my great-grandmother, in a city that has decided to rewrite women like her.
I will now take you through my rememorial walk.
I start at the front gate of my apartment complex. The street I live in is short and narrow; it’s almost an alleyway and easy to overlook. Many homeless people sleep here overnight, or just sit during the day. One such homeless man, as I was earlier returning from campus, asked me for a R10 to buy some bananas. My walk begins with me giving him the R10, already confronted with the city’s history of displacing human beings. Fuentes described not only the material space of Bridge Town, but the environmental and sensory experiences Jane may have incurred (Fuentes, 2016: 25). The sky is bright blue, and the sun shines on a nearby building as I maneuver around the corner, approaching the Company Gardens. There are anti-littering signs sponsored by the “City Center Improvement District” on the lamp poles exclaiming “Eish my bra, stop littering!” You can deduce for yourself what “improving” means to Cape Town and who those ads are aimed at.
I walk into the Gardens, through the paved sitting area with the National Gallery far ahead of me. I think about taking pictures of the statues of colonial-era white men, posed as victors and memorialised as nationalistic heroes, but I’m then unsure what purpose that would serve. These men are dotted all over the city; most of their names and battles are irrelevant now. But they persist, unquestioned, until someone somewhere questions their purpose and meaning. At the base of one of the statues and on a map of the Gardens area, there were some faded stickers. Small sites of protest, saying “Invaders” and “white rape culture must fall”. I move on to the rest of the garden, noting that the majority of people sitting down and enjoying the space would be racialised as black. Some alone, in groups, with families. But all black. Amidst those there for leisure were pedestrians taking shortcuts through the Gardens, some homeless people and a few hawkers.
My next stop is the VOC Vegetable Garden. I have no planned route for my walkabout, but I have in mind specific locations to visit. I walk through the Vegetable Garden wondering if I could pick some of the plants for my dishes at home. I decide this will be my garden when I need some fresh spinach and dill. As much as I want to make detailed and involved comments on the spatial and psychological violence of this place, I’m not sure how to take in this surreal moment, this new lens I have decided to take upon the city I am homed in. Fuentes implored her reader to take up the view of runaway slave women, around their town (Fuentes, 2016: 15). I can only view Cape Town from my perspective, not my great-great grandmother’s. My grandmother would never have thought to concern herself with this history. This can only be my reading, where I remember, and try to see who else remembered enough to make a mark of it on the city’s landscape. But not all these everyday resistances will come in the form of planned demonstration.
I leave the Vegetable Garden and see a group of people I will racialise as coloured, laying on the grass playing Afrikaans rap and bopping along. I’m not familiar with the song, but I think it’s Larney Jou Poes, by Dookoom. The song is about the plight of rural coloured farmworkers, speaking back to their white bosses, their larneys, their overlords. All I can make out is “jou p*$s my larney” being repeated by the lead artist, Isaac Mutant. That’s all I feel like saying now, anyway. This group of friends are just sitting, and I suppose I can’t assume that they didn’t have intentions to make statement by playing this song in the middle of the Company Gardens; an intertextual resistance, if you know what to look for. All I can do is laugh at the irony, and say thank you to them, really.
A man passing by offers me a lighter out of nowhere, as I am walking down the path through the garden and minding my own business. I’m confused, and a woman he is with tells me “it’s for your cigarettes”. I look at my bag slung across my body – my cigarettes aren’t visible. “I have my own lighter, no thank you.” He tells me not to be scared of him; he’s just offering his to me in case I need it. I move on, but note that he read me as afraid. I can feel on my face a scrunched expression of some kind, even as I walk on. I feel more wide eyed than afraid, trying to notice and feel and hear and know all at once. Fuentes notes the markings of the body of runaway slave women; brandings, cuts, healed wounds designating slave status (Fuentes, 2016: 17-21). Here, to this man, I am afraid because I do not know him. I am walking around this garden, likely looking aimless, furiously writing things down in my little notebook. I could be a tourist. The man who offered me the lighter is likely coloured, as is the homeless man outside my flat, as are those playing Dookoom a few meters away. All at once, I am like them, yet not at all. In my own travels, I am not disrupting any ugliness in the city, not outwardly representing any demonstration of the city’s history. In my carefully curated secondhand clothing, I am designated middle class very easily. I cannot ignore that I am easily read as such, and that I move around with people noting it and treating me accordingly. This why I cannot move around the city from my great-great grandmother’s view, but I can view it from my own as of now, and find the silences and citations which invoke her (Fuentes, 2016: 15).
I’ve been writing down everything I could since I left the flat but I’ve stopped now. I am already tired, of all the memories, all the lenses I have been applying to just the last 20 minutes. I sit on a bench briefly, before I head in the direction of Adderley Street, in the direction of the Slave Lodge. In the distance, as I gain closer, I see the large wooden structure at the mouth of the gates. Opening and flowing through the belly of the beast. I think the round structure was meant to evoke a Nama hut? Here, memory is an architectural mutilation of historicity. Big words. An incongruent, indigenous structure amidst a central area for the colonial project in the city. I know this structure is meant to misguidedly address this history. I want to feel angry but I feel nothing, for this means nothing, anyway.
