Maria Gabriela Carrilho Aragão


I used to think that if anything ever happened to me, the first people the Police would speak to would be the minibus taxi drivers on the Claremont-Cape Town route, which I took every day as a student to go from Claremont to the University of Cape Town (UCT), in Rondebosch.

They would have been the first and last to see me.

That’s the kind of thought that comes to mind when you are a foreign young woman, on your own, commuting daily in a strange city known as “rape town”, in a world whose languages you have yet to master. I had moved from Maputo to Cape Town to study, and the year was 2001.

        Yes, I am African, but this is not the Africa I know.

I once lost my student card in one of the taxis on my way to UCT, and later got onto the same taxi to go home, by pure coincidence. The money-collector greeted me by name – he had picked up the card from the floor (fallen without my noticing), recognised the photo and returned it to me, but first made me feel uncomfortable in that I know you; don’t you know me? kind of way. Typical, I thought – and, simultaneously – At least he was nice. He (and others like him), would otherwise call me “Girlie” or the Afrikaans equivalent, “Maisie”.

In those six years of study, I only managed to get a private car at the start of my last year. Prior to that, minibus taxis were my main means of transport, as long as it was before dark.

It was a very practical and efficient way to move about: They circulated constantly and could take you virtually anywhere in the city and periphery, along well-defined routes which used certain businesses or institutions in lieu of bus-stops. “Cavendish Square!”, they would call out, for the stop near the namesake shopping mall, or “Baxter!”, near the university, for the stop in front of the Baxter Theatre. It felt safe to use them because one was surrounded by people, driving along a main road. If felt especially safe when there were big ladies among the passengers, their large build matching their laughter, their mother-like personalities, their humanity. i

The longest journey I ever took on a minibus taxi was to Mitchell’s Plain, in the Cape Flats – it required, if fact, two stop-overs and three minibus taxis either way. I was in my second year of architecture school and urgently needed a drawing board; I saw a for-sale sign for a used one and dialled the number.

Alo? I’m calling in response to the advert - for the drawing board.
Ah, yes...
I’d like to see it.
For sure – when do you want to come?
This afternoon. Is around 4pm OK?
Sure, no problem.
Where are you?
In Mitchell’s Plain, at such and such address.
OK – how do I get there? Never been.
[Pause] Where did you say you were coming from, again?
Rondebosch. I don´t have a car, so I´ll will take a taxi. That OK?
[Second Pause] It’s far. You´re sure you want to come?
Sure. I need a drawing board.
[Wearily] OK, this is what you do...

I was later told that it had been a dangerous trip for a young woman to make, not to mention a foreigner: Going out like that, free-styling my way into the Cape Flats. Gang-land, drug-land, taxi-wars land…just a few of the words used to describe the Cape Flats to me afterwards, by concerned classmates. As if the Cape Flats were a generic hell of sorts; a wind-swept, bleak environment where all social evil resides, its residents forever scarred by their families’ forced removals from the inner city at the height of apartheid under the Group Areas Act of 19501.

        Haunted, and grief-stricken.

In hindsight, I was perhaps protected by my ignorance of this particular place, an exception that sometimes applies to lucky outsiders, when not in the company of a local chaperone. The trip took place in the middle of the afternoon, around 3-4pm, and I recall that the third and last taxi that took me closer to the actual street address in Mitchell’s Plain was packed with decent looking, dignified working folk, who were returning home after a day´s work and were completely silent. Presumably, the danger would have come between my alighting from that taxi and walking towards the house where the drawing board was, which was about fifteen minutes away by foot and required a bit of further way finding.

        If there was danger, I didn’t perceive it.

I kept to myself and pretended to know exactly where I was going. Isn´t that the universal, unwritten code? Act cool when navigating unknown territory. And keep your eyes and ears open. Nothing happened, other than what had been arranged for in advance.

Into my third year, when I began to realise that 1994 hadn’t been a blank slate – how could it? – I looked back at that episode and thought, Maybe it was ok because I looked “Coloured”2 like the residents. In Mozambique, I would be considered mista – “mixed”, literally – because of my tri-continental ancestry (Indian, Chinese, African, European), although I lean towards the paler end of the spectrum, particularly during winter months, and can thus be hard to place. However, I also knew that this assumption was somewhat flawed because the game would be up as soon as I opened my mouth to reveal a Portuguese-inflected English.

You see, we had learnt about apartheid at school in Mozambique3, as well as of preceding events such as The Great Trek and the Anglo-Boer wars. Crucially, we had also learnt about Mandela´s release in 1990, and the purported end of the apartheid state apparatus with the 1994 democratic elections. Nevertheless, I don’t think that any of us, Mozambican children raised in the socialist-leaning doctrine4 of the early 1980´s, were fully acquainted with and prepared for the day-to-day reality of the lingering racism that persists in Cape Town – which is, after all, the Mother City5.

