Beyond Good and Evil…The Streets of Cape Town’s Past.

As mentioned in our previous post on Bo Kaap Cape Town’s past belongs to one company – the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC)). In the words of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats;

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

We would spend that morning exploring the streets of Cape Town, separating heroes from villains, and tracing the steps of those first ‘Company Men’ all the way up to the present day. We were lucky again to be able to join a Nielsen Free Walking Tour. Our Guide Daniel turned out to be a great storyteller…

Tavern of the Seas
Our journey started in Greenmarket Square. Since 1652 it has been a fruit and veg market, a slave market, a parking lot and now is home to a flea market – souvenirs for tourist and local alike. It was here that fruit and vegetables grown in the Cape Colony were sold to passing ships on their way to the East. Our main focus was on the buildings that demarcated the edge of the square – starting with the Old Town House.

Built on the site of the old Burgher Watch House in 1761 but continuing its dual mission of Watch House and City Hall. Over the years it grew from a simple building to the one we saw today with the elaborate facade and stonework.At the turn of the 20th Century the building was then restored under the guidance of architect JM Solomon, and on 8 May 1917 it became the home of the Michaelis Art Collection. Across the road, on another corner of the square was a church, the Central Metropolitan Church, built in 1879.

During the 1930s a number of Art Deco buildings were built to complete the squares perimeter.

Tutu and Jazz

Speaking of Churches, our next stop was a short walk away. Up St. George’s Mall to the grand visage of the St. George Cathedral. We could spend a paragraph talking about its architecture, founding or ancient history but the better story is a modern story, about one man and his desire for peace.

Desmond Tutu, the first black archbishop of South Africa, led numerous marches and campaigns for the formal end of apartheid from the front steps of St George’s cathedral. It was a common meeting point for all activists of all races as well as woman’s rights groups who were part the resistance to apartheid laws and the struggle for social justice, equality and human rights. It rightly led to the Cathedral being named the ‘People’s Cathedral’ in 2001.

In a sign of progress the crypt of the cathedral no longer is a refuge for those escaping injustice but is a lair for funky jazz – a jazz restaurant called the Crypt has taken their place.

As we made our way up Queen Victoria Street we passed the Parliament Building and National Library before stopping again outside the Cape Town High Court. Daniel (Guide) spent some time across the road from the building setting the scene of South Africa’s Apartheid system of racial discrimination. We learned our first Afrikaans word during his lecture – ‘Apartheid’ (separateness). One small word but it had a huge ramification for a multicultural city like Cape Town. Thanks to an absurdities like the Population Registration Act of 1950 and the later Group Areas Actovernight areas of the city were carved out, like squares on a chessboard, and depending on the group you were bundled into one of those areas. Then bit by bit your liberties and rights were taken away. If you complained or were caught without your new ‘passbooks’ you would end up at the High Court across the street.

As we walked over we were momentarily transported back in time as a pair of revenants from the past was before us in the form of two benches, flanking either side of the entrance. On the one a sign saying ‘Whites Only’. On the other ‘Non-Whites Only’. Even furniture could discriminate. st was before us in the form of two benches, flanking either side of the entrance. On the one a sign saying ‘Whites Only’. On the other ‘Non-Whites Only’. Even furniture could discriminate.

Luckily these benches are now part of an artwork by Roderick Sauls to highlight the place where the Race Classification Appeal Board once sat to determine people’s race classification. The benches also highlighted a glimmer of hope form this sad story. At the end of the inscription on the bench is the sentence – “1 White person reclassified as a Coloured person”. The amazing part of this story is that the 1 White Person asked to be reclassified so that he would not be torn apart from his Coloured Family. In those days that could mean discrimination at best or a death sentence at worst.

