Friday, January 8, 2010

The Slave Lodge

I was taken on a tour, this morning, by Patrick Mellet, the man who put together the storyline for the Slave Lodge in Cape Town. I was struck by several things. Firstly, the way in which the story of the slaves in the Cape is still a far from dominant theme in the City, the Province and the country - despite the fact that in this Province, the majority of the people who live here, either directly benefitted from what slaves did in the past, or are directly descended from slaves.

It is an extraordinary thing, the way in which this history, which should be all-pervasive, is in fact, a whisper. It is as though the suffering and the inhumanity perpetrated against the slaves is made to continue by the dominant historical voice. Which of us does not know about the Second World War? Which of us has never heard of Jan van Riebeeck and the Dutch East India Company? On the other hand, which of us knew that Simon van der Stel would, probably, today be termed "Coloured" (in the terminology of the apartheid state?) And which of us knows where the slaves who built the Cape Colony, with not much more than their bare hands, came from originally?

The Slave Lodge is an impressive building, having served once as the High Court and even the Parliament. But it is unfinished as a fitting monument to our slave ancestors. The exhibition space is fair enough, but as it is at present there is no clear cohesion and the visitor is left puzzeled as to the logic of the thing. Had Patrick Mellet not been with us, I would not have understood the logic of the thing (as indeed I did not on the time I visited the Lodge before). Nor would I have understood that the exhibition as a whole is incomplete!

Upstairs, there is a very strange cultural history collection, with bits of Egypt, toys, and old pianos and clocks thrown in to the mix. Downstairs, some of the exhibits work, and one room in particular is a complete failure. For it to remain like this is, to my mind, hugely disrespectful to both the tourist and our slave ancestors, whom it seeks to represent.

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