Into that third year of study, and after a gradual and steady stream of news reports, classmates’ stories, and other sources of information one digests, I began to know better. Violence against women is pervasive in this country6, and I could have not been lucky in that fifteen-minute walk to the soon-to-be-mine drawing board. Notwithstanding my “Coloured-passing” appearance, I exhibited the distinct, dissonant trait of looking people in the eye, when an equally paler-skinned South African woman would have averted the gaze and/or crossed over to the other side of the street, if a “non-White” man was walking towards her, as I would come to find out. ii This conditioning to deflect had not been my experience growing up (more on that later), and I wager that maybe – maybe – the surprise factor of my innocent, direct gaze was enough to afford me some sort of social grace, and therefore safety.

        For this was not the Africa I knew.

In my own country, I would not commute in a minibus taxi: They were, at the time, overcrowded and unlicensed. Besides, that would be my country, my city. Where, as a middle-class citizen, I would either drive in my own car or ask for a lift from a friend or family member. However, faced with necessity in Cape Town, I began to use minibus taxis to commute and, by extension, learnt how to be street-smart, in order to keep, and feel, safe: Aware of my surroundings, watching out for suspicious characters when on foot, keeping clear of empty taxis from twilight onwards.

        One learns.

Later, as the proud owner of a car, I could feel myself becoming more and more removed from the hustle and bustle of that commute, from the city at large. Cocooned, yet somehow more vulnerable – for there is safety in those crowds.

        Should I be abducted tomorrow, who will bear witness?

That thought was with me constantly, throughout that last year of study.

Being invisible – or not – was a matter of personal safety, a concern that young women in South Africa know well. The question alternates between, How can I be more visible? (so that a potential attacker is deterred), and, How can I be less conspicuous? (so that attackers won´t single me out as easy prey). Perhaps the drawing board episode illustrates the latter, but in hindsight, I can´t really tell which of the two I deployed more often, in the fourteen years I was a guest-resident of that city. What do I recall? There was Observatory.

Invisible bodies, invisible thresholds

Observatory was a neighbourhood I often visited because a few of my close friends lived there at the time, a mixed-use neighbourhood of quaint 19th century Victorian row houses, close to the University and to one of the city´s major hospitals, The Groote Schuur7. Named after the former Royal Observatory built in 1820 and still standing within its municipal borders8, Observatory was known as a bohemian and multicultural community, where artists, students, academics and street beggars coexisted. There was petty crime and house burglaries too, and the neighbourhood was divided by invisible thresholds of safety, known to locals. Between this and that street it was not safe to walk alone; below the railway line but after a certain bypass, it was safe; such-and-such streets should be avoided at all hours (although perhaps none was as ill-advised as Gympie Street in Woodstock9, 2-stops-over along the suburban railway line).

A friend whom I visited regularly as a student lived in perhaps three or four different houses in Observatory, in the space of five years or so. Each of them had a different perceived safety level. I remember that for the third or fourth house, the most direct route to the house from the minibus-taxi stop on Main Road (a major thoroughfare) was Scott Road. There had been a spate of muggings on Scott Road, mostly from drug addicts whose reactions one couldn’t predict, and so I remember calling ahead every time, to make sure someone was home before I visited. Observatory was thus not a place I wandered around aimlessly. It was a place where I needed to be and feel seen, visible to others who could come to my rescue if I called out. Inversely, I didn´t mind being relatively invisible in central Cape Town, on Long Street or Bree Street, where bustling pedestrians signalled safety in numbers.

        I could dissolve into a collective, something I had been well indoctrinated in, as a child.

The notion that a city should be fragmented by a reading of safe and unsafe zones, and that visibility and invisibility could be deployed as navigation tools, had not confronted me before moving from Maputo to Cape Town to study. This reckoning is perhaps particular to the migrant and the immigrant, to what AbdouMaliq Simone (2010) terms their peripheral status10 – in particular, as it pertains to mobility11. As a voluntary knowledge migrant with a socialist-leaning upbringing, I was peripheral to the embodied, lived-in experience of a brown body in a lingeringly “White” major South-African city. As I would come to learn, Cape Town is a city dismembered and reassembled along racial segregation lines by apartheid´s Group Areas Act, which reordered it according to an intangible map that locals learn to navigate from an early age, but newcomers like me must be made aware of. Simone brings this particular notion of the peripheral into focus:

“Race becomes increasingly politically and sociologically peripheral in terms of our understanding of contemporary urban processes. The question is: To what extent do the racial histories of different processes of urban formation around the world prepare us analytically to more effectively engage with new forms of segregation and control?” (Simone, 2010:50)

Under Simone´s lens, I can say that post-independence Maputo, my hometown, had not “prepared me analytically” for a reading of Cape Town. In Maputo, most buildings were nationalised from 1976 onwards, and the city saw an influx of once rural and peri-urban residents to the formerly “White” sectors, resulting in mixed-income, multi-racial neighbourhoods in the early 1980´s. This re-distributed, socially patchworked city was my generation´s reality, growing up.