As I journey through the last of the garden, it occurred to me that I may run into my maternal auntie, Vera. Vera has been homeless for as long as I have been alive, in fact longer. Her homelessness has been arguably by choice, within the limited framework of choices available to her. Nonetheless, she is a woman racialised as coloured, who has positioned herself, in her homelessness, all over the city. Belgravia, Athlone, Kewton, Woodstock, Retreat, Lansdowne, to name a few off the top of my head, she has lived there. She now lives somewhere in the vicinity of the Company’s Gardens and Parliament. She has known these spaces within her own capacity, completely unlike mine. The places she has lived in, she has always decided upon her own terms how to exist there, and when to leave. I will not say much more about her, as hers is an experience I do not think I am within my rights to analyse, but I included her because to omit her is to omit a woman’s experience in my ancestral line who matters. She is, like any of the women in my family, an individual who took opportunities that were available to her, and hers named her as one of the city’s displaced.
As I am leaving the Gardens, there are a few hawker stalls along the garden path, one of which is a stand selling Yvette Abrahams’ Khoelife soaps. I decide I will return on another day, to buy some. A single printed out page hangs off the stall, telling me “Decolonise your mind! Decolonise your body!” Little pockets of resistance and reclamation are beginning to feel real to me. The city is dedicated to unremembering the reality of its coloniality, but it is inescapable in the faces of the citizens.
There is a fable passed around that if you listen close enough on Adderley Street, you can still hear the ocean beneath the ground. What was once pushed back, coming to haunt the most central sites. On the corner between the Company Garden’s entrance and the Slave Lodge, I linger for a moment, my body angled towards the cement street. I hear nothing and so I keep going.
I reach the Slave Lodge and I just don’t want to look. I have been inside so many times, but I can’t look now, being on this particular mission. I touch the walls of the building. It is rough and leaves a powdery residue on my fingers. My mind has been trying to conjure up images of a slave society in Cape Town, one which held my great-great grandmother. Could she, or a loved one, or an acquaintance ever have been “lodged” here, in these unassuming, flat walls? I pass the Slave Lodge and shake the images out of my head. This was the rememory I wanted to subvert, anyway. Of course I could never imagine. I walk down towards Church Square, as a car idling near the robots is blasting one of Youngsta’s songs. Where the city may be silent, you can shout into it whatever you’d like, just as long as your white neighbours don’t lay a noise complaint.
I reach Church Square. Here, I am expecting to find the Old Slave Tree, yet there is no tree visible on the Square itself. There are some hidden by construction fences, but I doubt it would be one of those. I suppose I will find it eventually.
I spot some black cubes upon which I can identify the documented names of formerly enslaved people. There are no plaques that I can see anywhere explaining what they are; they are ultimately just random, shiny black cubes with names that would not make sense unless you have a particular knowledge of enslavement in the city. Across from the Square, on an island in the middle of Spin Street, there is a large old tree, which looks significantly older than the trees around it. Maybe this is the Old Slave Tree? But there is no signage to commemorate what it is. My anger bubbles a bit, but I could be wrong. I brush my hand over this tree, feeling its bark, wondering what it is seen and what it remembers.
Maybe I’ll find the “real” Old Slave Tree at Greenmarket Square? I redirect my adventure, but through some side streets to continue “site seeing”. On this trip, in this city I know so well, I am a learned tourist. The old colonial buildings along the streets now house contemporary interests. Along my walk there are trendy restaurants, art galleries and boutiques. Yet there is also homelessness and the sometimes faint, sometimes overwhelming stench of urine. I look up at the balconies of one such building, in which I once attended an event called the Black Queer Social.
I arrive at Greenmarket Square around 16:00, when most stalls are packing up. There is an information board which describes the kinds of trade and “daily activities” when the Square was a central hub of slave and settler society. This includes a nifty portion outlining how enslaved people were able to sell goods obtained from their masters to make a meagre buck or two and feed their families. On the same board, there is a brief history of 1989’s Purple Rain March, which my parents told me many stories of during my childhood. The compilation of these two stories makes no sense; the histories Cape Town is trying to put forward are so incongruent, so denatured.
Now I continue looking for the Old Slave Tree, again to no avail. This essentially amounts to me walking around the square searching for plaques, or any tree statuesque enough, to me, to have held the status of the “Slave Tree.” I feel frustrated now, and I start to wonder if this tree even existed, or is it another Adderley Street-esque fable?
