Culture and Transformation in Cape Town

Bernie Searle:  Not Quite White.   Billboard on the Nelson Mandela Boulevard. for the BLAC public art project:  Returning the Gaze.   Photo by Nick Aldridge.

Bernie Searle: Not Quite White.  Billboard on the Nelson Mandela Boulevard. for the BLAC public art project: Returning the Gaze.  Photo by Nick Aldridge.

Todays blog, the first for the new year, sets the scene for a set of articles exploring how culture can be mobilised for urban and social transformation in Cape Town.  It is part of a series entitled Stories of Cape Town, and references a number of projects I've had a personal involvement in. I hope you can indulge me in this piece as I share my own narrative, this will hopefully give you a broader context when reading the articles that follow.

Cape Town is a beautiful city, without a doubt.  Table Mountain surrounded by oceans, nestling a public friendly city centre, winelands and dramatic views makes for picture perfect images.  It's a dramatic and mysterious city, with much happening under the surface.  The South Easter wind, or the "Cape Doctor" as its popularly called, which blows largely in summer, lifts the carpet covering the flaws in some way.  The extreme wind has the potential to unsettle you, turning you inside out.  It’s a feeling not unlike the one a person with consciousness gets when reflecting on the extreme divisions and inequity between the small wealthy class and the majority of others in the city, a division starkly along racial lines.  Cape Town is a complex place and it takes years to get past its deep flaws underneath its beautiful façade.  But even when one gets to grips with it, it still has the ability to surprise.

Becoming a cultural activist 

This element of discovery and surprise has kept me in Cape Town for 25 years - half my life, largely spent working in various aspects of cultural development.  I've worked in arts organisations, heritage institutions, festivals, urban facilitation bodies and with local government - always in the non profit sector.  I came here just as the country was shifting through the period of negotiated settlement and I was soon involved with a range of anti-apartheid non-profit agencies in art and in media, which had all been integrally involved with the struggle for freedom for many years.  Here I was schooled in democratic practises, learning what it meant to organise, to participate in collective decision making, to understand the meaning of non-racialism - in short, to be a cultural activist.   I was in a context steeped in the music, literature, theatre, dance, film. alternative media and visual cultures, one that actively spoke against the narrative of a white washed Cape Town. 

I came here to  do exactly this.  Unlike many others, it was not the mountain and sea that drew me here.  I was drawn by the culture of those oppressed, which spoke to me in my own narrative as a person of color growing up at the height of repression in Durban.  These stories came to me in various arts forms and a unusual university department.

One of 4 posters for the Cape Town Festival - at the time a multidisciplinary festival which looked to foster an intercultural city.  This one features the famous comedian Marc Lottering.  Creative direction and logo - Bruno Morphet

One of 4 posters for the Cape Town Festival - at the time a multidisciplinary festival which looked to foster an intercultural city.  This one features the famous comedian Marc Lottering.  Creative direction and logo - Bruno Morphet

Three key centres for culture in South Africa

Durban is an edgy place with a lush, heavy, tropical air, which seems to breed incredible artists.  But it is ultimately too small and too stuffy to practise there, to make a living and grow.  So many of the creative souls born here, then, and even now, leave.  People like me who want a vibrant and rich cultural life have two options to move within South Africa when leaving Ethekwini - you go to Johannesburg or to Cape Town. 

Jozi, is a vibrant melting point of everything that is South Africa, fast, shifting, energised - a relatively new city, constantly remaking itself.  It's the centre of the media and music industries and at the cutting edge of youth culture in this very young country (demographically and politically).  

Cape Town is old, and once youve experienced it, you realise its an ancient place, with a deep energy field and rather conflicted. The Dutch may have come here in 1652 and set up the vis-dorpie (fishing town) that would ultimately become the capital of a new colony, but this place always belongs to the first nations people who inhabited and moved through it.  And while the British may have successfully claimed it as their own, they could not escape the fact that the city was built by slaves brought from various places, more especially  Java, India and two Portuguese colonies - todays Angola and Mozambique. The brutality of slave-master relationship continues today and many feel it still defines the psyche of this city.  The dominant language of the region, Afrikaans, may have been claimed by the previous oppressors, but it remains a language originating with the oppressed as they sought to understand each other and their masters.  It draws heavily, not just on Dutch, but also Melayu and the Indigenous language of the Khoe.  As a port city, Cape Town has seen the comings of goings of all manner of people and at the turn of the 20th century was considered one of the most diverse cities in the world.  Being a port city has shaped Cape Town in many ways, not least its unique musical  traditions and in its carnival.  Out of this mix came a myriad of cultural strands, diverse, rich in expression, filled with humor and pathos.  It is the art that flowed out of the melange that brought me here and kept me for so long. 

 A Cape Town Imaginary 

Before I had even got to Cape Town, the city had shaped itself in my imaginary. Achmat Dangor's short story, Waiting for Leila was my first memorable exposure to a dark and almost mystical city, where the wind, sea, mountain, and a Dookom (witchdoctor) come together with slavery, forced removals and frustrated love.  The second  was a performance experience at the Community Arts Workshop, of the post-punk/goema band, the Genuines. It was a seminal personal moment  exploding my perception of South African music at the time.  Finally during my studies at the, then, Centre Contemporary Culture at the University of Natal, I was introduced to a range of anti-apartheid projects, innovative responses to apartheid and to the state of emergency at the time. This included the community newspaper, Grassroots; the CASET initiative (which later became Bush Radio;) and the arts education project I would later work at: The Community Arts Project (CAP).  At a very dark time in South Africa's history, being introduced to these case studies of determined and context specific activism would have a profound impact on my decision to base in Cape Town and become a cultural worker.  Moreover, for me and for many others like myslef, these community arts and media initiatives were my most significant training ground. 

