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Remembering Slavery in Urban Cape Town: Emancipation or Continuity?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 March 2020

Samuel North
20C Queen Street, Chesterfield Derbyshire, S40 4SFUnited Kingdom


This article examines how slavery has been remembered in the urban space of Cape Town over time. It explores how individuals and groups have commemorated the history of slavery from the late nineteenth century onwards. It outlines how memory of slavery faded as the number of people with direct experience of enslavement decreased, with burgeoning racial segregation influencing the way that the past was viewed. It then examines how post-1994 democracy in South Africa has once again changed approaches to history. Colonial-era abuses such as slavery have not always been readily remembered in an urban space where their legacies are visible, and this article examines the interplay of politics and identity at the heart of public memorialization of these contested pasts.

Research Article
Copyright © 2020 Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis

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1. Huyssen, Andreas, Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and The Politics of Memory (Stanford, CA [etc], 2003), p. 81Google Scholar.

2. Useful overviews of how Cape Town and wider South Africa have been marketed to tourists over time can be found in Bickford-Smith, Vivian, “Creating a City of the Tourist Imagination: The Case of Cape Town, ‘The Fairest Cape of Them All’”, Urban Studies, 46:9 (2009), pp. 17631785CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Witz, Leslie, Rassool, Ciraj, and Minkley, Gary, “Repackaging the Past for South African Tourism”, in Corsane, Gerard (ed.), Heritage, Museums and Galleries: An Introductory Reader (London [etc.], 2005), pp. 308320Google Scholar.

3. Araujo, Ana Lucia, “Introduction”, in Idem (ed.), Politics of Memory: Making Slavery Visible in the Public Space (London [etc.], 2010), pp. 113Google Scholar discusses these ideas. Slavery has variously been denied, celebrated as a foundation history, or celebrated in terms of abolitionist triumph. Jared Hardesty, “Disappearing from Abolitionism's Heartland: The Legacy of Slavery and Emancipation in Boston”, in this Special Issue, discusses the way in which histories of Boston depicted slavery as mild and something inimical to the interests of this freedom-driven urban space in order to suit the needs of activists and politicians.

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6. Ibid., p. xxxi.


7. Worden, Slavery in Dutch South Africa, pp. 85–95.

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12. For discussion of the origins of the term “coloured”, see Adhikari, Mohamed, “The Sons of Ham: Slavery and the Making of Coloured Identity”, South African Historical Journal, 27 (1992), pp. 95112CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13. See, for example, Statistics South Africa, “Census 2011: Census in Brief” (2011).

14. Vivian Bickford-Smith, “Meanings of Freedom: Social Position and Identity Among Ex-Slaves and Their Descendants in Cape Town, 1875–1910”, in Worden and Crais (eds), Breaking the Chains, pp. 291–293.

15. Bank, Andrew, The Decline of Urban Slavery at the Cape, 1806 to 1843 (Cape Town, 1991), pp. 99102Google Scholar.

16. Ibid., p. 100.


17. Bickford-Smith, “Meanings of Freedom”, p. 304.

18. Ward, Kerry and Worden, Nigel, “Commemorating, Suppressing, and Invoking Cape Slavery”, in Nuttall, Sarah and Coetzee, Carli (eds), Negotiating the Past: The Making of Memory in South Africa (Oxford [etc.], 1997), p. 203Google Scholar.

19. Bickford-Smith, “Meanings of Freedom”, p. 309.

20. Farieda Khan, “The Elim Slave Route Pilot Project: Report on a Project Executed on Behalf of the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism”, (February 1999), p. 17.

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23. Khan, “Elim Slave Route”, p. 22.

24. Ward and Worden, “Commemorating, Suppressing, and Invoking Cape Slavery”, pp. 205–207.

25. Ibid., p. 207.


26. Adhikari, Mohamed, “From Narratives of Miscegenation to Post-Modernist Reimagining: Toward a Historiography of Coloured Identity in South Africa”, African Historical Review, 40:1 (2008), pp. 7980CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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28. Witz, Leslie, Apartheid's Festival: Contesting South Africa's National Pasts (Bloomington, IN, 2003), pp. 131147CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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30. Bickford-Smith, “Meanings of Freedom”, pp. 298–299; Bank, Decline of Urban Slavery, pp. 111–112.

31. Jeppie, Shamil, “Reclassifications: Coloured, Malay, Muslim”, in Erasmus, Zimitri (ed.), Coloured by History, Shaped by Place: New Perspectives on Coloured Identities in Cape Town (Cape Town, 2001), pp. 8494Google Scholar. More conservative Muslims were willing to work with du Plessis; however, active participants in the anti-apartheid movement were more inclined to reject the Malay construct.