        For I am African, but this is not the Africa I know.

In some ways, we were meant to be a sort of clean-slate generation. And so it was that despite my previous knowledge of the main events in the history of South Africa, there is something particular about the lived-in experience of a body in a politically segregated space that cannot be fully anticipated nor taught to an outsider, and is sometimes better translated by artists.
On this topic, I recall Fiona Siegenthaler´s paper (2013) regarding two separate performance-based, site-specific artworks by Athi-Patra Ruga (Beiruth, 2008, Johannesburg and Cape Town) and Anthea Moys (Nessun Dorma, 2008, Johannesburg)12. Siegenthaler reasons that these South-African artists confronted the public with performative actions that revealed “visibility and invisibility as social practices”13, whilst inserting their bodies in highly conspicuous yet unexpected ways in carefully chosen urban sites. Siegenthaler´s analysis of Nessun Dorma, in particular, caught my attention concerning mutual invisibility:

“Moys joins two extremely separate spaces: The no-go-zone of Joubert Park and the highly secured home of wealthy people in the northern suburbs who hire private security companies to protect themselves. (…) By performing this symbolic encounter, Moys reflects explicitly on the notion of visibility, social witnessing and participation. (…) While the suburban residents remain invisible to the inhabitants of the inner city and the park in particular, the park and its real dwellers also remain invisible to the suburbanites who avoid entering the assumed no-go-zone. There is a mutual invisibility through lacking intervisibility that furthers mistrust and fear.” (Siegenthaler 2013:170)

I believe that this lack of intervisibility – to borrow from Siegenthaler – is also present in Cape Town, but manifests in a different way. In Johannesburg, there was an exodus of “Whites” from inner city Johannesburg (from the late 1980´s to early 1990´s) to heavily-surveilled suburbs in the periphery, and they were replaced by African and other migrants and immigrants (Simone, 2010:237-58). In Cape Town, however, we see the reverse movement, to a large extent16. We see the active erasure of previously disadvantaged social groups from certain desirable inner-city areas through gradual gentrification of districts such as Woodstock, Salt River and Bokaap, to name a few. These historically working-class neighbourhoods of factory and dock workers, among other trades, have seen a surge of property buy-outs and rent increases over the last decade, gradually pushing-out former residents and landlords. Raymond Joseph (2014), writing for The Guardian UK, traces this phenomenon´s origins and some of its manifestations17:

“The story of Gympie Street is symptomatic of what has been happening in Woodstock since the early 1990s. Situated a convenient 3km from the central business district (CBD), this working-class suburb was ripe for rejuvenation with its solidly-built, century-old houses and relatively low rents and property prices. In recent years, the redevelopment and gentrification process has gathered apace. (…) A significant turning point for Woodstock came in 2007 when the Cape Town council designated the area as a priority urban development zone (UDZ) for urban upgrades, a mechanism designed to support the growth of the CBD eastwards. With it came significant tax breaks, encouraging wealthy local and foreign developers and investors to snap up properties ripe for redevelopment.” (Joseph, 2014)

Under these circumstances, one could say that gentrification is a process that begins by creating very visible frontlines of income disparities to then, in time, create an erasure of the have-nots, as poorer neighbours are gradually evicted by new landlords and forced to move out of these urban districts all together. Former inner-city residents become working migrants to the city (those who can find employment), only to return to the periphery at the end of a day´s work. This estrangement of “non-Whites” from inner-city neighbourhoods is, in part, a continuation of the day-to-day reality brought to bear by the Group Areas Act, although the then apartheid government used legally sanctioned forced removals to achieve its means: Relegating former inner-city residents to “Coloureds-only” or “Blacks-only” settlements in distant, purpose-built peripheries. What we see, effectively, is a re-mapping through displacement.

Two generations later, the Group Areas geographical divisions still remain on the ground, albeit no longer in legislation. Formal restitution and reparations from this historical injustice have been burdened by all sorts of problems and have been slow to materialise18. This slow progress widens the gap between the former (displaced) and current city residents, no longer neighbours and now strangers outside of the common-ground spaces of work, daily commute and, to a certain extent, places of worship. What would be the long-term effects of this de-neighbouring? Could it be as simple as, “Out of sight, out of mind”? Not quite, although forgetting did come to play a part.

