Signs of Life
Images from this collection have been exhibited in a number of exhibitions most notably in Iziko South African National Gallery as part of the Home Truths: Domestic Interiors from South African Collections exhibition curated by Emeritus Professor Michael Godby.
“Alas poor District Six! They are planning your downfall. They wish to make an end to the live throbbing area. They are making Darling Street a dagger pointed straight at your heart. What will I find if, in another life, I re-visit the old district?”
The Torch, newspaper 1940
The history of District Six is well known. Nestled at the foot of Devil’s Peak, it was home to a multi-ethnic community that can be traced back to 1830 when soldiers’ families and freed slaves first settled in the area. And as a result of its proximity to the harbour, the area developed an international reputation for liveliness and vibrancy.
However, the area’s turbulent history began as early as 1901. The African populace in District Six was forcefully relocated after an outbreak of bubonic plague, to a farm named Uitvlugt, later known as Ndabeni, one of South Africa’s first townships. Despite the area remaining mixed in race, with both coloured and white inhabitants, it became, effectively, the home of Cape Town’s coloured people. It was this community and its physical homes that were systematically destroyed by the apartheid government. This destruction and relocation of the area’s population was so comprehensive that it was described by Richard Rive, a popular writer from the area, as ‘South Africa’s Hiroshima’. Today, almost 50 years since the demolition commenced, much of this land still lies barren.
District Six was a community defined by contradictions. It was a non-racial community surrounded by legally entrenched whiteness. It was a multicultural community but was largely defined by ethnic solidarity. It was a safe and vibrant community but was also blighted by gang violence and crime. There was little in District Six that did not cover both sides of the spectrum and everything in between.
Since the demise of the apartheid regime in 1990, there have been constant questions focusing on how best to memorialise this community and its history and the most effective way to reintroduce the land into common experience. These questions have focused on the visually empty stretches of land bordered by Nelson Mandela Boulevard and De Waal Drive on two sides and Walmer Estate and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology on the other two sides. There were efforts made to declare the land a national heritage site but through a lack of political will, this was never completed. This was combined with continual uncertainties regarding the construction of structures on the land and how it could be returned to the surviving members of the former community.
In 2006 a memorial park was established in the area. This park focused on the area surrounding the steep, cobbled remains of Horstley Street, the site of the first forced removals in 1901 and the last of the removals in 1982. But today, this land appears as bleak as the neglected land that surrounds it.
Perhaps it is fitting, that the land meant to be a park commemorating this history is just as full of contradictions and ambiguities as the original community was. It is land that is referred to as dead and desolate but it is also land that the resident harvest for wild fennel, and at times is so covered by wild flowers, it could rival the Namaqualand in spring. It is also a space that a man can be stabbed for a R50 cell phone but where he can tell me, while holding a dirty rag to the bleeding wound, that he moved here from Blikkiesdorp because he didn’t feel as safe there as he does here. Above all this, it is land emptied of its identity and continually viewed as empty but is actually inhabited by a settled community. Perhaps it is these contradictions, the empty land left to the circadian rhythms of nature and those that society have marginalised, that provide the greatest monument to one of the darkest events in South Africa’s darkest history.
It is a land of ghosts. Indeed, it could be described as the epitome of the traumatic landscape. Those that once lived on it have found little to no closure and those that presently live on it do so with little hope that their lot will be improved. Hidden amongst the boulders and the long grass are the repressed memories of the past, crumbling bits of plaster, brick and concrete, and pieces of structures that may be ruins of a destroyed building or may be portions of a building left unfinished. The former community’s famed street life is reduced to crumbling cobblestones and pathways winding through the long grass. These pieces lie hidden beneath the surface and only after great exploration and interrogation do they hint at their past stories.
As repressed as these memories are, the present is equally so. The most intricate of structures are created amongst the long grass and alien vegetation that fill this land. And these vary from the modest, such as a foam mattress and thin blanket hidden under tinder and dry vegetation, to the memorable such as a small hole dug into a hill that opens up into a three-bedroom home. All of these provide shelter for society’s most invisible members, the homeless.
This view again illustrates the contradictions of the area. That this community is viewed as homeless is not debatable except to some of the community members themselves. Bennedict Khoza, the man responsible for creating the subterranean refuge, claims, ‘It’s warm down here and it’s safe. They tried to move me to a place in Delft but I had to come back here. It’s my home,’ he says and after having lived in the area for over ten years it does become hard to argue this point.
Some members of this community even go so far as to live off the very land that has effectively been discarded by those that control it. These people can be seen collecting wild fennel, which is used to make soup, and other plants for use as flavourings and their medicinal properties. It is not surprising then that the area’s inhabitants are beginning to think of the land as theirs. ‘This is our land now’, said Loxton, a tall, intimidating man with short spiky dreadlocks, ‘my friend and I have been living here for 7 years now. The police, they know us. We always live here and they don’t bother us. If they take this land away from us now we will be very angry.’
