Molo articles

History  & memory Public places

Telling Absences

Illustration by Quasiem Gamiet

If cities are the sum not only of everything they accumulate in their development, but also of everything that they have lost – whether intentionally abandoned or accidentally misplaced – can we describe a public space not only by what is there, but also by what is not?

Softness, greenness

If we travel back further, we can ask what the land looked like before any human settlement took place. According to Dr Pippin Anderson, an ecologist at the Department of Environmental and Geographical Science at UCT, Church Square would once have been an expanse of greenish-grey, shrubby veld – except in spring, when it would have been covered in flowers.

“These days, the square is lacking in greenery,” comments Anderson. “Ideally, indigenous greenery; and also some soil, to soak up the rain. From an ecological point of view, Church Square is so hard. It offers no place for anything to take root, to sink into soil, to nest, to hide, to burrow.”

Zimkita Booi, an artist and activist, agrees: “From my experience of the space, it is not very welcoming. I used the space to screen 5 Broken Cameras last year, and it made me realise that it’s not really a space for people to come together. The paving is not friendly, to lay a blanket, sit and have a discussion.”

A haunted city

In one of the essays written for the book Movement Cape Town, local archaeologist Nick Shepherd describes Cape Town as “a city haunted by the legacies of the past, and by the spectres of unfinished business. More than that, I have come to understand Cape Town as a city characterised by strangely disjunctive temporalities, poised between catastrophic pasts and glibly imagined futures.”

If that is true of Cape Town generally, then Church Square must be particularly well populated by the spectres of disavowed history. Church Square is South Africa’s second-oldest public square, and the site of a slave market; but up until 10 years ago, it was used as a car park. Today, the location of the slave tree – under which human lives were bought and sold – is still, absurdly, a traffic island.

All the other names

The current official name of this space is Church Square; but there have been many other names for this site, over the years. Once, the land may have had a particular name for the Khoisan who lived within sight of Hoerikwagga (Table Mountain) – like the name //Hui !Gaeb, a Khoikhoi name for the land where the city as a whole stands now.

The first time the land was officially registered on a map was in 1791, when it was referred to as the Kerkplijn. These days the square also has other names, depending on who you ask. Tanzanians refer to this space in the city as the Masabo Picnic Centre, since it looks a little like a place of that name in Tanzania. The Cape Town Congolese community, on the other hand, renamed this space Armand Tungulu Square, for the young Congolese man who died in military custody in Kinshasha after throwing a stone at President Kabila’s car in 2010.


Dean Muruven, Programme Manager for Water Source Areas at the WWF says that water may once have flowed over what is now the cobbles of Church Square, “When the Dutch first chose Cape Town as a site for settlement it was less about its strategic location and more about the fresh water to be found on the slopes of what is now Table Mountain. This fresh water fed the gardens that supplied passing ships with fresh vegetables but it also made it possible for Cape Town to grow as a city,” he says. Muruven confirms that once this water would have been visible in the well at the Slave Lodge and in the many canals that used to run along the streets of the growing town. These days, this water is harder to see, but it is still there, underground.

“Cape Town has a sophisticated infrastructure when it comes to water catchment but when it comes to water security, we’re going to have to find more ways of getting water to our city. We all each have a role to play in conserving water and in the heart of the city. This should also take the form of building or retrofitting properties with better water conservation measures.”

Lumps of steel

There are some absences we should be grateful for. Up until 11 years ago, the open area of the square was used as a car park. Urban designer Bobby Gould-Pratt was one of the people involved in transforming the space from a parking lot to a public space. “The absence of the ‘missing’ cars has opened up the potential to think about other, more temporal or qualitative aspects of city living. It is now a space for people to gather and interact – not for lumps of steel to take up precious space.” she says.

Still, Gould-Pratt believes that the square lacks sufficiently consistent activation on a daily basis. “The square was designed as a blank canvas for the various communities of Cape Town to insert their own narrative, which could be about both the past and the present – and the future. When events like this year’s spontaneous concert by Abdullah Ibrahim are hosted on Church Square, I think, there is potential for the space to support day-to-day interaction – as well as adding a little magic.”

This article was written by Ambre Nicolson and first appeared in the December 2016 edition of Molo: In the centre of the city. Download a PDF version or scroll through the digital flipbook below. 

Illustration by Quasiem Gamiet




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