Field trip to South Africa Part 2

Dear all, thank you for your responses on my last blog. I like to keep you updated!

For the people in The Netherlands, yesterday was national memorial day. I saw the ceremony on the Dam square in Amsterdam and was struck by the ability of The Netherlands to grasp a national emotion, a national feeling of remembrance and the day after a celebration of our freedom. Last week South Africa had its Freedom day as well. The years of the post-apartheid era are counting, but some South Africans remain sceptical about the last 21 years of freedom.

I went to the University of Cape Town (UCT) last Thursday, to attend a meeting of students that are having discussions about the ‘decolonization’ of the university. They want the university to be Afrocentric instead of Eurocentric, focusing education on the African identity, the African culture, the African history. The difficulty with this country is that a common identity, culture or history is non present. How can you create an African identity in a country that has known the influence and power of the West for hundreds of years? This country is still far from having a united, national identity.

In my conversation with these students and with Heinrich Wolff, the architect I spoke of in the last blog, I was asked to explain my right of authorship of the South African narrative. What right do I have, to tell the story of the history of for example the Castle of Good Hope? In this Castle the Dutch, the French and the English reigned. It was designed to keep the enemy’s ships away and secure the position of the Cape Colony in the land of the Khoisan. The building contains both the heroic stories of the first settlers and the stories of the people that were tortured or locked up in the prison. Who am I to tell their story? How do I make a design that gives room for these memories?

This weekend I went camping in Montagu with Willem and some of his friends. I wished I had some time there to reflect on these questions and rethink my task here. Of course the weekend  was loads of fun, braai, hiking, mountain climbing and wine, so emptying my head worked out, answering the questions not yet. Fortunately Willem posted a column today titled “A Nation of Victims”, by Max du Preez. Du Preez mentions the way the tourists look at South Africa: “… they are impressed with the openness of our society and the robustness of the racial, class and ethnic debates” and he says the tourist see the rise of the middle class, the well-organized infrastructure and the potential of the younger generation.

So let us be optimistic about this country and its future. And let me try not to patronize this society with my Dutch background. I think my task is to design a space for optimism, for conversation, for debates (believe me, the South Africans love to debate), without filling in what I think is the narrative of the South Africans.

Okay maybe that was a bit vague to some of you. I’m sorry for that. The coming week I will stay close to the Castle, walking around it in the direct context and have a look in all its rooms and chambers. I’ve already visited the building site yesterday, with helmet on and a shiny vest, awesome. This Saturday I will give my very first lecture to a group of South Africans that are especially interested in the Dutch history and heritage design. Exciting!

Please keep an eye on Facebook for my next blog,

Warm greetings from Cape Town.