Poets reclaim Cape Town’s historical narrative

‘It’s funny that you call this place Kaapstad. Kaap means ‘steal’ in Dutch. Kapen. ‘To steal’,” says Sjaan Flikweert. She says this with no irony. Blonde bangs frame her face, rapper Kendrick Lamar’s blank stare plastered across her T-shirt, red letters hovering above his head that read “Damn”.

It takes a moment for us to respond. Sitting in a lecture hall at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), we are a group of 10 Dutch and South African poets introducing ourselves to a class of first-year Afrikaans students. When Flikweert’s words settle, some gasp, some laugh. We know it’s from the Latin “caput” — head, with kaap meaning a headland or promontory jutting out into the sea, hence the Cape of Good Hope. Flikweert has questioned Cape Town’s etymologies and histories in a few short sentences. This is how we started our journey together.

In early September, as part of the Open Book Festival, I was asked to take part in a three-day writing excursion conceptualised by Adrian van Wyk and Pieter Odendaal of Inzync Poetry, alongside festival organiser Frankie Murrey. The aim was to explore themes of language, space and identity. I (South African by way of Uganda) embarked on this journey with Akwasi (Dutch by way of Ghana), Dean Bowen (Dutch by way of Suriname and Guyana), and Flikweert (Dutch), as well as my South African counterparts Katleho Kano Shoro, Thabiso Nkoana, Xolisa Mbeleko, Busisiwe Mahlangu and Allison-Claire Hoskins.

Each day challenged us in various ways.

On day one, Xolisa, Thabiso, Katleho and I stood outside Cape Town station. A kombi pulled up, its metallic door sliding open to reveal Adrian. Bearded, with a peak cap swung to the back, he oscillated between his various roles as group leader, unofficial track selector and makeshift gaatjie who opened the vehicle’s doors and welcomed passengers. Kendrick made another appearance, this time blaring out of a small, purple, pill-shaped JBL speaker. We rapped along, having no idea that music would later become our salve.

We arrived at UWC, greeted by a sculpture by David Hlongwane aptly named Beginning and Ending. It’s a sculpture of two figures — one feminine, dressed as a domestic worker with broom in hand, the other masculine, a graduate with a degree clenched in his raised fist. This scene is a familiar one, hinting at a gendered reality involving the sacrifices many South African mothers make for the success of their children. Placed at the university’s entrance, however, this image seems like a projection of the future rather than an accurate reflection of the present.

Contrasting the noise of the first day, day two was overcast. The kombi was quieter, with Akwasi and Ahisha sound asleep in the back seats. Hugh Masekela, Moses Sumney and Mos Def peppered our soundtrack en route to Stellenbosch. But when 340ml’s Midnight played, we were roused and transformed into old friends singing fervently, loudly and slightly off-key. It was probably the most at ease we felt all day, driving headlong into Stellenbosch’s colonial history.

Stellenbosch is undeniably beautiful. Trees are green. Buildings are old, white and spacious. They give you the feeling of historical grandeur. It is also a place where it’s much harder to breathe. On our tour, we walked along Eersterivier, past the churches, through the campus, and eventually into the museum. We read about the university’s history, seeing it plastered and echoed on to the museum’s walls. We were then led outside and into a room tucked away in the back compound.

[Thrown into a back room at Stellenbosch University is the DF Malan archive, apartheid’s take on South Africa (University of Stellenbosch)]

We later learnt that this room was the DF Malan Anthropology and Cultural History Archive. Inside, books, instruments, teaching materials, clothes and a bronze bust of Malan were all packed away, perhaps haphazardly. Drawers lined one of the walls, labelled “North Sotho”, “Xhosa”, “Zulu” … Inside them, cultural artefacts belonging to these cultural groups lay, without any explanation or description given for them. The room was too small for all of this.

Adrian set the speaker on one of the many shelves, Dlala Mapantsula filling the room. Once again we sang — loudly. We danced to kwaito hits, cleansing the space and comforting ourselves that we were here now and that is what matters.

Later that evening I heard these words from Somali-South African poet Afeefa Omar:

I don’t know how to dress a wound

where I am from, we walk away from pain

we leave people and places and memories behind …

I think this is the difference between us

you build monuments for your hurt

I walk into it and it unravels me.

I realised that this was what we had been doing for the past two days — trying to walk into pain, leaving ourselves sprawled across the city.

On the third and final day, we climbed out of the kombi into mist and a light drizzle. Ta Jethro Louw, a Khoi elder, was our guide for the day. His short dreads swung as he bobbed his head, carrying an uhadi string bow in his hand and speaking in short bursts. His voice reminded me of the sound of feet crunching stones on a dirt road. As a word of caution, he told us to be aware of the baggage that each of us carried as he took us to a shrine belonging to the Khoi people, just off Lion’s Head.

We were led to three rocks that formed a hollow, where we had a cypher session filled with the clapping of hands, singing freestyle flows, and old poems that rose to the surface accompanied by the uhadi.

On this day the urge to cry did not hold my chest captive. We found joy in the leaving of the city. On our way back to the kombi, the mist had cleared ever so lightly. We returned lighter. We had listened to the “stolen” city, heard some of its voices, held its story, and were now ready to reclaim whatever we felt had been taken from us. 

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