Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre is housed in a beautiful historic building that was designed by legendary architect Sir Herbert Baker for the South African Association in circa 1902. The building at 6 Spin Street is a rare and outstanding architectural example of its period and enhances the quality of Church Square on which it abuts.
In 1704, the Governor of the Cape, Willem Adrian van der Stel, tried to introduce spinning of silk in the colony. A small-scale trial experiment was encouraging, producing 84 pounds of silk in one year. A shed was put up on the corner of Plein and Spin Street and served as a “factory”. The eggs of the imported silkworms died, however, and the new industry was a failure. A later attempt by the French expert Francois Guillaumet, brought to the Cape with his family and entrusted with the spinnery in 1753, did not succeed either.
The only relic of van der Stel’s silk-spinning endeavours is to be found in the name Spin Street, one of Cape Town’s oldest streets. During his time in government, the big church (Groote Kerk) was erected. He is often remembered as the governor who was recalled in disgrace.
One account states that Spin Street bounded the garden plot where mulberry trees were cultivated to feed the silk worms kept in the spinnery. Another tells of slaves bringing mulberry leaves from Rondebosch and Newlands. After the undertaking was abandoned, the spinnery building became a grain depot. It burned down in 1792.
An inscribed circular granite memorial stone located on the centre island of Spin Street opposite the Cape Town Democracy Centre is all that remains of Cape Town’s slave tree. This spot marks the site of the tree where slaves were auctioned until their emancipation on 1 December 1834.
Church Square itself is home to Gavin Younge and Wilma Cruise’s The Cape Town Memorial to the Enslaved, which was unveiled in 2008. The memorial comprises of eleven granite blocks in a sombre arrangement. Two are on the south west corner of Church Square, close to the Iziko Slave Lodge. Nine are grouped in a grid close to the slave tree plaque. All are 80 centimetre square, representing our common humanity. Different heights represent growth and the importance attached to the youth of South Africa.
The two south west blocks are engraved with the names of the enslaved, once-forgotten names researched by historians and activists. The other blocks carry words from the two centuries of the slave period, including those of resistance, rebellion, suffering, the slaves’ provenance, religion, life, manumission, punishment and the lodge. VOC slaves were baptised in the Groote Kerk. Slave children were required to work in the silk factory in Spin Street.
The memorial to slavery at the cape was commissioned and erected by the City of Cape Town. It has been criticized for its cryptic imagery and the fact that there is no creation of solemnity, no celebration of memory, nor a sense of tribute to the role of the slaves in the building of the city. Other world cities have also addressed the memorialisation of slavery. In London, for instance, a recent example is the Memorial to the Abolition of the transatlantic Slave Trade, the unveiling of which was attended by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.
Standing on a pedestal made of Table Mountain Sandstone, Anton van Wouw’s (1862-1945) bronze statue of Onze Jan (the Honourable Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr) forms the centre-piece of Church Square opposite the Cape Town Democracy Centre. Hofmeyr fought for the independence of Afrikaans, one of the youngest languages in the world. The statue of the parliamentarian was erected in 1910 in recognition of his efforts to have Afrikaans recognized as a language on an equal footing with English in the Union of South Africa’s Constitution of 1910.
Arguably the statue has a grim presence. Perhaps it is time and corrosion that have given his face the sour green lines that make it so forbidding. He stands in front of South Africa’s first church (Groote Kerk) with his hat in his hands behind him, almost in piety, staunch and proud.