Unseeing memory

Human beings are resilient, and the displaced groups´ adjustment to this estrangement from the city centre was adaptive, albeit traumatic. Perhaps more accurately, it was survival-based. In time, with new routines, heartbreak may have conceded to an exhausted resignation. The latter cannot be underestimated as an active promoter of the mutual unseeing between these formally segregated groups. In the particular context of South Africa, psychic exhaustion may well lead to actively removing painful memories from daily life as a coping mechanism, a psychological protective measure of wilful erasure. However:

        What is being unseen is not just each other, but also the past.

Remembering and forgetting are, after all, powerful ways of navigating mental territories, something that can also translate into a reordering of space. Reflecting on this duality took me back to my BArch thesis for an alternative site of memory in District Six, a Memorial to Absence (Aragão, UCT, 2006)19. This would be a new, onsite memorial proposed as complementary opposite to the longstanding District Six Museum, an intimate community museum established in 1989 to honour the memory, life and social customs of the former District, as an extension of the Hands Off District Six movement20.

The new memorial would remember the present-day absence – the wound – created by the near complete demolition (1968-1982) of this multi-cultural and multi-ethnic neighbourhood, after the area was declared as “Whites-only” in 1966 under the Group Areas Act of 1950. This resulted in the forced removal of over 60 000 people to the Cape Flats, approximately fifteen miles away from Cape Town, in new “Coloureds-only” settlements such as Mitchell’s Plain, Hanover Park, Bonteheuwel, Manenberg and Heideveld21.

District Six was one of the oldest settlement areas in Cape Town, dating back to the 18th century. It was located at the bottom of Devil’s Peak, in close proximity to the sea and the city centre. The District´s residents we mostly workers from the nearby factories in Woodstock and the docks, today part of the foreshore. It was a lively urban centre, albeit mostly poor, to which people of different races and cultures converged and lived in relative peace. The declaration of the District as a “Whites-only” area in 1966 prompted the start of the demolitions in 1968.

The severe disruption of the social fabric of the former community was felt at the level of the everyday: Long distances to commute back into the city for work, incurred costs, mothers required to work to support the family’s expenses (Schoeman 1993: 68)22. There were also a series of losses: Loss of quality of life (the proximity to nature, to the place of work and amenities such as the Woodstock beach); loss of referential systems (the sea and the mountain) that anchored private and communal places within the landscape. The greater significant loss, however, will have been that of a collective identity, of a past taken away, the defeat of the powerless against a repressive state:

“No, I don’t think that awareness, that consciousness really hit her [my mother]. I don’t think, like most of the coloured people – I must say – in District Six, I don’t think they ever thought that something like that would happen to them. There they were caught totally unprepared, and the great percentage of people just [thought]…’God’s will, Government’s will. We are powerless, we can’t fight back.’ They just succumbed.” (Lionel Davis, interviewed in 1999 – District Six Museum poster, viewed on 18.05.2006).

The redevelopment of the area began in the 1970´s (building, among them, the Cape Technikon, then a Whites-only technical university since renamed Cape Peninsula University of Technology), but progress was slow due to increasing protests. In the 1980´s, community groups such as Friends of District Six and the Hands Off District Six alliance saw evicted families and supporters come together to promote the creation of a project and/or site of memory to remember the former District Six, later materialised as the District Six Museum, established in 1989. Later still, in 1998, the District Six Beneficiary and Redevelopment Trust was established as a voluntary association to begin the process of land restitutions and claim back property rights to the area, under the Land Restitution Act 22 of 1994 (later re-enacted in 2003 and 2014).

Nevertheless, progress has been slow, and only around 13% (138/1062) of claimants requesting dwelling units have effectively been assigned housing units as of 201823, of which 108 successfully returned to District Six in June this year (2021). Because of this slow progress, the aftermath of the forced evictions and demolitions between 1968 and 1982 is still very much apparent, as large swathes of the 40ha area remain undeveloped. However, as time goes by and the original residents eventually pass away, the original experience of eviction and loss will fade and eventually disappear from public view and consciousness, replaced as it will by a new built environment.

To counter this erasure, this future amnesia, I proposed the creation of a future memory. I proposed that the current absence of built fabric in the former District Six site should be remembered by future generations as a testament to the excesses of power in that country. To this end, a memorial would be inserted into the everyday urban fabric of the newly redeveloped area, acting as an unfamiliar, haunted void, to remember precisely this absence, rather than what the District once was. It was conceptually inspired, in part, by James Young´s countermonuments24 and British sculptor Rachel Whiteread´s works such as House (1993-1994), deploying the uncanny as a powerful tool to remember absence. Here is a synopsis of the design intent:

A memorial is built so that we can never forget. The absence of District Six from Cape Town’s urban life and fabric is a collective loss which must be experienced by future generations as proof – one of many – of the excesses of apartheid.

