City walk remembers slave history in Cape Town

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Slave history in Cape Town was this weekend remembered and celebrated with a walk through the city centre, intended to reconnect locals with their ancestors.

The public walk started at 10pm at the Strand Street quarry on Sunday night and ended with a midnight picnic at the Castle of Good Hope.

This was to mark Emancipation Day on December 1 and re-enact the moment when slaves in Cape Town were set free in 1834.

Chrischene Julius, archives manager at the District Six Museum on Buitenkant Street, said this event, A Walk in the Night, was about the “recognition and remembrance of those who were enslaved and also ultimately emancipated”.

Chrischene Julius from the District Six Museum in Cape Town believes Cape Town's slave descendants still live on the margins of the city. (Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien)

Chrischene Julius from the District Six Museum in Cape Town believes Cape Town’s slave descendants still live on the margins of the city. (Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien)

The museum is among the committee that has organised the event.

Julius said many people in Cape Town did not know about slave sites throughout the city.

“Slave labour was used to build the city. Slaves were also artisans and had skills. Whether it’s about furniture making or being a silversmith. Slaves became really skilled,” said Julius.

She said the slave sites were “known to some people but it is not part of a broader acknowledgement”.

“We are bringing attention to the fact that these sites are in the city. We also have educational programmes about this history (at the museum).”

Julius said the walk would start at the Strand Street quarry, as that was where the stone was taken from to build the Castle during Dutch colonial rule.

The walk would then go past the Slave Church, “established with the aim of teaching slaves to read and write”.

“Slaves were also fundamental to the founding of that church. We then walk past Greenmarket Square where slaves would buy goods for their households,” said Julius.

After a few more stops, the walk would culminate with a cleansing ceremony at the Castle entrance and finally a picnic on the lawns at the Castle.

“The walk is in the evening because historical archive tells us that slaves knew the declaration would be made. They stayed up all night and lit bonfires on Table Mountain at 12am,” said Julius.

“We want to recreate that celebration and honour that moment.”

A number of artists will perform at the picnic, including rapper Jitsvinger, poet Ncebakazi Mnukwana and the Rosa Choir.

Mandy Sanger, who manages education projects at the museum, said the walk was “relevant because it makes visible the history of key citizens in this city who have been made invisible”.

“Their history and past has been eradicated. It’s not found really in books. If it is, then it has a very particular European gaze. Citizens are seen largely as objects for observation and interpretation,” she said.

“The walk is about recovering the historical past of those made invisible. Many have felt an embarrassment about their links to slavery because of the shame linked to it.

“They see slaves as being people who were weak and able to be enslaved. The whole history of slaves as skilled artisans who built this city is never spoken about.”

Sanger also takes issue with architectural and structural development in central Cape Town particularly being “business as usual”.

“The past is largely seen as something you remember in décor. It’s not working in a critical way with all the gaps in our history,” she said.

“Through slavery and apartheid later on people were displaced out of the city. So apart from being disconnected from their past, they were also disconnected from spaces in the city,” said Sanger.

“It was then replaced with colonial and apartheid culture. All these sites were stripped of people who were not white. The walk is a ritual to help people to reconnect with sites and memory.”

Julius said slave descendants who live in Cape Town – mostly mixed-race or coloured – “still live on the margins of the city and need to reconnect with their history”.

“People are excluded from the narrative of the city. Cape Town is about sun, beach and township tours. But there are so many layers of the city that are not visible. They are not part of a bigger awareness of how the city is shaped,” she said.

“We are still being excluded. It’s not through the physical act of slavery, but there are other forms of exclusion, such as economics. Besides the klopse, it feels that we are only a workforce in the city instead of people who use the city.”

Julius added: “This is one opportunity to own the space in a different way, instead of just coming into the city to do some work or as klopse.”

Julius slaves were brought to the Cape under colonial rule from India, East Indies, Ceylon, Mozambique, Madagascar, East African Coast, Malaya and Mauritius.

“Slave ships also carried people from Angola and West Africa also stopped en route to places such as Brazil,” she said.

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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