International Indigenous People’s Day Protest 2017 at the Castle of Good Hope (Rafael Verbuyst)

Blog series – Heritage, belonging and land: global perspectives on Grace Ndiritu’s ‘A Season of Truth and Reconciliation’ – Blog 2 – Castle of Good Hope: from bastion of colonialism to beacon of decolonization?

Blog 1

Blog 3

On 9 August 2017, a couple dozen activists gathered in front of the Castle of Good Hope in central Cape Town to mark International Indigenous People’s Day. Constructed between 1666 and 1679 at the behest of the Dutch East India Company, the Castle is South Africa’s oldest surviving colonial building and the epicentre from which settler colonialism spread across the subcontinent, leaving the indigenous people, commonly known as ‘Khoi and San’ or ‘Khoisan’ — a controversial term, subjugated, decimated and dispossessed (Verbuyst, 2022). Using the Castle as a base of operations, European settlers eventually broke down the Khoisan’s resistance and chased them away from the lands they traditionally occupied (Adhikari, 2010). The Khoisan could remain only as pacified colonial labourers with a Christianized identity stripped of references to indigenous culture, identity and modes of subsistence. This protracted process of assimilation reached its peak with the promulgation of the Population Registration Act of 1950, through which the apartheid regime categorized people according to supposedly innate and neatly bounded racial identities. The Khoisan were thereby definitively lumped together alongside various others, such as descendants of enslaved people from Asia and East Africa, as ‘Coloureds’: a label devoid of indigeneity, vaguely denoting mixed-race origins and situated between ‘Whites’ (i.e. Europeans and Afrikaners), ‘Blacks’ (i.e. the majority Bantu-speaking demographic) and ‘Indians’. Badgered by centuries of oppression, most Khoisan internalized their ‘Coloured’ identity and lost any meaningful connection to their ancestral roots, even if some kept the awareness alive covertly (Øvernes, 2019; Bam, 2021).

This changed dramatically with the democratic transition of 1994, when increasing numbers of ‘Coloureds’ were reclaiming Khoisan identities with a vengeance. Ever since, more and more Khoisan activists are demanding recognition and reparations from the state. One such occasion was the aforementioned protest, where the activists attempted to form an “Aboriginal Khoisan human chain” around the Castle to highlight how the Khoisan were still not recognized as indigenous people by the post-apartheid state, how their historical land claims unjustly fell outside of the scope of the official land reform program, and how the Khoisan were marginalized in various other cultural, political and economic domains (SAHRC, 2018). The Castle was chosen as the location to stage the protest due to its historical and symbolic significance and because it houses museums dealing with military history, art and colonialism, attracting thousands of visitors each year. Together with other dissenters, various Khoisan were for centuries imprisoned and tortured at the Castle, a history currently not adequately recognized and represented according to the activists. The “slaughterhouse” embodied centuries of unsubdued oppression. For them, it was better to tear down the offensive structure altogether.

However, not all Khoisan share in this damnation of the Castle. There have been various self-styled “decolonization” initiatives by the management of the Castle, which many Khoisan support or have givenimpetus to (Gilfellan, Hendricks & Sipoyo, 2019). It is moreover important to take into account that the Castle is not just a museum hub, a provincial and national heritage site or a popular location to host public events. Remarkably, as it remains under the custodianship of the Ministry of Defence and Military Veterans, the Castle still hosts military ceremonies and houses military equipment and personnel. Given the shared use of the site, the Castle is governed by its own legislation, the 1993 Castle Management Act, and since 2013, by a CEO and management board made up of representatives from various public entities, including the military, the city of Cape Town and South African Tourism Board. We do not have the space in this article to extensively detail the ways in which all stakeholders utilize and relate to the Castle. Rather, in keeping with the overarching theme of the blog series, we want to show below how the Khoisan are engaging with the Castle as ‘heritage’ in order to contest and/or (re)define the relationship between the site and the growing Khoisan community, particularly since 2013, when the current CEO, Calvyn Gilfellan, took office with a mandate to “decolonize” the building.