But what is the capacity of architecture to capture the memory of loss?

The challenge here was to represent something that is intangible through a physical presence, something that captures the imagination and suggests a presence which is no longer. As urban intervention, the memorial seeks to remind and inform the visitor that a human place once existed on the slopes of the mountain and was tragically destroyed. At the same time, it is important that this memory exists within the everyday, so that it is not removed from whence it originated. The memorial would thus lend itself to daily use as a thoroughfare anchored by two ritual spaces, built prior to the area’s future re-development and later connecting to it.

Spatially, the memorial is a public walk-in sculpture that partially re-creates the experience of walking along sections of the former Richmond and Hanover streets. This is achieved through a horizontal cut into the ground that gradually digs deeper into the earth, recovering the characteristic steepness of the uphill streets of the District and gradually absorbing the visitor from the rest of the city, whose sounds fade to a complete silence. The sculpture reproduces the District’s characteristic street morphology to the original scale in an abstracted and uncanny way that speaks of its lifelessness and gives it an otherworldly character.

However, the trauma of that history of displacement is such that one of the responses I received during preparatory interviews, concerning the central location of the proposed memorial, was from former District Six resident Mr. Randall Titus, which I paraphrase here: Why would anyone want to be remembered of that wound, everyday?25

Why indeed? After all, as Small and Wissema (2004) eloquently put it, “the destruction of the District´s buildings was bound to be a matter of injuring souls”.26

“The memorial will always be a wall, it should be about the people that lived there…Memorial: Single precinct (e.g. around Horstley St) with granite vertical slabs (black as indicator of mourning) inscribed with names of former residents, where they used to live and when were they removed….Slabs not higher than average adult’s eye-level, with photographs of former streetscapes engraved [as in bas-relief?] to form a top strip. Slabs arranged in order to form a precinct in which people can move through and have ownership of a part of it (for instance, being able to locate their family names and where they lived) – [see a plan-like view at centre of sketch]; arranged according to where the streets used to be; each slab representative of a street? [Note to self: Vietnam Veterans War Memorial seems to be an inspiration: Wall, inscription of names as a collective body that suffered the same faith (thus the multiplicity of names makes it more powerful).] Slabs / walls to be north-facing – there was only one orientation in the District, which was towards north, but slabs should also be inscribed on the south side, as people also lived on the south side…Single-object monuments don’t make an impact on people, which pass by them and don’t notice them: See portion of Berlin wall by BMW Pavilion at the V&A Waterfront or the granite globe opposite Woolworths in central Cape Town which can easily be rotated by a small push of the hand despite its size due to water and a smaller sphere at the base of the globe – yet no-one interacts with it….Thus the memorial must have a spatial quality. The memorial must be concentrated on a single precinct so that people can choose to remember the past or not – a place they can go to or keep away from…Thus acting like a portion of the museum in District Six….Scattering [the area] with smaller interventions will have the effect of either not being seen [like the monument/object] or of fragmenting the history of what was District Six, in effect a single “thing” even though made of many different parts [thus a question of size in relation to visibility and choice]…Moreover, it would have the effect of having multiple cemeteries / burial grounds rather than one, and you “don’t want to go to a cemetery everyday do you?” People don’t want to remember it [the removals] everyday, it is not a pleasant memory [so it’s not a good idea to force them to remember by disrupting the day-to-day fabric/life].” (Mr. Randall Titus, 2006, Interview notes by the Author and remarks in square brackets).27

Whereas the proposed Memorial to Absence addressed the institutional imperative not to forget abuses of power with a strong symbolic gesture28, it was and is equally imperative to help individuals heal from this same trauma which, under the pressure of daily life, tends to be repressed29. Community building (facilitated by the District Six Museum and its Homecoming Centre, among other initiatives) and a safe return of the descendants of these evicted families to the former District Six site are some of the ways to support this healing process and enact further reparations.

However, where forced removals often disrupted entire groups and communities, other apartheid-era traumatic events were felt at a more intimate level, by individuals and families who lost loved ones to imprisonment, torture, assassination and other such crimes. These were addressed within the hearings of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which began in 1996. Giving a voice to the perpetrators was as important as hearing the victims, whose stories, presented to the Commission, testified to the crimes committed under the apartheid regime.

