Healing a divided city

By Zubeida Jaffer*

Healing the historical divisions in Cape Town requires careful thought and sensitive intervention. Apartheid has divided this city into separate racial pockets that remain intact ten years after democracy. Enclaves of non-racialism are emerging but essentially the Group Areas Act which brought havoc to so many has successfully entrenched racially-divided communities.

The city mayor, NomaIndia Mfeketho, is about to launch an initiative that will help bring communities together to grapple with weaving their stories and history into this city’s public spaces.

In partnership with the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, the city will this year drive a memorialisation process with special emphasis on healing both the injured memories of communities and identifying ways in which Cape Town will physically express the soul of its people.

A number of communities are already in the process of working with their memories. In Langa, efforts are underway to memorialize the Pass Law experience that shattered the lives of millions of people but had particular resonance for this oldest township inCape Town. This was where the state situated its Pass Law Court, where men were made into criminals for trying to bring their wives to live with them. In Constantia, small groups of those forcibly removed are placing on record how they lost their land. In Simonstown, the history of the first free slaves has become a subject for discussion. But then there are common public spaces where citizens have to be involved across communities and interest groups.

Take the Grand Parade for example. A group of concerned citizens last year suggested that a statue of Madiba be erected on this space. The unflattering statue of Madiba in Sandton,Johannesburg should set off alarm bells for Cape Town. While it will be important to consider how to associate the City Hall and the Grand Parade with that historic moment when Nelson Mandela first addressed the nation and the world, lifeless statues that are poor replicas will do little to evoke memory and instill pride. Cape Town must consider remembering events and people that will leave for the next generation a clear sense of who they are and where they come from. The doors must be thrown open for the creative juices to run so that all of Cape Town and South Africa if they so wish can participate in forwarding creative ideas that will ensure that the city’s public spaces are enjoyed with pride by all its citizens.

Much can be learnt from experiences in other cities across the world. Fortunately, the District Six Museum will in May this year bring experts and practitioners together in this field from different parts of Africa and the world. The Hands On District Six Conference: Landscapes of Post-colonial Memorialisation will take place in the district from 25 to 28 May. City councillors, representatives of all political parties and interested community members will be invited to participate in the process on the last day officially hosted by the mayor where a draft policy for the city will be crafted.

Smaller community meetings and discussions with artists, architects and relevant planners will be held over the next few months before the conference to introduce Capetonians to the many possibilities of building a humane and democratic public culture. According to the Director of theDistrict Six Museum, Valmont Layne, the conference will bring people together interested in exploring reconstruction and memory in the context of societies working through the legacies of social violence, trauma and injustice. These discussion will take place against an emerging African and transnational framework of sites of conscience – places of memory committed to using their histories to foster civic dialogue and promote democratic and humanitarian values, he said. While this discussion will take place largely within the South African context, it will include the launch of an African sites of conscience network. As recently confirmed in the NEPAD documentation(“Nepad in Brief,” www.nepad.org), museums, sites of civic conscience and a network of places of living memory can play an important role in the development of dialogues of African democracy.

Layne however warns that emerging urban development practices may have the unfortunate effect of perpetuating the hidden heritage of colonial conquest, enslavement and apartheid. “New urban real estate developments, such as Mandela Rhodes House, are telling examples of postcolonial ‘heritage’ practices,” he said. “In the case of Mandela Rhodes, the legacy of Rhodes, combined with the Mandela legacy, promises a new coalition of capital and the Mandela legacy. Yet the promise of Parisian-style cafes and the toutage of Art in the Avenue in the CompanyGardens represent a discernible retreat to colonial nostalgia,” he said.

There are also visitors who are confounded when they come toCape Town to find that its premier tourist destination, the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, is named after British royalty.  At least, there is a claim to royalty. Take another South African city – Port Elizabeth. A visit to the local museum there would show that contrary to popular belief, that port was not named after Queen Elizabeth but after the wife of the then British governor of that area. The story recorded on the walls of the museum goes as follows: the governor’s wife Elizabeth who had never visited South Africa was living in India when she fell ill and died. The governor was inconsolable and in his grief, he decide to rename the port after her and thus the name Port Elizabeth. Not only was she not South African but her feet had not even touched these shores. And this is the legacy that this generation has inherited.

There will be those ofcourse who disagree with Layne’s sentiments. The question however will be to what extent Capetonians will be free to give expression to their own stories and experiences and create public spaces in which they feel comfortable and where they honour those who have meaning in their lives. This will be the challenge for the Mayor and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. These partners must drive a process that should elicit an ongoing dialogue that will bring citizens together in critical conversation to lay the basis for healing this divided city.

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