Achmat Dangor's set of short stories:  Waiting for Leila , presents a set of complex stories about Cape Town

Achmat Dangor's set of short stories: Waiting for Leila, presents a set of complex stories about Cape Town

Conflicted Changes

I was in Cape Town  during the county’s  political transformation, and it was only then did I realize how deeply messed up a city it was in terms of  racialised politics.  The first election delivered the Nationalist party, the party of the oppressor into power regionally, voted in by  the very same people they had brutalized for over three centuries.  A perverse reflection of complex slave-master relationship of the past, many would say.  The public art piece by Berni Searle pictured above responds to this issue.  The results of this election would set the scene for almost two decades of challenging governance for Cape Town.    

But despite this all, Cape Town provides a significant opportunity for South Africa - a real potential for the country to experiment with and come to grips with racial complexity and difference,  and to discover what an intercultural future could look like.  Through subsequent projects I worked for from 1994: the Cape Town (One City) Festival, and two Post Apartheid Museums: District Six Museum and Robben Island Museum, I was exposed to new ways of thinking about transformation and change, and, importantly, wider networks of cultural development practitioners.  Later I was able to take these learnings into new projects, working collectively with this broad network of talented and committed cultural workers I had met.   Its the work and activism of this ecosystem of cultural workers - the artists, cultural managers, heritage workers, academics, media figures - who feature strongly in  the projects I will talk about over the next few articles..  These are people at the coalface of using culture for social change, and I will  be drawing on their stories as well as where the narratives intersect with mine.   For me, and I know for many of these peers, Cape Town remains an important social and environmental laboratory of sorts, precisely because of its myriad challenges and complexities, providing fuel for cultural workers to explore what transformation could really mean in a post-apartheid, non racial South Africa.

What to Expect

In the next few blog pieces through the lens of a series of projects i am implicated in at  various levels, I will  examine the potential of working with culture for societal and urban transformation.  These projects will include, amongst others BLAC (The Black Arts Collective) which ran from 1998-2003; as well as the City of Cape Town's two attempts at developing and implementing cultural policies  (1995 - 2000; 2012 to present) .  Through these projects I plan to reflect on practices at play in response to a changing country and city, and to pick out learnings and challenges experienced.  I will also bring the reader up to date with what I think some of the burning issues  presently blocking change are, as well as highlighting those projects that are showing inspiring potential for fostering change.  Part of my rationale for doing this is to provide a public document to some key projects where little exists to date.  The other part is to add value to debates around issues of transformation which the current  generation of cultural workers are currently engaging with.     

Race and Power 

Race and the impact of race based laws on cultural development formed the basis of the work of BLAC.  I was involved in the setting up and driving of this collective, which included a group of artists and cultural workers of all disciples, all heavily involved in the cultural life of the city at the time.  It was initially a closed grouping for those who self-identified as black.  Black here referred to the black consciousness definition which included all people of color marginalised by racist/apartheid laws.  The project of Black Consciousness is, at its heart, a deeply empowering one and BLAC was steeped in this ideology. The key aim of the BLAC project was to comment and respond to the transformation of the cultural landscape looking at a range of issues related to power and privilege.   It described itself as a discourse building project - an attempt to shift and shape narratives fore black cultural workers within a "safe space".    This, it was believed, could radiate out and impact on changes in the city as a whole.   

Participatory engagements 2013 with the development of the Arts, culture and creative industries policy of the City of Cape Town 

Participatory engagements 2013 with the development of the Arts, culture and creative industries policy of the City of Cape Town 

New Cultural Governance ?

In respect to Cape Town's cultural policies I will be looking at two periods in the development of the local government's policy - an attempt by the municipality and its citizens to help it work better with culture for transformation The first post-apartheid cultural policy of the City was developed in the mid- late 90's by the then head of arts and culture, Delysia Forbes.  Although highly successful, innovative and  participatory,  it was subsequent dismantled by local government during the shift to a  Unicity.  During this period I was leading a non governmental arts educational body, The Community Arts Project, and later served as director of the Cape Town (One City Many Cultures) Festival.  I was also involved peripherally with the Arts and Culture Forum, a civil society body set up alongside the policy, and which  had a significant role to play in the implementation of the policy until 1999.  The second period was from 2012 to present.  This period looks at the development of the City's Arts, Culture and Creative Industries Policy 2014.   At this time I was the head of the Arts and Culture Department for the City and led the writing of the new policy and the transformation of the department to help implement it.  While it still exists as a policy in council, i will show it is to a large extent dormant.  It's unclear suspension raises considerable questions for me  whether there is a potential for mobilising culture for urban transformation at any scale in the city.


Over the next few weeks, this blog will be asking the following questions about culture and transformation, using Cape Town as a case.  Can culture be used for transformation and if so how?  How can we learn from past initiatives?  What are some of the burning issues outstanding for the transformation towards a non racial, democratic, open,  equitable and inclusive Cape Town using culture? What are the opportunities and what could be next steps?.   The articles following this one, start with a piece on race and power, an area of burning contention in a highly divided country.  They build on a previous piece: Cape Town's Tale of Two Cities, which will give a broad overview of Cape Town's complex cultural landscape.   For a deeper dive on the issues, you can refer to an earlier publication i worked on: Isandla Institute's 2006 discussion document - Culture and the Right to the City: Diversity in the Cultural Ecology of Cape Town. 

I look forward to your comments and observations, here or in my inbox.  As always I make the call for others to respond to some of the questions I am raising.  Conversations help foster change.