Newlands plaque stirs up slave and displacement history: 'Replace hollow depiction of history'

Claremont Main Road Mosque Imam Dr Rashied Omar. Picture: Shakirah Thebus

Claremont Main Road Mosque Imam Dr Rashied Omar. Picture: Shakirah Thebus

Published Sep 19, 2023


Cape Town - Two years after the City of Cape Town committed to correcting what has been referred to as an offensive plaque in Newlands, questions have arisen as to why there has been such a delay, pointing towards a larger discussion regarding the erasure of indigenous history, the mass displacement of communities, and the area’s “slavery-steeped” past.

While briefly mentioning the use of the Newlands springs by local Khoekhoen, the plaque titled “Newlands Spring”, situated at Springs Way, largely recognised and memorialised the spring’s role in the brewing industry and that of Scandinavian businessman, politician and local property and water owner, Anders Ohlsson, who established Ohlsson’s Cape Breweries in 1896.

Exactly two years ago, the Claremont Main Road Mosque (CMRM) wrote to the City’s Environmental & Heritage Management Department, objecting to the plaque’s erasure of history and heritage, calling it “highly offensive” for what it included but what it failed to mention too.

CMRM Imam Dr Rashied Omar said that during the drought in 2018, many descendants of those who had been displaced from the area returned to collect water at the Kildare Road spring, reigniting conversation about past memories.

The narrow road leading to the spring soon became congested and residents were up in arms over the influx of people to the area, Imam Omar said. This resulted in the closure of the spring by the City and people being redirected to the spring water collection point at the Newlands Main Road. The area was soon fenced off and the plinth installed outside the site.

Omar requested engagement from the City with the Newlands/Claremont Heritage, Environmental Justice and Restitution Society (NCHERS) over not just this matter but the accurate memorialisation throughout Newlands and Claremont.

NCHERS was formally launched last year by former residents, with two of the oldest institutions in the areas, the mosque and the St Saviour’s Anglican Church in Claremont, representing the communities.

“These were fertile lands, there’s lots of natural water and wherever there is natural water, that is where people inhabit the place. The Khoi and the San were the indigenous people who (were) all along the banks of the Liesbeek River from Woodstock, Salt River and Observatory, right through the southern suburbs. This is a very fertile area.

“And that history of the Khoi and the San has been completely obliterated. We ourselves, we come from that background but we don’t know that history. These were the people who faced the onslaught of colonialism front-on at the beginning, this is where colonialisation started, huge amounts of them were dissipated in a genocide.”

The controversial plaque. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)

In response to the CMRM’s letter, City Environmental and Heritage Management manager Dimitri Georgeades said the department would urgently attend to the matter and that a process of broad participation to consider alternatives, such as changing the wording or removal of the memorial completely, would be undertaken.

“We consider the injustices of the past a serious matter and apologise for any offence caused by the installation of this plaque,” read the letter.

It further added that the plaque was installed at the request of the sub-council through its funding.

Lauren Muller, a water and landscape heritage researcher, whose research formed part of her doctorate study in History at the University of the Western Cape, and co-opted member of NCHERS, said the spring was part of the Newlands VOC (Dutch East India Company) Estate, a slave plantation for growing vegetables.

“The whole history of the land, which was a wetland used by the indigenous population and where people were grazing their cattle, etc, is kind of forgotten but also the whole slave history of Newlands has been forgotten.

“Most of my own research has shown that the bulk of those slaves were East African slaves, certainly at the end of the time, by the 18th century. Mostly Mozambican and Madagascan slaves working around that spring.

“The spring was used to irrigate the land where the vegetables were grown, because it was too low down on the slopes, that’s why most of the water was sent off for brewing purposes. And then later on it became part of the governor’s garden, it became like a famous tourist attraction, people used to come see it from far and wide.”

Deputy mayor and Mayco member for spatial planning and environment Eddie Andrews said a plan for the plinth and interpretive display on the City-owned property was vetted by sub-council through the previous ward councillor.

“We are still interested in revising the content and replacing the plaque, should the sub-council request us to do so. We always suggest that the concern be raised with the sub-council so that the community representatives can consider it and then give us direction.”

Ward councillor Mikhail Manuel had been approached on numerous occasions to facilitate an engagement with the City on the matter.

He said that engagements with City officials were done in early August and that there was commitment to having the plaque replaced. However, who should be facilitating the public participation process was not yet finalised.