/ 13 December 2015

Forgotten bones haunt Cape Town

Sunken hopes: Two hundred slaves drowned off Clifton beach when the slave ship São José sank close to shore in 1794.
Sunken hopes: Two hundred slaves drowned off Clifton beach when the slave ship São José sank close to shore in 1794.

Cape Town is on edge and not even Table Mountain can hide the racism churning through the Mother City. But as racism surfaces into public consciousness, it is the city’s slave heritage that remains buried.

The Emancipation Day march through the central business district has for the past nine years commemorated the abolition of slavery on December 1 1834. Watching it for the first time last week, I was reminded that Cape Town’s pretty exterior veils its ugly origins.

“The east end of the city was where they buried people. The Khoisan didn’t seem to have the concept of marking a grave – they buried you in an upright position, like a shaft,” Michael Weeder, an organiser of the march, told me.

En route to the Castle of Good Hope, the march stopped at Prestwich Place, an upmarket district in Green Point. In June 2003, at least 2 000 human bones were unearthed there during an excavation to build a shopping centre and offices.

Archaeologists identified the bones as between 180 and 270 years old and said many of them were likely the remains of slaves.

Construction halted, and the South African Heritage Resources Agency permitted a team of archaeologists from the University of Cape Town (UCT) to exhume the remains, despite protests. In 2004, some of the remains were finally laid to rest.

The bones are now in an ossuary at the Prestwich Place Memorial, but then Cape Town mayor Nomaindia Mfeketo’s pledge to “create a fitting memory” for slaves was an empty promise.

Since the first bones were found in 2003, more have been exhumed in the surrounding Green Point area, yet none of these streets are marked with any symbol, placard or sculpture to commemorate the mass graves that exist beneath the roads we walk on.

“Human remains have been located along the length of Prestwich, Alfred Street and Napier Street, and in Chiappini Street. Hence the streets lie over unmarked graves of Cape Town’s poor.

Mechanisms need to be designed to commemorate this, [and] link-ages with Prestwich Memorial need to be explored,” UCT’s archaeology department said in a report submitted in 2011.

Green Point is one of Cape Town’s most expensive suburbs, dotted with restaurants and designer boutiques. The heritage resources agency has said that, should construction continue in the suburb, more remains are likely to be found.

The mass graves tell a haunting tale of a city that has buried a history and shamed its violent origins to market itself in all its picturesque glory.

The macabre way in which slave history has been ignored in Green Point is more evident when you look at the final resting place of the bones. On the face-brick building of the Prestwich Place Memorial, there is a loud logo for Truth Coffee Roasting – one of Cape Town’s premier hangouts for flat whites and hipsters.

“In a city overflowing with well-known cultural attractions and heritage sites, the Prestwich Memorial was often overlooked,” Truth states on its website.

“But since it became the birthplace of Truth Coffee Roasting, a growing number of Cape Town locals, tourists and coffee aficionados have unwittingly been lured to this under-cover burial ground. And been given a taste [of] how good slavery can be … (To artisan coffee of course, in this case!)”

To give people a “taste [of] how good slavery can be” is a hideous attempt to exploit slave history for coffee sales. It shows the gall and dysfunction of a city that prioritises money and tourism over the dignity of people who died building it.

But the problem doesn’t exist in Green Point alone. The popular Oranjezicht City Farm, near Orange Street, is partly located on land that belonged to Pieter van Breda, who owned among the largest numbers of slaves in the Cape.

This history has been erased from the urban farm market where foot traffic flows.

Clifton, a pricey residential area, is also a site of slave history. In the 1980s, a shipwreck from 1794 was discovered along with the remains of at least 200 Mozambican slaves just 100m from Clifton beach. But no memorial exists.

Despite the trauma and violence of slavery, and the heroic slaves who fought for freedom, Cape Town still has more room to accommodate colonial narratives than it does the history of its oppressed people.

Statues of Cecil John Rhodes, Jan van Riebeeck and fellow colonialists stand tall in the city. A slave monument was built in Church Square, a former slave market, but it’s easy to miss, unable to live up to the stature of colonial praise monuments.

There are more spaces where slave history has been limply pointed out, but they lack prominence.

This distortion of our public space is even more disturbing when we consider the relevance of slavery as a blueprint for apartheid and the racism still experienced by people of colour today.

It’s high time Cape Town reclaimed the history and heritage of the slaves whose blood spilled into our streets, and whose bones remain buried beneath our city.