Posted on July 27, 2010

Photograph: Jo-Anne Duggan

Photograph: Jo-Anne Duggan

Prestwich Place in Green Point in Cape Town has long been a subject of class and racial conflict in the Western Cape. During the early colonial period the area was used as a burial ground that included Dutch Reformed Church burials and a large number of unmarked graves of the free slaves, blacks, washer women etc. In the 1820s the area was sub-divided and sold, it then became part of the developed urban core of the Cape. In the 1960s, blacks and coloureds were forcibly removed from the area to the Cape Flats. In 2003, construction activities in the area uncovered human bones and as required by the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) Act, construction was halted and Archaeologists from the University of Cape Town (UCT) were contracted to investigate. Exhumations of the human remains began, even though the public consultation process that is required by the SAHRA Act had not yet been finalised. This led to a new form of conflict that was amongst academics, civil society groups, developers and government officials.

The Special Focus Reference Group (SFRG) which largely comprised of UCT archaeologists submitted a proposal that envisaged the relocation of the human remains and to place them in individual caskets, in a mausoleum. This would be part of the process of memorialisation, while allowing respectful scientific study to take place so as to determine the true identities of the remains. There was a lot of opposition towards this proposal as some members of the community felt that scientists were more concerned with their research, while others felt that the proposal lacked political consciousness. The developer on the other hand highlighted the risk of litigation should the process be delayed as the planned luxury apartments were pre-sold for millions of rands. SAHRA eventually announced that archaeological work would resume at Prestwich Place as most of the objections to the relocation of the human remains were highly emotional rather than truthful and did not give real reasons why the remains should not be relocated.

The Prestwich Place Project Committee (PPPC) who lobbied to preserve the site as an open space for memory launched an appeal to this decision directly with the then Minister of Arts and Culture. The appeal was dismissed and in April 2004, the remains were ceremonially relocated to the mortuary at the Woodstock Day Hospital. Presentations to SAHRA and the PPPC were also made by graduate students from UCT to conduct basic anatomical research on the human remains, however, this was also turned down. In the meantime, development continued in the area, with the construction of The Rockwell, a luxurious dwelling that is said to be inspired by the early 1900 buildings of Manhattan, New York! The City of Cape Town approved the construction of an ossuary on a nearby site where the human remains will be placed, the Prestwich Memorial and Visitors Centre would serve as a place of memory. The truth is that this was yet another victory for development, especially during a time when the City of Cape Town was more concerned about beautifying the city in preparation for the 2010 FIFA World Cup tournament in nearby Cape Town Stadium. The Heritage sector was also satisfied that for the first time in South Africa, memorilisation in the form of an ossuary was achieved in the case of the Prestwich Place human remains.

According to the brochure at the Prestwich Memorial, the centre is designed as a multi-purpose public facility that should become part of the lives of the local community. This place is envisaged to encourage individuals to interpret and express the voices of past communities to present and future communities. A coffee shop that was proposed as part of the sustainability strategy for the memorial is up and running, under the management of Truth, one of the most exclusive coffee brands. Visitors may enter the ossuary to pay their respects to the human remains that are still packed in boxes, similar to the ones that are used to store skeletal collections within research institutions. Over 2,500 boxes are placed in rows of shelves, they are all numbered and notes are made on some in terms of the positions and conditions in which they were found during excavation. Visitors are not allowed to point with their index finger at the remains as it is said to be culturally inappropriate. Dry roses are lined up along one of the isles, presumably from previous visitors who had come to pay their respects.

The patrons from Truth are trendy coffee lovers who seem more interested in the brand than the actual memorial. Ordinary South Africans drive or walk past the memorial without understanding what the true meaning of this conspicuous structure is. Those who do understand the meaning tend to not know that human remains are housed within the structure. Truth, the coffee shop has obviously invested a lot in their branding, which coincidentally is more visible such that one would easily assume that the coffee shop is the only reason why the structure was built. Very little information on the purpose of the memorial is incorporated into the branding and other coffee shop paraphernalia. On searching the internet, Truth appears on some coffee-lovers websites, however, there is hardly any mention of the human remains that are sharing the same space. One wonders if this omission is intentional as a result osome kind of discomfort or perhaps the lack of understanding of the importance of the memorial by the management of the shop. It may also be considered to be inappropriate to incorporate commentary about the human remains into the Truth brand, the presence of coffee shop itself, within this space has already been questioned in some quarters.

The City of Cape Town did not want to have the ossuary, memorial garden and visitors’ centre to be just another museum, but rather a heritage and environmental education centre. The public is to have the opportunity to interact with the centre and influence how it is run and contribute to the information that is added to the exhibition areas in the future. The public square was created to host cultural events, acknowledging local heritage. This is where the true story of District 1 will be told – dating back to pre-colonial times, through slavery, forced removals, post-apartheid developments up until the present day. The memorial is to remind us of the people that have helped contribute to make the City of Cape Town what it is today. On visiting the memorial, an exhibition on the construction process of the Cape Town Stadium was to be launched, however, not many people were in or around the centre, except for a few Truth patrons. A curator who has been seconded by the City of Cape Town on a temporary basis was present and he gave a passionate account of the memorial and the human remains. He was confident that the 2010 World Cup event was going to bring more visitors to the centre as it is along the fan walk that serves as a gateway to the stadium in Green Point.

Research was not allowed on the Prestwich Place human remains and as a result we cannot truthfully say who the individuals being remembered are or even who their descendents are most likely to be. Is this omission on purpose so as to avoid yet another discomfort that may take the form of land reform and restitution issues of the Western Cape? Is it perhaps the lack of an enabling legal framework that may see all benefiting in cases where the presence human remains poses a challenge to the development process? While researchers, heritage practitioners, government officials, civil society debated their differences regarding the handling of the human remains of Prestwich Place, the development process continued successfully. A document on the Repatriation of Heritage Resources currently being developed by the National Heritage Council (NHC), this may provide such a legal framework in the form of a policy or even a regulation. The document proposes a set of ethical and professional standards that are drawn from the Medical Research Council (MRC) ethical guidelines for research on human beings, thus “personifyingâ€Â the remains. Special holding spaces where research may also take place are proposed and these are to be managed jointly by communities or representatives of the descendents.

The truth about the land that The Rockwell is built on is yet to be told by the descendents of those washer women, slaves and blacks that were buried on Prestwich Place. Academic research on the other hand may add value to such truths by determining race, gender, age etc. Heritage practitioners in government and civil society may need to look at more meaningful ways to interpret, conserve and sustain this very important chapter of our history. The owners of the properties in The Rockwell may also need to come out of their Manhattan-like comfort zones, smell the coffee (pun intended!) about the true meaning of their investment and embrace it with all its representations. The property owners can demonstrate active citizenship in the form of contributing to the memorialisation process. This week the Sunday Argus reported that construction workers discovered human remains on Sumerset Road, near Prestwich Street in Green Point, the remains will also be interred into the ossuary at Prestwich Place memorial.

Xolelwa Kashe-Katiya is Deputy Director of the Archival Platform.