The TRC mandate was to “bear witness to, record, and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations, as well as offering reparation and rehabilitation to the victims”30 as an act of restorative justice. In hearing both sides of a crime, the TRC was, in effect, enabling this act of mutual regard, of mutual seeing. In Njabulo Ndebele’s words, the retelling of events helped to “lift the veil”31, to validate what was seen and experienced and which would otherwise sound surreal due to the inexplicable violence:

“If today they sound like imaginary events it is because, as we shall recall, the horror of day-to-day life under apartheid often outdid the efforts of the imagination to reduce it to metaphor.” (Ndebele 1998:22)

In the intervening years, despite this “lifting of the veil” at the TRC and despite South Africa having one of the most progressive Constitutions in the world since 1996, this institutional “righting of wrongs” at a frameworks level is arguably yet to translate into a better intervisibility between previously segregated groups. In these groups, individuals are still scarred by generational trauma, and therefore remember and forget, see and unsee as ways of navigating social and physical territories alike. These groups´ histories may well be entangled, but what of the territories themselves? They remain divided and, to a large extent, segregated.

I came to understand that this is what I really arrived to, all those years ago: A topography of trauma that lies sub-surface, undetected, until one learns to read the signs, to notice the erasure and the absence. Later, it would be another city fractured by history, Berlin, that would teach me about signs, as I looked for the appropriate lexicon for a memorial to absence.

In Berlin, the duty towards collective memory through actual interventions – from the smallest and near invisible gesture, to the grandest – delivers a masterclass in how a city can bear witness to history by creating sites of memory. Nothing is left to chance, and unseeing history is actively countered today. A good example of this are the memorial interventions concerning the Berlin Wall, a truly exemplary project of tracing what was once both a structure and a symbol of ideological divide. This meets historian Pierre Nora´s thesis that it is not enough to have places of history, for them to become places of memory: What is required, is a will to remember32. Nora considers that sites of memory have three aspects which always coexist: the material, the symbolic and the functional. He further elaborates:

Lieux de mémoire [sites of memory] are created by a play of memory and history, an interaction of two factors that results in their reciprocal overdetermination. To begin with, there must be a will to remember. If we were to abandon this criterion, we would quickly drift into admitting virtually everything as worthy of remembrance. (…)
On the other hand, it is clear that without the intervention of history, time, and change, we would content ourselves with simply a schematic outline of the objects of memory. The lieux we speak of, then, are mixed, hybrid, mutant, bound intimately with life and death, with time and eternity (…). For if we accept that the most fundamental purpose of the lieu de mémoire is to stop time, to block the work of forgetting, to establish a state of things, to immortalise death, to materialise the immaterial (…), all of this in order to capture a maximum of meaning in the fewest of signs, it is also clear that lieux de mémoire only exists because of their capacity for metamorphosis, and endless recycling of their meaning and an unpredictable proliferation of their ramifications.” (Nora 1989:19)

In contrast to Berlin, Cape Town, with its stunning natural beauty and focus on natural tourism economies, has mostly mastered the opposite: Seemingly neglecting to prevent this unseeing of history, opting for a less nuanced, more innocuous promotion of the winelands, for example, or national parks such as Table Mountain. Memorialisation outside of museums, archives, and art galleries, manifests here primarily in social and cultural practices33. Active creation of sites of memory, aside from sites such as Robben Island, is mostly enacted by community-led initiatives such as the District Six Museum and its satellite sites and projects (The District Six Public Sculpture Project, the Fugard Theatre, the Homecoming Centre). Other than these, sites of memory in the city are few and far between, and not necessarily mapped in a coherent way that is visible to an outsider or visitor. These are not necessarily hidden, but neither are they actively promoted.

What remains, if not memories?

Whereas collective memory relies on institutional and community involvement to prevent it from fading away, our individual memories are persistent, even as we try to discard them. For bodies are also territories who, in the end and just like our minds, are ones imprinted by events, bearing witness to things both seen and unseen. Things that, once lived through, cannot really be forgotten – only temporarily excised from consciousness.

Themes: Premonitions of Bodies, Wounds of Ruptures

Methods: Counter-Cartography, Intimate


[1] First promulgated as Group Areas Act in 1950 (Act 41 of 1950), it had subsequent revisions and two re-enactments, in 1957 and 1966.

[2] Coloured, White, Black: I use these terms uncomfortably and for context only, since they were used to articulate South African legislation relative to land ordinance and social relations, among others.