No Tree for Old Partridges

As we worked our way up Queen Victoria Avenue we had been skirting an iron-railing fence beyond which was a large park.These were actually the Company’s Gardens where those vegetables and fruit were that were sold in Greenmarket Square were actually grown.It was here in the middle of the Gardens that we were introduced to the oldest living citizen in Cape Town (and South Africa). At 365 Years Old this Pyrus communis or Saffron Pear tree has borne witness to the march of history since it’s planting around the time of Jan van Riebeeck. It is also the sole survivor of a circle of Saffron Pear Trees that were planted at that time.

In 2015 a cloned sapling was planted next to it to keep this legacy alive.

As we were taking photos of the tree we heard a cannon shot ring out. Every day (except Sundays and Public Holidays) at noon since 1806 a solitary 18-Pounder cannon on Signal Hill has fired. Traditionally it was to warn the colonists of approaching ships and today as a nod to the Cape’s past and are the oldest guns in daily use in the world.

Moving deeper into the gardens we passed a statue to a very very controversial character in South Africa’s story – Cecil John Rhodes. He is so veneered today that it would not surprise us that this statue would not be present on a return visit. Just past the statue was the Tuynhuys (Garden House). For two and a half centuries the highest political office in the land from the Dutch to the French,Batavian Republic and the British (twice) until finally South African leaders called it both home and office.

Notable events and visitors range from the British Royal Family staying during their 1947 visit, to 18th March 1992 when the then State President F.W de Klerk stood on the front steps and decreed that South Africa had “closed the book on Apartheid”.

Walking back down Government Avenue we stopped again at another statue and this time the figure was not a villain.

Jan Smuts is probably one of the greatest South Africans that ever lived and was a very important on the global stage. Not only was he the only person to sign both of the peace treaties ending World War 1 and World War 2 but he designed and established the League of Nations and wrote the first draft of what would become the United Nations Charter. As Prime Minister he initially advocated racial segregation but his views changed and he backed integration. This change of mind would lead to his electoral downfall and usher in the Apartheid era under the hard-liner Afrikaners. He has another statue in Parliament Square in London.

Slaves and Sacraments
A short walk away was Church Square. As we walked there we passed along the side of the Iziko Slave Lodge – South Africa’s second oldest building. Between 1679 and 1811 over 9000 men, women and children passed through it’s doors and today it has been transformed into an interactive museum to pay tribute to them and the suffering they faced. We stopped in a normal looking square, office buildings, trees, the Groote Kerk church to one side. After a few minutes we had to take in that this was originally the Slave Market. After being dragged in chains off of ships and marched through the streets, slaves would sit and wait for their masters to come out of church, passing their time under a “slave tree” beside the carriages. Although the original “slave tree” was removed in 1916, a commemorative tree has been planted in its place.

In 2008 eleven granite blocks were installed to act as a memorial to the slaves. On each block are inscribed the names of individuals who were bought and sold into slavery. A portion of the over 60,000 slaves in Cape Town’s history. Even the most fleeting glimpses of the names unearth a plethora of place names, months, random names. In the words of Muhammed Ali – names that “white people gave to my slave master.”

We were nearing the end of the walking tour, and feeling pretty deflated at some of the things we had learned along the way. Daniel seemed to feel the miasma around the group so he took us to a pretty special place.

Inspiring Finish

The Parade Ground nowadays is a mixture of market, car park and open space. To it’s north is the very impressive facade of the Cape Town City Hall. Built with limestone from Bath, this Edwardian building took over the mantle from the Old Town House in 1905.


But we were not here to admire the architecture. We were here so that could inspire us with the story of what happened one night almost 27 years before.

On February 11 1990 the doors swung open and onto the front balcony Nelson Mandela walked out into the crowd. Only hours before he was a prisoner in Victor Verster Prison but on that night he addressed a crowd of thousands as a free man, his first public speech in nearly three decades.

My friends, comrades and fellow South Africans, I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all. I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people.

It is hard to describe the scene that night without any sense of justice so we are grateful for youtube…

A great end to a great day of sightseeing around Cape Town.


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