Commemorating Slavery

Commemorating Slavery in South Africa: The Memorial to the Enslaved

by Anne Eichmann

Just as in so many other countries, the history and the memory of slavery have long been submerged in South Africa. The silence – or forced forgetfulness – persisted well into post-Apartheid South Africa, and as a result there are still only a few public reminders and acknowledgements of the country’s slave past in present-day South Africa. The “Memorial to the Enslaved” on Church Square is a recent initiative (2008) in Cape Town to counter the public amnesia.


On Heritage Day (24th Sept) in 2008, Cape Town mayor Helen Zille unveiled a memorial on Church Square, which had been commissioned by the City of Cape Town to finally acknowledge “the contribution made by slaves to the culture and heritage of our city” and to remember their suffering.

The memorial comprises 11 polished black granite blocks of varying height (30-80 centimetres). Two of the blocks are placed on a raised plinth on the south west corner of the square. They are engraved with names of several hundreds slaves who were brought to the Cape from 1658. The remaining nine blocks are grouped together in a tight grid, close to the old slave lodge (the place where the company’s slaves were kept and today a museum housing South Africa’s first permanent exhibition of slavery) and to the slave tree plaque across the street, where slaves were presumably sold.

Each of the remaining nine blocks has been designed to capture a different aspect of the slave experience – Resistance and Rebellion, Emancipation and Freedom, Slave Contributions to the Development of the Cape, The Influence of Culture on Language, Religion, the Suffering on Slave Ships during the Middle Passage, Punishment, Slave Life and the Slave Lodge. Instead of names these nine blocks feature words from the slave period that have become part of the contemporary South African lexicon, such as sjambok (a leather whip), droster (a run-away slave), baaren (a ‘new’ slave), heelslag (a slave that does not have a European ancestor, i.e. ‘full blood’) and mandoor (overseer). The words run up the sides of the blocks, across the top and down the other side. They are engraved in concentric circles with the slave tree plaque across the street at the centre, thus drawing attention to the historical significance of the site and to the slaves’ suffering when they were auctioned under the slave tree.

How to remember?

Johannesburg-based artist Wilma Cruise and Gavin Younge from the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town had been chosen out of 13 nationwide submissions to design and manufacture the

Thinking through an appropriate design and developing an ethical and aesthetic approach to represent slavery, the artists had repeatedly been thrown back upon the questions “What do you do in the face of the abomination that was slavery? How does one ever recreate that?” Rather than figurative means, it was an abstract visual language informed by the notions of silence and contemplation that was the most appropriate – if not the only possible – answer to these questions and way of memorialising South African slavery, Cruise felt: “One resorts in a sense to silence because we are silenced by it [slavery] … We are left without words.” Just as the holocaust, slavery is an event in world history that “is beyond comprehension and expression; [it] remains inimical to descriptions in normal language.”

The solemn arrangement of the granite blocks and their opaque and reflective surfaces are meant to evoke this silence and the impossibility to fully comprehend and recover the slave past. The engraved words are often truncated as they run across the blocks, indicating the gaps and silences that have permeated recollections of slavery – and which will continue to characterise such attempts. The memorial’s evocation of silence and the absence of a visual master narrative are also meant to provoke contemplation and reflection – “to encourage viewers to recover for themselves aspects of our slave
history” as they are “standing and looking at the memorial, […] as they move through and come across [the reflective stones].” The artists envisioned the polished surface of the stones – capturing glimpses of the surroundings, the sky and the viewer – to underpin the memorial’s qualities as a place of contemplation, engagement and personal reflection. So, in a sense, the artists did not want the memorial to be a place of closure, revealing a final and authoritative account of what slavery was and what it meant, but an intervention to “bring people’s attention to slavery” – a place from where a multivocal engagement with this period may unfold.

Following the City Council’s intention to acknowledge the slaves’ contribution to the making of Cape Town and the nation, the artists proposed another layer of meaning – beyond the notions of silence and suffering inherent in the memorial. Many of the words are in Afrikaans – a language that evolved in the daily interaction between slaves and their masters and that has been bequeathed to contemporary South African language. The words serve as a symbolic proxy for the manifold ways in which the enslaved have shaped and contributed to present-day South African society and identities. The words celebrate lasting cultural legacies, achievements and creativity and acknowledge how the enslaved “over the generations influenced our local and national culture and who we are as Capetonians and South Africans.” In a similar vein, the list of names engraved on the two elevated stones, stand in for the many who endured enslavement but they also serve as a reminder of Cape Town’s diverse origins and a celebration of its creolised heritage, “of which we should be enormously proud.”

The Life of the Memorial: Space, Reception and Criticism

This envisioned juxtaposition of abomination, suffering and silences with a celebration of cultural achievements and lasting legacies has remained obscure to some observers. They criticised the death-centric nature of the memorial claiming that “with its reference to grave stones and heroic plinths, the new memorial […] seems to have turned the square into a funeral public space.” Others called the stones “black coffins – dead on arrival” that seemed to imply that slaves arrived with the settlers as “things” who (or which) could hardly make an impact, thus denying the many years of slave creativity, culture and achievements as the other side of the coin. On an even more fundamental level, public commentators referred to the obscure nature of the memorial: “[The] imagery is at best cryptic to the average observer and at worst obscures the entire narrative of slavery at the Cape.” Without an informed knowledge of slavery at the Cape, a tour guide or a previous “classroom” discussion, the meaning and conceptual message of the memorial will be lost on most observers or passers-by, commentators have claimed.16 The two artists share this criticism in fact and have repeatedly called on Cape Town City Council to meet their promise of installing an information board, as this had been part of the initial and commissioned design.17 Moreover, the monument was ultimately pushed into a corner of the square instead of being spread out prominently across the whole space, as suggested by the artists. As a result, the memorial has an air of insignificance and may be easily overlooked – or just conveniently used as sitting facilities. What adds to its marginality as well as to possible tensions, is the prominent statue of Jan Hofmeyr on the square, which survives from the colonial period. Given its dimensions, the central position and the grand gesture of such a heroic monument vis a vis the modest, vertical and minimalistic memorial to the enslaved, one cannot help thinking of a colonial master towering over and commanding his colonial subjects, who look up to him. “That particular metaphor does not go down very well with the citizens of Cape Town,” as Mogamat Kamedien, slave heritage activist, has it. The situation derives some additional irony from popular associations of Hofmeyr with Afrikaner nationalism and the battle over the volkstaal (people’s language”) Afrikaans as a symbol of “true (white) Afrikanerdom” – which the memorial attempts to reclaim as the symbolic cultural achievement and legacy of the enslaved.

Who Speaks for Whom?

The most heated debate around the memorial, however, evolved around the question of whose voice is being heard and who has got the right to speak. A number of those interested in the heritage of slavery and involved in its local dissemination, were enraged by the lack of communication, transparency and consultation. Accordingly they claimed that “today’s city government … still seems caught up in the old Apartheid era paradigm of doing business. Essentially we have too many in high positions that have the attitude of ‘we know what’s good for you’.” The community which felt it was their heritage that was being represented and those who had been involved with community education around slavery felt left out and little of what they might have had to say fed into the design of the memorial. The debate sometimes took on a racial edge as well – some of those attending public consultation meetings questioned the right of the “white” artists to speak on behalf the “coloured” community of slave descendents.

What ‘life’ the memorial might ‘live’ – how it will come to be read, made sense of and appropriated, whether Capetonians will eventually claim ownership or not – remains to be seen. It may of course well be that the memorial turns out to be a gesture to commemorate slavery once to enable historical closure, forget and move on …