[3] Mozambique gained independence from Portugal in 1975 after a decade-long liberation war. Post-independence Mozambique had a comprehensive middle-school History syllabus. It covered African history across centuries, beginning with the hominids, then kingdoms and empires such as the Songhay, the Great Zimbabwe and pharaonic Egypt, all the way through to the slave trade, colonialism, and the various liberation wars. It also covered major historical events and movements from around the world, which directly or indirectly impacted Mozambique´s colonial past and independence. (Author´s lived experience)

[4] Childhood in Maputo, during the 1980´s, was marked by indoctrination into socialist-leaning principles via the public school system. There was an emphasis on the collective, the national effort to rebuild a country based on a unifying common identity, women´s emancipation and social and economic justice. (Author´s lived experience)

[5] Cape Town, colloquially known as the “Mother City” among other monikers, was the first site of European settlement in the Cape in the 17th century, as a refuelling mid-way station between Europe and the East, for ships trading along the Spice Route. For alternative meanings such as “it takes 9 months to get anything done” and others, see https://www.thesouthafrican.com/travel/why-is-cape-town-called-the-mother-city/. Accessed 17 August 2021, 18h24.

[6] In 2012, Interpol named South Africa the world´s rape capital, and it is estimated that an assault occurs every 25 seconds – see more resources on the TEARS Foundation website: TEARS Foundation is a Leading anti-sexual violence organization. Accessed on 19 August 2021, 18h04.

[7] Originally settled as a colony of wheat farmers in 1657, the area was gradually transformed by the discovery of gold and diamonds to the north and the farms later subdivided and rezoned as residential. See  https://web.archive.org/web/20080623010728/http://obz.org.za/content/oca/history-observatory. Accessed 17 August 2021, 15h37

[8] In present day, the building complex of the former Royal Observatory houses the headquarters of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) and is a National Heritage Site since 2018. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Observatory,_Cape_Town. Accessed 17 August 2021, 15h23

[9] See this candid 2012 account of Gympie Street by music band Fruit Vendor, “How I Survived the Demon Monster of Gympie Street”: How I Survived the Demon Monster of Gympie Street (thefruitvendor.com). Accessed 17 August 2021, 16h26

[10] Simone, A. (2010). City Life from Jakarta to Dakar, New York and Oxton: Routledge, p.28.

[11] Idem, p.45.

[12] Siegenthaler, F. (2013). Visualizing the Mental City: The Exploration of Cultural and Subjective Topographies by Contemporary Performance Artists in Johannesburg. Research in African Literatures, 44(2), 163-176.

[13] Idem, p. 166

[14]  For the Artist´s Statement on Nessun Dorma (None Shall Sleep Tonight), 2008, see the artist´s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRNF8TvjhSg. For a longer description, visit the artist´s website: https://www.antheamoys.com/nessun-dorma. Both accessed on 17 August 2021, 17h13 to 17h32.

[15] Nessun Dorma (None Shall Sleep Tonight), 2008: Image from the artist´s website, sourced from the Pinterest account of Roxette Malala, accessed 19 August 2021, 15h27. See note 14 above for more artist resources.

[16] Field et al. (2007) consider that desegregation and racial integration of former predominantly white neighbourhoods such as Muizenberg and Mowbray are taking place in post-apartheid Cape Town, due to the presence of migrant communities [from African countries], such as in Sea Point. Notwithstanding, for the purposes of this essay, I consider that these suburbs are relatively far from the CBD (with the exception of Sea Point), and so elected to focus on the gentrification of the neighbourhoods nearer the CBD as a more significant phenomenon that is re-shaping communities and facilitates lack of intervisibility, in the context of the aftermath of forced removals.

[17] Joseph, R. (2014). The gentrification of Woodstock: from rundown suburb to hipster heaven.  https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/aug/12/gentrification-woodstock-cape-town-suburb-hipster-heaven. Accessed 07 September 2021, 19h28.

[18] The Truth and Reconciliation Commission - TRC (2003). Chapter 1 - Introduction. Report of the Rehabilitation and Reparation Committee, Vol. 6, Section 2, pp.92-180.

[19] A spotlight on this thesis was later published as “District Six Memorial” in Joubert, O. (2018). 10+ Years x 100 Projects: Architecture in a Democratic South Africa, Cape Town: Bell-Roberts, pp.320-323. The thesis was a regional finalist (Western Cape) for the Corobrik Student of the Year Awards 2006.

[20] For more information on the District Six Museum, visit their website: https://www.districtsix.co.za/about-the-district-six-museum/. Accessed 19 August 2021, 16h32.

[21] For a more detailed overview of District Six and Cape Town as a segregated city, see these articles on the South African History Online website, both accessed 13 September 2021, 12h00-13h00: District Six is Declared a ‘White Area’, https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/district-six-declared-white-area#footnote-7-ref Cape Town the Segregated city, https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/cape-town-segregated-city

[22] Schoeman, C. (1993) District Six: The Spirit of Kanala, Cape Town: Human and Rosseau.

[23] For a 2018 status report on this redevelopment, see Commission on Restitution of Land Rights (2018). MEMORANDUM - Report to the Standing Committee on Human Settlements (Western Cape Provincial Parliament), on the Current Status of the District Six Redevelopment Project in the Western Cape, https://justice.gov.za/lcc/jdgm/2019/2019-lcc-54-2018.pdf. Accessed on 13 September 2021, 18h29.