Decolonizing the Castle of Good Hope

Resurrection Day Event 2018 (Rafael Verbuyst)

Indeed, together with two colleagues, Gilfellan explained in a 2019 contribution for the South African Museums Association Bulletin that a deliberate choice was made in 2013 by the Castle Control Board to “reposition, reimagine and reimage the Castle of Good Hope into a beacon of hope” (Ibid.: 11). Although the precise reasons for this timing remain unclear — the article mentions “a global call for the redefining of the museum and its sector and the national appeal to address how museums are decolonised”, it is undoubtedly related to the rise of Khoisan activism during this time, even if they were not directly involved in determining the agenda. With decolonization as “a ‘code’ word”, this agenda was articulated in terms of “nation building and reconciliation”, pursuing UNESCO World Heritage Site Status and maximising tourism potential. However, as other stakeholders are not really highlighted in the article, at the core of this “decolonization and Africanisation drive” was (and is) “direct and robust engagement and programmatic activities” with the Khoisan, as well “acknowledging the significance of the connections between the Castle and the chequered and painful past of the country”. The Castle records show hundreds of engagements with Khoisan representatives in recent years. As Gilfellan explained in various contributions in Eerste Nasie Nuus [First Nation News], a Khoisan community newspaper, this ongoing dialogue allows for the Castle to shed its image as “a bastion of white colonialism” and “transform… into a living heritage space” (Gilfellan, 2014; 2016). To facilitate this, the new CEO not only established “the Centre for Memory, Healing and Learning” – essentially a conference space — but also brought the unwritten rule into effect that the Khoisan are free to utilize the Castle for events, meetings or ceremonies.

This has allowed for a wide range of activities to take place at the Castle since, from community-organized Khoisan language classes and book launches for Khoisan authors, to !Nau ceremonies, which some Khoisan representatives use to swear in tribal members and traditional leaders, and cultural festivals. A noteworthy example of the later was Aba Te, launched by Khoisan activists in August 2015 and involving educative and creative sessions covering art, history, hunting and gathering, cooking, plants, spirituality, indigenous music and medicinal practices. A year later, the same people involved with Aba Te created a “Khoi-khoi Village Scene” at the entrance of the Castle: “a new exhibition celebrating the journey, culture, heritage and aspirations of the first indigenous people”. As the main designer explained in Eerste Nasie Nuus: “[T]he KhoiSan kraal retains all the elements of authenticity”, which creates educational opportunities for youths in particular to learn about Khoisan identity, culture and history (Eerste Nasie Nuus correspondent, 2016).

Statues of resistance fighters, unveiled in 2016 (

The CEO has also endeavoured through countless activities to have the Castle “recognized as a safe space to deal with the aftermath and pain of colonialism, slavery and apartheid” (Gilfellan, Hendricks & Sipoyo, 2019: 14). Some events have been more modest, such as private ‘cleansing’ ceremonies or Khoisan-organized tours of the building highlighting traumatic legacies, whereas others have been more largescale. An example of the latter was the “Resurrection Day Event”, a religious Khoisan-themed event organized by a local church on Easter Sunday 2018. The goal was for the Khoisan to gather en masse and “spiritually take possession of the gates trauma… to go back to the original sin” and carry out “a cleansing of the curses which have lingered for centuries, especially those emanating from the Castle and its torture chambers” (Verbuyst, 2022: 159-160). Similar rhetoric surfaced in the context of the Castle’s “commemoration”, rather than “celebration”, of its 350 years existence. As part of the events marking the occasion, the “soul” of Krotoa, a 17th century Khoisan woman of note, was symbolically “reburied” at the Castle by a sizeable Khoisan contingent (SABC News, 2016). Krotoa was however not featured among the four statues of Khoisan and non-Khoisan prisoners that were unveiled in the main courtyard. Instead, Krotoa was honoured with a commemorative wooden bench in one of the smaller courtyards of the complex. This stirred up quite the controversy. Various Khoisan representatives argued that a bench was disrespectful and insignificant. They claimed they had not been meaningfully consulted on the decision (eNCA, 2016).