32. This scholarship is associated chiefly with Adhikari but see also Erasmus, Coloured by History.

33. Jackson, Shannon, “Coloureds don't Toyi-Toyi: Gesture, Constraint and Identity in Cape Town”, in Robins, Steven L. (ed.), Limits to Liberation after Apartheid: Citizenship, Governance and Culture (Oxford [etc.], 2005), p. 211Google Scholar.

34. Trotter, Henry, “Trauma and Memory: The Impact of Apartheid-Era Forced Removals on Coloured Identity in Cape Town”, in Adhikari, Mohamed (ed.), Burdened by Race: Coloured Identities in Southern Africa (Cape Town, 2009), pp. 4950Google Scholar.

35. Kerry Ward, The Road to Mamre: Migration, Memory, and the Meaning of Community c.1900–1992 (MA thesis, University of Cape Town, 1992), pp. 152–154; Khan, “Elim Slave Route”, pp. 30–33.

36. Visser, Gustav and Kotze, Nico, “The State and New-build Gentrification in Central Cape Town, South Africa”, Urban Studies, 45:12 (2008), pp. 25652593CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Using the veneer of regeneration, state-led urban redevelopment projects are increasingly fuelling gentrification in South Africa. This follows an Anglo-American model of attempting to insert a city into a globalized world by courting investment from international parties.

37. “Reclaim the City”. Available at:; last accessed 10 March 2017. Reclaim the City is a movement, popularized through social media, that aims to draw attention to the ongoing plight of Cape Town's poorer residents in its campaign to retain tenancy of social housing located in areas earmarked for redevelopment by the municipality.

38. Hall, Martin and Bombardella, Pia, “Paths of Nostalgia and Desire through Heritage Destinations at the Cape of Good Hope”, in Murray, Noeleen, Shepherd, Nick, and Hall, Martin (eds), Desire Lines: Space, Memory and Identity in the Post-Apartheid City (London [etc.], 2007), pp. 246252Google Scholar.

39. Worden, Nigel, “Unwrapping History at the Cape Town Waterfront”, The Public Historian, 16:2 (1994), pp. 3845CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Although Worden was writing over twenty years ago, his criticisms can still be applied to the contemporary Waterfront as subsequent revisions to historical interpretation at the complex have done little to offer a more balanced interpretation of the past.

40. Michael Besten, “‘We Are the Original Inhabitants of This Land’: Khoe-San Identity in Post-Apartheid South Africa”, in Adhikari, Burdened by Race, p. 149.

41. Wicomb, Zoe, “Shame and Identity: The Case of the Coloured in South Africa”, in Attridge, Derek and Jolly, Rosemary (eds), Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970–1995 (Cambridge [etc.], 1998), p. 100Google Scholar.

42. Republic of South Africa Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage (Pretoria, June 1996).

43. Worden, Nigel, “The Changing Politics of Slave Heritage in the Western Cape, South Africa”, The Journal of African History, 50:1 (March 2009), p. 29CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Ward and Worden, p. 216.

44. Coombes, Annie, History after Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa (Durham, NC [etc.], 2003), p. 58CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

45. Ibid., pp. 59–63, 77.


46. Rasool, Ebrahim, “Unveiling the Heart of Fear”, in James, Wilmot, Caliguire, Daria, Cullinan, Kerry, Levy, Janet, and Wescott, Shauna (eds), Now That We are Free: Coloured Communities in a Democratic South Africa (Cape Town, 1996), p. 56Google Scholar.

47. Michele Ruiters, “Collaboration, Assimilation and Contestation: Emerging Constructions of Coloured Identity in Post-Apartheid South Africa”, in Adhikari, Burdened by Race, p. 125.

48. Besten, “‘We Are the Original Inhabitants of this Land’”, pp. 134–156. “Khoisan” refers to the pastoral Khoi tribes and hunter-gatherer San or Bushmen. Following persecution under colonialism, descendants were absorbed into the coloured population.

49. This can be attributed to a climate in which self-exploration has been encouraged, as well as to more explicit attempts around the turn of the century by academics based at the University of Cape Town and University of the Western Cape to encourage coloured people to investigate their potential slave routes using archival material.

50. Patric Tariq Mellet (heritage activist and writer), in discussion with the author, Cape Town, 12 April 2016.

51. Adhikari, “From Narratives of Miscegenation”, p. 91.

52. Vollgraaff, Helene, The Dutch East India Company's Slave Lodge at the Cape (Cape Town, 1997), p. 7Google Scholar.

53. Ibid.


54. Fransen, Hans, Guide to the Museums of Southern Africa (Cape Town, 1978), pp. 2325Google Scholar. See also Cornell, Carohn, “Whatever Became of Slavery in Western Cape Museums?”, Kronos, 25 (1998), pp. 259279Google Scholar.