For the June 2021 return of 108 claimants to District Six, see this SABS News piece by Mariska Botha, “108 Claimants to return to District Six after 55 years”,  https://www.sabcnews.com/sabcnews/108-claimants-to-return-to-district-six-after-55-years/. Accessed 13 September 2021, 19h06.

[24] Young, James E. (2000). At Memory’s Edge – After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

[25] Notes from the individual interview with Mr. Randall Titus (District Six Museum), 31/06/2006, 13h30 -15h00, at the District Six Museum. Mr. Randall Titus was born in District Six and relocated with his family to Hanover Park in 1972, where he still lived at the time of the interview. He is one of the initiators of the District Six Museum (albeit not a Trustee), and helped to compile the material for the Museum´s permanent exhibition.

[26] Small, A., Wissema, J. (2004). District Six, Cape Town: Fontein Books, p.5.

[27] See note 25 above.
[28] “Symbolic reparation encompasses measures that facilitate the communal process of remembering and commemorating the pain and victories of the past. Such measures aim to restore the dignity of victims and survivors.” – in TRC. (2003). Chapter 1 - Introduction. Report of the Rehabilitation and Reparation Committee, Vol. 6, Section 2, p.95.

For a further examination of the role of memorialisation as a form of symbolic reparations, see this report: Naidu, E. (2004). Symbolic Reparations: A fractured opportunity. Johannesburg and Cape Town: Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR). Available on the CSVR website: https://www.csvr.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2004/12/symbolicreparations.pdf. Accessed 7 September 2021, 20h24

[29] Concerning the repression of memories, see Freud, S. (2005). Forgetting Things, London: Penguin Books. Published as an extract of the author´s The Psychology of Everyday Life (1901).

[30] For an overview of the TRC´s mandate and activities, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truth_and_Reconciliation_Commission_(South_Africa). Accessed 07 September 2021, 21h44.

[31] Ndebele, N. (1998). Memory, metaphor, and the triumph of narrative. In Nuttal, S., Coetzee, C. (2002). Negotiating the Past – The making of memory in South Africa, Cape Town: Oxford University Press, pp. 19-28.

[32] Nora, P. (1989). Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire. Representations, 26, 7–24. https://doi.org/10.2307/2928520. Accessed on 14 September 2021, 15h55.

[33] Field, S. (Ed) et al. (2007). Imagining the City – Memories and Cultures in Cape Town. Cape Town: HSRC Press, pp.3-17.

Image Credits:

Image from Anthea Moys website, sourced from the Pinterest account of Roxette Malala, accessed 19 August 2021, 15h27.

le Grange, Architects and Urban Planners, District Six Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA), May 2003, Cape Town.

Newspaper clipping from the District Six Gallery, South African History Online website, accessed 13 September 2021, 12h29.

Hand sketch by Mr. Randal Titus, made during the interview at the District Six Museum, (31/06/2006, 13h30 -15h00). Notes about him and his background are by my hand.

All other images and drawings by the Author.

[i] For a piece on what it means for women to navigate city spaces, see: SPATIAL STORYTELLING: CONDUIT AND VESSEL by Khensani de Klerk

[ii] For more on the body and space, see: ARCHITECTURES OF THE (UN)INHABITABLE by Ola Hassanain & Egbert Alejandro Martina

Maria Gabriela Carrilho Aragão was born, lives and works in Maputo. She holds a degree in Architecture from the University of Cape Town, where she was also a Tutor and External Examiner. She is a practicing architect since 2007 and an occasional writer, visual artist and independent curator, using her skills to help others translate their own creative visions.

She was part of the group exhibition CIA Architects as Artists (Cape Institute for Architecture, 2009) and collaborates with several creatives, with published illustrations, original texts and translations, namely Travessia: Impressões de Viagem / Travel Notes (original essay, for The Goethe Institut-Johannesburg, The Archive of Forgetfulness, 2021), Maqueleva: Memento Vivere (curatorship, for Fundação Fernando Leite Couto, 2020), Ibraimo Samate: Liminar (curatorship, for Galeria Xirico, 2018), Bits of Maputo - Entre Acácias (original essays, for Ricardo Pinto Jorge, 2017), How the Attacks Were Planned (original illustration, for Chimurenga Magazine 16: The Chronic, 2011), among others.

In her artistic production, she uses diverse materials, with a preference for collage and drawing with ink on paper, as in her recent illustration series, Tribute to Calvino: The Invisible Cities (2015 - present).

︎ @gabitaaragao
︎ www.mgcaragao.com