Landscape of Change
Intro and Parliament
Hi. I’m Lauren, and I’m going to take you on a walk around the periphery of the Company’s Gardens. While you walk, I’ll tell you about the things you pass, and about all the changes the city has gone through. Space is contested here – so many different people have called Cape Town home, and there’s no easy way to decide who gets to tell its story.
You’re standing outside the Company’s Gardens now. If you’re facing the entrance, you should see Table Mountain in the background, and the sea is behind you. Look to your left, and you’ll see the Slave Lodge, with its wooden shutters. That’s where we’re going – down the paved, tree-lined walkway to the right of it. Let’s go.
On your left is the Slave Lodge – one of the oldest buildings in town – and on your right is one of the older Parliament buildings. The history of contested space begins here, in the heart of old Cape Town.
The Parliament building you’re passing was built at the end of the 19th century. A competition was held to select the designer for the prestigious building. A man named Henry Barkly promised a grand building on a relatively small budget, and he won. He triumphantly laid the first cornerstone in 1875, in front of a huge crowd.
But things went badly for Barkly. He realised he’d been far too modest with his cost estimate, and that he’d never even lay the foundations on that budget. People were furious, and he shamefully backed down. His cornerstone was buried in rubble when his competitors took over, and no trace of it has ever been found.
Turn left when you get to Parliament Street, and walk down a block.
You’re walking along the back of the slave lodge now. About a thousand slaves lived in the building at any one time, and almost a quarter of them died here every year. The living conditions were terrible.
After the slaves were freed, it was used as a jail, a brothel, and even a post office. Now it’s a museum. There’s a floor dedicated to the history of slavery, but it’s also a tribute to the cultural melting pot that is Cape Town – there are ancient artefacts from all over Asia, Europe and Africa.
Turn right when you get to Spin Street.
The open square across Spin Street is called Church Square. I love to imagine what it was like 400 years ago, when it was first developed.
The Dutch reformed church over your left shoulder had just been built – it was the first church in Cape Town. There would have been men with starched collars and women in drab floor-length dresses traipsing in and out of there every Sunday.
Slaves from the Slave Lodge, meanwhile, would be sold off to the wealthy colonists, under the old fir tree that used to stand in the middle of the traffic island to your left. Look closely – you’ll see the octagonal concrete plaque that marks where it stood. There was a silk factory on the corner ahead, hence the name “Spin Street”, and small children from the lodge would be in there, unpicking cocoons with their tiny fingers.
To me, the image is in sepia, and it’s worn and grimy, like an old photo. But there’s colour on the street these days, even if there’s still a little sadness.
Let’s turn right up Plein Street, and head towards Parliament.
Plein Street Shops
You might notice that we’re passing loads of hair braiding shops. You can get your hair braided, or get extensions put in, pretty cheaply. Synthetic extensions are available, but most people want extensions made from real hair. It seems distinctly African, but these salons actually owe their existence to a global hair trade.
They import their extensions from ‘hair farms’ in China, Vietnam, Thailand and India. Many women brush their hair daily and collect all the strands that fall out. They can sell it to hair farmers for a small price. Other’s grow their hair long, and cut it off to sell it.
The shops get it fairly cheaply in bulk, and bring it back here to cater for the huge demand for human hair extensions.
This street is also filled with typically Capetonian fast food. It’s quite a change from the colonial centre, with its memorials and museums. Here is where you’ll find Gatsby’s. They’re foot-long subs, usually filled with chips and polony. They originated in the poor neighbourhoods just outside Cape Town, where people would buy rolls and fill them with whatever leftovers they had.
You’ll also find Masala steak rolls and Samoosas at little halaal takeaway joints all along this road. Let’s keep going – we’re heading towards Parliament now.
St Mary's Cathedral
Keep walking straight along this street, and I’ll tell you a bit about how it got its name. “Plein” is the Dutch word for “square”, and it runs past St Mary’s Cathedral – the tall, neo-gothic building you can see on the corner ahead. The cathedral was built there in the mid-eighteen-hundreds on a square that was called “stalplein”, which is Dutch for “stable square”.
The square was where the Dutch settlers’ horses were kept. It was right across from an old tannery, owned by a woman called Hermina Herwig. Hermina came to the Cape with nothing, but she turned her tannery into such a success that she owned four estates by the time she died. And she chose a convenient location - when the horses weren’t useful anymore, they’d be sent across the road to her tannery and used for leather.