Beyond the Castle: ongoing heritage tensions and the limits of decolonization

The fallout over the commemorative bench is an apt reminder that the Castle’s role as ‘heritage’ remains unsettled and fiercely contested. Echoing arguments often made elsewhere about material changes being a prerequisite for decolonization (Tuck & Yang, 2012), some of the Khoisan desire total ownership of the site and do not agree with the “nation-building” dimension of the Castle’s rebranding exercise (Gilfellan, Hendricks & Sipoyo, 2019: 13). Others want to transform the structure itself in more profound ways or become part of the Castle Control Board, which they are currently not represented in. William Langeveldt, a prominent activist who also temporarily acted as a Khoisan representative to the United Nations, has long been campaigning to transform the “Stone-Kraal” into a “Place of Love and Indigenous Healing” and the headquarters of a “Ministry of Indigenous Affairs” (Verbuyst, 2022: 253). In Langeveldt’s view, this would require renaming the five bastions of the Castle after indigenous nations, creating “storage facilities for organic food production” and “using the roofs to generate solar and wind energy”. So far, these types of ideas have not been taken on board by the management team at the Castle. There are also pressures for the Castle to respond to issues that do not directly relate to the building itself. At the 2017 Indigenous Peoples’ Day protest there was a telling moment when the protesters ceased marching across the perimeter of the Castle and pointed out how a group of homeless people, some of them stuck on social housing waiting lists for decades, had set up shelter just outside of the Castle’s walls. To the activists, their living conditions symbolized the ongoing marginalization of the Khoisan as many were “still” forced to sleep outside on the pavement and did not have decent access to basic services and infrastructure.

Housing is evidently not the responsibility of the Castle Management Board; nor can it satisfy everyone’s demands or is disagreement among the Khoisan something the Castle should get involved in. And yet, because it is such a symbolically significant location and housing conditions have such a painful historical legacy in South Africa, the Castle quickly becomes the focal point of these types of broader calls for decolonization linked to urgently needed material change. The Castle is not the only heritage site being contested in this manner in the City (or elsewhere). Just a few kilometres further, there is a fierce ongoing battle over the Two Rivers Urban Park, part of which is currently being redeveloped into a commercial and residential complex, with Amazon as the anchor tenant (Charles, 2022). Here too, the Khoisan community is split between those conditionally supporting the redevelopment and those opposing it on grounds that it is allegedly located on a “sacred site”. What makes the Castle unique, however, is that it has committed itself to decolonization and made it a priority to include the Khoisan in particular in decision making processes and dialogue, or at least allow them to use the space to host events, meetings and rituals. Further research is needed to ascertain how non-Khoisan stakeholders — the military in particular — feature in the Castle’s decolonization agenda and respond to Khoisan activism and its diverse engagements with the building. Moreover, the debate is ongoing about whether the Castle’s take on “decolonization” is in line with, a response to, or an attempt to co-opt the diverse calls for decolonization by Khoisan activists. However, as one Khoisan academic recognizes, for now the Castle’s decolonization agenda has allowed the Khoisan to create “a counter narrativewithin the space… by counter curating the castle as a site of memory” (Bam-Hutchison, 2016: 24). Ironically then, though not by coincidence, because of the Castle’s commitment to explore creative solutions and think outside of the box about ‘heritage’, the old bastion of colonialism and symbol of Khoisan oppression is becoming a prime facilitator for the growing indigenous revival movement in South Africa.


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Verbuyst, R. (2022). Khoisan Consciousness: An Ethnography of Emic Histories and Indigenous Revivalism in Post-Apartheid Cape Town. Leiden/Boston: Brill.

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