When I first moved to Cape Town in 1999, I encountered Church Square as a rundown parking lot. Thankfully, the City of Cape Town was already in the process of recognising the importance of placemaking in public spaces, and acknowledging the heritage value of the square’s troubled history. In 2005, the Cape Town Partnership officially began discussions with various City departments on ways to regenerate and reclaim the space.
With the intent to create a multi-functional greenspace for public gathering and socialising, preparations for physical improvements began. The Partnership played a role in communicating with local stakeholders. Forums and individual meetings were arranged, and Old Mutual came on board as a key private-sector sponsor.
On 24 September 2008 – Heritage Day – Cape Town’s then-Executive Mayor, Helen Zille, unveiled a memorial on Church Square, commissioned by the City to honour the contribution made by slaves to the culture of our city, and to remember their suffering. The memorial comprises 11 polished black granite blocks, engraved with names of several hundred slaves who were brought to the Cape from 1658 onwards. Looking at these pieces by Gavin Younge and Wilma Cruise, I am at once reminded that this square was said to have originally served as the graveyard of the church that gave it its name.
I don’t know what the future holds for Church Square. What I do know is that future iterations and enhancements will come about through collaboration. I suggest that as in the past, these changes will be the fruits of public-private partnerships, made in consultation with the people who use the square daily: the Congolese nationals who meet there to share news of home; locals who trace their roots back to the very slaves sold there; those whose ancestors toiled in the silk factory that gave neighbouring Spin Street its name; the residents and workers nearby; and of course, the officials and congregation of the Groote Kerk – the oldest church and congregation in the country.
When I think of my hopes for this space in our city, I think about Abdullah Ibrahim’s transcendent performance on Church Square in January this year. While Abdullah’s agents only allowed us to let the cat out of the bag the day before, I was humbled by the nearly three hundred Capetonians and visitors who gathered there early to hear him play. For 45 minutes, office workers, pedestrians, car guards, tourists and music lovers were united in an almost silent appreciation of the maestro’s talent. For me, the true diversity was in the range of ages represented on the square that day – from babies in prams and toddlers, to the octogenarians who shared with strangers their memories of the first time they saw him play.
This, then, is my true vision for the square: as a meeting place, a connecting place; where the city’s tangled history and its unknown future can exist side by side, in accord and appreciation.
This article first appeared in the December 2016 edition of Molo. Download a PDF version or scroll through the digital flipbook below.