Cape’s colonial castle a symbol of reconciliation

(This article was published in the Weekend Argus, a weekly newspaper in the Western Cape province, South Africa, on March 19 2016.)

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Renovating the Castle of Good Hope is not only about fixing its leaking ceiling and cracking walls, but making it a space for reconciliation too.

This is the vision of Calvyn Gilfellan, chief executive of the castle in central Cape Town, managing the R81-million refurbishment funded by the national public works department.


MR FIX-IT: Calvyn Gilfellan, chief executive at the Castle of Good Hope in central Cape Town, on top of the castle’s newly renovated roof. The national public works department has budgeted R84-million to fix the castle. Picture Yazeed Kamaldien

Gilfellan walks on top of a refurbished section of the castle’s roof and points out that while the structure represents Dutch colonialism, their task it to make sure it is now available for “adaptive re-use”.

The Dutch East India Company, ensuring European colonial expansion in various parts of the world, built the castle in the 17th century. It is South Africa’s oldest colonial building.

Gilfellan says the castle needs to undergo renovations at least every 15 years to ensure that it is preserved.

“The rooms were falling apart because they were not waterproof. You would sit in a puddle of water in winter,” says Gilfellan.

“Visitors would peep through the windows and see water puddles in the rooms. They would wonder if this was how the government preserves its past.”

Gilfellan says the refurbishment is not “just to whitewash a grave of our colonial past”.

“I initially thought we were expected to be spectators of builders who would come in and put new paint over old painful structures,” says Gilfellan.

“But people are sensitive to the authenticity of protecting the fabric of what the castle was. If you do it that way, then you will be able to interpret the good, bad and ugly history of the castle.

“The renovators are trying to do justice to how it was. It’s refurbished for a more modern-day use, whilst not defacing how it was 350 years ago.”


RECONSTRUCTION: Part of the castle’s roof still being renovated ahead of rainy winter months. Picture Yazeed Kamaldien

Gilfellan says the castle has various spaces, such as different courtyards, that have been rented out for conferences, weddings, exhibitions and other events. Later this year, the castle will host the inaugural Cape Town Flower Show.

Despite its commercial activities, the castle has not lost its historical value.

“If archaeologists come in here they must still be able to see how the building had been used,” says Gilfellan.

From an ideological perspective, Gilfellan says the castle’s renovation shows there is no need to destroy colonial remnants.

“Once these symbols of colonial oppression are away there’s nothing but textbooks to reflect on,” he says.

Gilfellan reflects on last year’s RhodesMustFall student protests that led to the removal of the statue of colonialist Cecil John Rhodes from UCT campus, saying this counter-productive.

“Young people are restless and need instant gratification. They don’t take the time to understand the meaning of those (colonial) places and understand it,” says Gilfellan.

“Those places should become the gravesites of an era and a platform to move on from. We need to revisit those places and understand what happened.

“We need to have a confession of our colonial past. All of us must take the time to define that pain. You need to go to (Dutch colonial) Jan van Riebeeck’s statue and understand what he really did.

“For example with Rhodes, we could say he built places but he exploited people to be able to do that. If you only have a half truth of what he stands for, you will not be able to build a platform for reconciliation.”

Gilfellan says a “building is not simply brick and mortar”.

“A building symbolises a lot of the tensions of society and progress it is striving for. We are looking at the history of the castle but also the history before it that was erased by colonialists,” he says.

“For colonisation to flourish, colonisers needed to destroy traditional forms of life, economy and religion. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be told. We are giving the survivors of colonisation a space to tell their stories too.

“This is not only a story of a building. It’s the story of land and culture. It’s about giving people’s dignity back that was taken away during colonial conquest.”

Gilfellan says “preserving the past and ushering in the future” to the tune of R84-million also shows that government does not support demolishing colonial structures.

“This project is philosophically and politically speaking a major thing for government to do,” he says.

“This is a government that has been put in place by freedom fighters and they found money to renovate a symbol that undermines that freedom. They are putting money into a symbol of colonisation and oppression.”


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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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