55. Iziko currently manages eleven sites in the Cape Town area.

56. Paul Tichmann (Director Social History at Iziko Museums), in discussion with the author, Cape Town, 26 May 2016.

57. Ibid.


58. Eichmann, Anne, “Representing Slavery in South Africa”, in Shell, Robert (ed.), From Diaspora to Diorama: The Old Slave Lodge in Cape Town, vol. 3 (Cape Town, 2013), pp. 32203240Google Scholar; Worden, “The Changing Politics of Slave Heritage”, pp. 28–32. Promoting reconciliation was outlined as a responsibility of state-funded heritage sites in 1996 by Republic of South Africa, White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage.

59. VOC is an abbreviation for Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company).

60. Williams, Paul, Memorial Museums: The Global Rush to Commemorate Atrocities (Oxford, 2007), pp. 153155Google Scholar.

61. Ibid., pp. 147–148.


62. The potential impact of such a narrative is arguably stymied at present in the Slave Lodge by the number of displays that are remnants of the SACHM and have yet to be removed.

63. Araujo, Ana Lucia, Shadows of the Slave Past: Memory, Heritage, and Slavery (Florence, 2014), p. 53CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

64. Ibid.


65. Nick Shepherd and Christian Ernsten, “The World Below: Post-Apartheid Urban Imaginaries and the Bones of the Prestwich Street Dead”, in Murray et al., Desire Lines, pp. 215–216.

66. Ibid., pp. 217–223.


67. For detailed accounts of the consultation process from perspectives sympathetic to the arguments proposed by anti-exhumation campaigners, see Shepherd and Ernsten, “The World Below”, pp. 215–233; Shepherd, Nick, “Archaeology Dreaming: Post-Apartheid Urban Imaginaries and the Bones of the Prestwich Street Dead”, Journal of Social Archaeology, 7:1 (2007), pp. 328CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Grunebaum, Heidi, Memorializing the Past: Everyday Life in South Africa after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (New Brunswick, NJ, 2011), p. 130Google Scholar. For the viewpoint of some of the academics who supported exhumation, see Malan, Antonia and Worden, Nigel, “Constructing and Contesting Histories of Slavery at the Cape, South Africa”, in Lane, Paul J. and MacDonald, Kevin C. (eds), Slavery in Africa: Archaeology and Memory (Oxford [etc.], 2011), pp. 409411Google Scholar.

68. Shepherd and Ernsten, “The World Below”, pp. 222–223.

69. “Coffee Shop ‘Out of Place’ at Memorial”, The Cape Towner, 22 April 2010.

70. Ibid.


71. The current edition of Truth's website (; last accessed 16 December 2019) omits this text.

72. Boyer, M. Christine, The City of Collective Memory: Its Historical Imagery and Architectural Entertainments (Cambridge [etc.], 1996), p. 9Google Scholar.

73. The vessel foundered in 1794 while crossing the Atlantic with an estimated 212 out of a human cargo of around 500 perishing. “South Africans Honour Slaves Drowned in 1794 Shipwreck”, Mail & Guardian, 2 June 2015.

74. This event formed part of the international Slave Wrecks Project, a collaboration between a number of museums including Iziko and the Smithsonian. As well as enslaved Mozbiekers, twentieth-century workers in South African mines who originated in Mozambique were also discussed, as was the existence of families with distinctive Mozambique heritage in pre-Group Areas Act District Six.

75. Lucy Campbell, in discussion with the author, Cape Town, 29 June 2015.

76. Kreamer, Christine Mullen, “Shared Heritage, Contested Terrain: Cultural Negotiation and Ghana's Cape Coast Castle Museum Exhibition ‘Crossroads of People, Crossroads of Trade’”, in Karp, Ivan, Kratz, Corrine A., Szwaja, Lynn, and Ybarra-Frausto, Tomas, with Buntinx, Gustavo, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara, and Rassool, Ciraj, (eds), Museum Frictions: Public Cultures/Global Transformations (Durham, NC [etc.], 2006), pp. 443454Google Scholar.

77. Campbell, discussion.

78. Ibid.


79. Ibid.


80. The aforementioned attempt to gain free entry to the Castle exemplified this tendency. Press articles such as “Slaves: South Africa's First Freedom Fighters”, Mail & Guardian, 4 December 2015, demonstrate how there is an increasing awareness of the contribution enslaved people made to shaping South Africa.

81. Gilroy, Black Atlantic, p. 39.

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