In 1839, Bishop Griffith bought the land to build a cathedral. Construction took place over the following decade, and it was consecrated here in 1851, making it Cape Town’s first cathedral.
The central entrance to parliament is on your right. The old building was the setting for some of South Africa’s biggest moments.
It hosted the first Prime minister of a self-governing South Africa – Louis Botha – and is still fronted by his statue. It saw Jan Smuts pen the first laws towards racial segregation, and it saw Apartheid written into law in the forties.
It hosted the British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan in 1960 when he spoke the famous words, “the wind of change is blowing through this continent”. His words preceded the end of the empire in Africa. And only six years later, it saw an assassin emerge from the crown, clutching a blade, to end the life of the architect of apartheid – HF Verwoed. He fell to his death on a carpet. That blood-stained carpet stayed in the building for the following 38 years.
It’s where FW de Klerk announced that the ban on the ANC was lifted in 1990, to the surprise of many South Africans. He also promised to release political prisoners – including Nelson Mandela. That day, he finally made way for democracy. And today, it’s where the voices of a democratic South Africa can be heard, when protesters crowd the street outside.
Keep walking along this road until you see a school on your left, tucked behind a mesh fence.
St Mary's School
The school quite far ahead on your left, behind the mesh fence, is St Mary’s. It’s a catholic school, which means that it was one of the few schools in Cape Town that admitted black students in the Apartheid era, and they had all kinds of restrictions because of that. I went to catholic school, and it was only in the early nineties that we were allowed to participate in any activities with other schools.
Under the Apartheid regime, black children didn’t have access to the same resources and education, and the Catholic Church stood up to the government by allowing all students to attend their schools, and all people to attend their churches.
Some of the most famous activists in South African history – including Steve Biko – were enrolled in Catholic schools. Catholicism’s not exactly my cup of tea, but I’ve always admired the role they played in educating those who would otherwise never have had those opportunities.
Once you pass the school, look out for a little side road called “Gallery Lane” on your right. Head down it, alongside the big white building.
South African National Gallery
The white building on your left is the National Gallery. I studied Fine Art at University, and I love looking at the work on those gallery walls once in a while, on a rainy day. Keep walking along the side of it, and I’ll tell you a bit about it.
For the gallery’s entire history, it had a white curator – until 2009 that is, when Raison Naidoo the first non-white curator, took up the job.
There’s a collection inside that was donated by “Sir Abe Bailey”. Naidoo took a lot of the Bailey paintings down to make room for more contemporary work, and to make the space more inclusive. He quoted Gandhi at the opening. He said, ‘I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any’.
It’s changed a lot, but lots of people were outraged about those changes. They wanted those old masters to keep dominating the wall space. I think it’s much better though. It was about time the gallery put up some newer work.
Walk over to the bronze sculpture in front of the gallery’s main entrance.
Art and Reconciliation
The large bronze in front of the gallery’s entrance is called Numinous Beast. The artist, Bruce Arnott, based it on a rock painting left by some of South Africa’s very first inhabitants – the San.
Let’s walk down the stairs and along the ponds. Keep heading straight along this brick path, toward the exit flanked by white columns.
Since liberation, there’s been a move to build a more inclusive history, and public art – like the antelope – play a huge role. But the process of transformation is contentious. The occasional memorial sculpture has been torn to the ground, but many will say that you can’t erase the past; that these figures need to be remembered for their role in our country’s history. Others think their names should be erased from history completely.
There are endless justifications for all of these arguments – and South Africans tend to be an opinionated bunch. But consider the walk we’ve just taken – it’s through the heart of the city. And those stoic, immortalized bronze figures are almost all white Afrikaner men – they’re heroes to some and symbols of oppression to others.
Personally, I think they should stay, because these old memorials embody the spirit of reconciliation post 1994. So many oppressive regimes end with the tearing down of old symbols, and often, that does nothing but spark fear and anger. Mandela’s ANC was very careful not to do that.
But reconciliation efforts get weird sometimes. There was talk, once, of a 60 metre-high sculpture of Nelson Mandela’s head to take up position, front and centre, on the slopes of Table Mountain. It was going to be a twelve-story structure, with a restaurant, theatre and conference centre. When the plans were made public, there was a massive outcry. Most agreed that it was excessive and kitsch. And it was so drastically unsuited to Madiba’s temperament. He was a humble man – hardly the Mount-Rushmore type.