The city is starting to close its businesses and I do not want to return home too late. I decide it is now time for me to make my way over to the other side of the city; what some might term old sections of District Six lingering in the CBD. I deliberately take different routes, passing unfamiliar spaces because I know if I continue straight down one of the streets directly leading off Greenmarket Square, I will eventually reach my destination. I pass a restaurant I once smoked shisha with my friends as, after attending a mass boeka in Bo Kaap, before which I nearly got arrested for weed possession. This city holds more memories for me than I thought. I pass queues of working adults waiting for meals outside takeaway shops at the end of their day. I pass by people playing dominoes under temporary gazebos. I pass by streams of homeless people, some of whom I give money to and some of whom I deny with a “Sorry, auntie.”
I am rounding the corner up Buitenkant Street now, preparing to be faced with my grandmother’s childhood home in Hudson Street. I remember seeing the street name off Buitenkant as a child; the streets were tree-lined, holding some government building, if I remember correctly. I approach the street I am certain is Hudson, and see the trees. But according to the street sign… this is Albertus Street? The District Six Museum looms on the opposite corner. My childhood memories of seeing “Hudson Street” imprinted here are so strong. Maybe it is the next parallel street. I carry on to check. But that is Barrack Street. I carry on to the next. But that is Commercial Street. My memories of reading the street sign are so strong that I decide one of these street names must have changed in recent years, as had many in the city. Just in case, in case, I am wrong, I check Google Maps. I have not used any navigation systems up to this point, besides my own knowledge of the city, which could possibly be failing me now. Google Maps is showing me Hudson Street in Schotshe Kloof, essentially housed between Bo Kaap and de Waterkant. I will Google it again when I get home, to find it is a 300 metre walk to Prestwich Memorial. Now that I have broken the Google Maps seal, I decide to search the Old Slave Tree. It is apparently on an island in the middle of Spin Street, near to where I originally looked at Church Square. I make my way back, but once I am there, I cannot find it again. I can see the tree it could very well be, but there is no plaque, no sign, no significance around it. I am so tired of this. I reach into my bag for a cigarette and a lighter. My lighter is gone; I must’ve left it in the flat. Maybe the man from earlier knew this would happen. I decide to approach a young man of about my age, who is smoking, to ask for a lighter. He sparks up a match for me, and the smoke burns my nose as I reach in to light my cigarette. I am so frustrated.
I move on, determined to find this tree, but I cannot find it in Spin Street. Days later, I turned to Google again to clarify, and I found I had missed a piece of cement rounded in the shape of a tree stump, a few metres away from the tree I thought it was. There is a small plaque stating its dedications, but to go back to view it now would defeat the point of my walkabout. I could not find it because it was not immediately evident. I am not even sure the little plaque is still there, as I am certain I would have noticed it. I walk away from this trip with many things, one of which is serious doubt in my own skills of observation.
I decide to head home, forgoing the shorter route past the Slave Lodge. Instead, I walk up Plein Street, and briefly recall the first Fees Must Fall march to Parliament. The streets seemed so different that day; it is hard to locate those memories, in the midst of screaming and singing and running. I remember the Louis Botha statue being a site of anger for many; how little we had thought to pay attention to every other violent memorial in the city around us. I walk through the Company’s Gardens again, and I see it is starting to empty as the sun sets. I reach my flat now, and all I can do is crawl into bed. Later I will phone my mother, to make sure I have the facts of her side of the family straight, only to find out her grandmother had been born in Worcester, and later worked in Pretoria. As far as I can tell, she is the only woman in my family who self-determined to leave this city. But then again, maybe not. I am not really sure what I know anymore, but I have my memories, and I have the women around me to at least pass on what they know.
Auntie Carol made sure I read, and she foisted a dictionary on me at every turn, to make sure I knew as many words as possible to articulate myself in this world. We now share books between ourselves. My mommy made sure I knew history, and never stopped learning it in its vastness, so that I may find my place in it. They both taught me, whether intentionally or not, to seek out women to look up to and draw knowledge from. My great-great grandmother, now, ties me to knowing, doubting and living with the reality of the only city I have ever truly called home.
I am a coloured woman, made by coloured and Black women. And, now, maybe, I know.
Fuentes, M.J. 2016. Dispossessed lives: Enslaved women, violence, and the archive. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press
Gqola, P.D., 2010. What is Slavery to Me?: Postcolonial Memory and the Post-apartheid Imagination. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.
Kamaldien, Y. 2016. Reliving story of Cape’s slave heritage. Available: https://www.iol.co.za/news/reliving-story-of-capes-slave-heritage-7093923 [2019, 16 May]
Kashe-Katiya, X. 2010. Prestwich Place Memorial: Human remains, development and truth. Available: http://www.apc.uct.ac.za/apc/projects/archival_platform/prestwich-place-memorial-human-remains-development-and-truth [2019, 22 May]
Kilfoil, P. 2012. The truth about Truth Coffee. Available: http://www.paulkilfoil.co.za/Blog-20120306.aspx [Accessed: 16 May 2019]
Pather, R. 2015. Forgotten bones haunt Cape Town. Mail&Guardian. 11 December. Available: https://mg.co.za/article/2015-12-13-forgotten-bones-haunt-cape-town [2016, 22 May]