If this land has proven anything, it is that those who make a claim for the land do so at their own peril. For many years the focus regarding the past inhabitants of this land has been on the community that was forcefully removed by the apartheid government in the second half of the twentieth century. Attempts have been made to provide restitution to this community, involving the creation of houses to which the surviving community could return.
Recently, however, this focus was redirected. An activist group claiming to have descended from the original Khoi inhabitants of the area, who were forced off the land by South Africa’s first settlers, invaded these buildings also demanding restitution. Added to the building occupations, some of their supporters built an intricate hut, similar to those built by their ancestors, on a promontory overlooking the city. While their claim does not immediately reconcile with today’s political agendas, it emphasises the need for a new debate on the ability to reconcile past land dispossession.
If anything can be learnt from these clashes, it is that this land has been caught at a major crossroads between the past, the present and the future. A fraught history contested by groups of equally vulnerable members is caught in a stalemate between powerful groups who often find it impossible to compromise. What lies at stake is the possibility of future reintegration of this land into contemporary experience, at the very core of which, is the land’s ability to once again form memories and communities.
To say this process is burdened and precarious is an understatement. At times it seems as if the stubborn adherence by those in power to a narrowly focused narrative of nation building has forced an active decision to turn their backs on this history. The strange occurrence of buildings facing away from this open parkland hints that either greater plans for the land had fallen through or, that like many people, the buildings themselves have turned their backs on this historic, but greatly embarrassing, land.
The environment itself echoes this concealing of the past and the present. In the winter months the land, which is seated on the slopes of Table Mountain, is greeted by mists so thick that the mountain disappears entirely. These mists emphasise the isolation and disorientation surrounding this land that has been so severed from its past. And in the blistering hot, dry summer months, fires run through the area. These fires erase, and sometimes conceal, under layers of ash and soot, evidence of the past while forcing the current inhabitants to abandon their homes and move to safer areas of the land.
The ambiguities and controversies that surround this land make the attempts at memorials contentious. One can’t help but think that given the many unresolved conflicts between the former inhabitants, those in power and even the current inhabitants, the land’s current state, desolate, untended and forgotten, is a fitting memorial to the area’s history. The land is the epitome of an emptiness that could not be hidden. It sits, a giant elephant on the peninsula, largely ignored by Capetonians but noticed by all newcomers to Cape Town prompting the question, ‘What is that land?’ In the sense that James Young wrote that it is impossible to redeem catastrophe through art and memorials, the creation of a manicured memorial park would be pure window dressing. As has been argued by Ciraj Rasool, it is becoming clear that the future of land restitution is not purely about housing but also about symbolic politics and understanding District Six as a landscape of memory. Such an understanding places this contested landscape in the position to help us realise that memory should not be anchored in a nostalgic past. Instead, it is a tool to enlighten the present day and help us plot our futures.
It is these themes that this collection of images hopes to confront. At the centre of this confrontation are two theories that dominate recent landscape photography theory. The first of these is Simon Schama’s assertion that ‘The landscape is a work of the mind built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.' This theory is informed by landscape theory dating back to end of the 20th century, which is in turn influenced by the view that the passage of history is a continual and coherent narrative. This theory runs through the great desire of the former residents to reoccupy the land that was once theirs. It is epitomized by the expressed desire by some action groups to recreate the area and community exactly as it once was and can be glimpsed in the images in this collection when they explore the historic, the rubble, the ruins, the physical remnants of what is such a traumatic aspect of South Africa’s history.
Opposing this theory is the hypothesis put forward by Ulrich Baer, an interpretation of Freudian trauma theory; it argues that extreme trauma can cause a distortion of memory and time. In contrast to the previous theory of history as a continuous narrative, this theory posits that events of extreme trauma can effectively sever the bonds between memory and the landscape. In some ways this is emphasized by the argument that while social identities are influenced by place, environments do not produce them. Social identities are created by people and by communities and the vicious, calculated destruction of District Six arguably severed the social identity from the physical home of that community leaving the land an ahistorical wasteland plagued by repressed memories. Some of the former community have stated that the destruction of District Six had such an impact on them that prior to it they must have lived in another world, one physically and morally different to the racially differentiated world they were forced into. This itself is echoed by those trying to reincorporate the land into contemporary society when the Rural Development and Land Affairs Minister, Gugile Nkwinti, states, ‘However, things can never be the same.’ The images of the land shrouded in the heavy morning mists engage with this theory by allowing one to question whether or not the now unidentifiable land hold any claim to its past.
There is a final idea that these images hope to engage with. It is the idea put forward by Ciraj Rassool, that we need to engage with the symbolic as much as the physical if we are to recreate the link between this land and memory once again. It is here that art becomes integral in the possible regeneration of this land for if the memory of the landscape can be disconnected through extreme trauma it is through a tradition of reimagining and mythologizing that it can be rebuilt once more.
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14. Sontag, S. (2004) Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Picador.
15. Soudien, C. (2001) Holding onto the Past… In Rassool, C. and Prosalendis, S. (Ed.) Recalling the community in Cape Town (pg 97-106)