Head out of the Gardens through the white columns, and then take a right down Queen Victoria Street. Stick to the right-hand sidewalk – it’ll be easier to see what I’m talking about.
Centre for the Book
You should see a granite and limestone building on your left, with a green domed roof. That’s the Centre for the Book. It was the original location of the University of Good Hope – South Africa’s first university. It’s now called UNISA and has its headquarters in Pretoria.
The University’s first chancellor was a man called William Porter, who arrived from Ireland in the early 1800’s to take up a post as the attorney-general of the Cape.
He arrived here with, as he put it, “an unspeakable hatred of oppression of every kind”. He drafted the Cape’s first constitution, which prevented discrimination along racial lines, and insisted that everybody – regardless of race, gender or social status – be offered an equal education.
In a speech, he said, “Educate the poor, because, by so doing, you are putting tools into the hands of talent, calling forth unconscious power […] you are getting ready the soil for a still richer culture”. He granted white people, black people, men and women an equal vote, fought to abolish capital punishment and put forward the idea that women should have access to higher education.
But Porter’s amazingly progressive constitution, sadly, did not last.
Faith47 and the Freedom Charter
In the fenced lot to the left, there’s a painted mural of justice, blindfolded, with the words “all shall be equal before the law”.
It’s by Cape Town’s most famous street artist, who goes by the name “Faith47”. It’s part of a series called “the Freedom Charter”. The charter was a list of demands made by the public in the fifties, and it later became the official manifesto of the ANC.
The charter was officially adopted by the ANC at the Congress of the People in 1955. At the Congress, the police raided and 156 activists – including Mandela – were arrested, and ultimately landed up on Robben Island.
But the Freedom Charter remained in the underground activist scene. It formed the basis of the ANC’s constitution in the 90’s, and it’s still the foundation of our constitution today. But there’s debate about which parts of it are worth keeping. For instance, the charter called for the nationalisation of mines.
On paper, it’s a great way to create jobs and distribute wealth, but in reality – it would have pretty dire effects on the economy. Our country has massive problems with inequality, but I don’t think nationalisation’s the answer.
Keep on going straight, till you see the grimy-looking concrete building with the archways and pillars on your left.
The High Court
The big, slightly grimy building with the pillars on your left is the High Court, but it used to be the Race Classification Appeal Board – until 1991. Cross over the street, and have a look at the benches outside the building. The city commissioned the artist Roderick Saul to make the benches, marked with the signs “whites only” and “non-whites only”. They were placed here to remind Capetonians about the awful, and utterly bizarre, system that was in place. Race was considered a spectrum, with whites having full rights, and the so-called “bantu” having – essentially – none.
Techniques for race classification ranged from degrading to downright absurd. Mostly, a glance at a face would satisfy the authorities. Families would be separated based on the fact that some kids had slightly darker skin than others.
Where there was still confusion, habits and speech patterns would be looked at. Someone might have blue eyes and relatively fair skin, but their habits – according to the authorities – just weren’t those of a white person.
Then there was the infamous ‘pencil test’ – supposedly, if a pencil was poked into your hair and was held in place by the curls, that meant you weren’t white. If you wanted to be classed as coloured, you’d have to shake your head. If the pencil dropped to the floor, you could “upgrade” to coloured status.
If the board decided you weren’t white, it meant you couldn’t vote, and needed to carry a pass. It meant you could be loaded into a truck and taken away from your home. You would have to send your kids to understaffed, underfunded schools. You couldn’t go to the nice beaches, and you’d better not take the white lifts – the stairs were for you. You had to be home before 9pm. If you wanted to buy clothes – you weren’t allowed to try them on before. Or return them if they didn’t fit. And you weren’t allowed to see pictures of Nelson Mandela, who was locked away on the island. These laws stacked up over the years, until the nineties when – finally – it all ended.
We’re almost back at the entrance to the gardens, where this route started. To get back there, take a right onto Wale street, and head back towards the Slave Lodge. This is where I leave you, but if you’d like to hear other perspectives on central Cape Town, there are other VoiceMap routes to connect to. I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing about my city.