Those familiar with Cape Town will know of its mass exodus at four p.m., when most people leave work for home in slow-moving snakes of traffic. Until fairly recently, much of the city center would then stand ghostlike through the night, exuding the air of danger that dark, empty urban spaces tend to. Another thing people might know is that the distance people have to travel homeward is usually proportional to the darkness of their skin and extent of their poverty. Cape Town’s planning epitomizes apartheid segregation in this way: those who are able to live and thrive near the city center are a select few – mainly the white elite. Open City is one of Cape Town Partnership’s (CTP) many efforts to transform this situation, and is a fledgling yet idealistic stepping stone towards the creation of a “24-hour city” that is accessible and safe for all members of the public. Held once a month on Church Square, it is positioned as a free platform for artists and the public to engage creatively with each other and new ideas safely.
Open City was CPT’s experimental response to a call from a local woman to “activate” Church Square, which she perceived as unsafe because it was weirdly dormant (she was perturbed by the abundance of “To Let” signs in the windows of surrounding buildings), according to Didintle Ntsie, who spearheads the project. Open City runs in conjunction with First Thursdays – a monthly gallery walk that has gained popularity amongst Cape Town’s elite youth – but hopes to be more accessible by taking art outside and by calling for public participation. Last week Thursday the programme included a screening of the film “No!” by Short and Sweet in collaboration with My Vote Counts, a performance by the Cape Town Opera’s new ensemble, a teaser for photographer Sine Ndlela’s debut exhibition, a live painting by Kai Kevlar, a dance performance choreographed by University of Cape Town student Ilze Williams, and a silent “I died in Nigeria” protest in solidarity with victims of Boko Haram.
The question of what an activated space might look like is contested, though. As Ntsie acknowledged, there might be a scarcity of food, music and lights enlivening the square on a usual evening, but some people have made a place of it anyway. She mentioned Jacques, who until recently had been sleeping there for about 10 years. The inconspicuousness of the area suited him and others unseen and forgotten by the city at large. This tension – of how to activate Church Square so that it might feel safer, but without stripping away its previous, oft-overlooked functions – was one of the fundamental challenges Ntsie acknowledged from the outset. It led her to immerse herself in the area for three months before starting anything else. She sought to better understand its dynamics, whilst becoming part of the Church Square fabric (a year later, she still gets her hair done at the barber over the road, and her dresses made at Suleiman, the tailor, next door). She asked many questions about what people would like to see more of, why they did business around the square, why they frequented the space, where they came from (there were quite a few refugees) and slowly began piecing things together. It was a tricky process, because people often denied her their story (why did she want it?) or in other cases expected her to help them. Much got lost in translation, and she soon realized that Open City would struggle to not alienate people.
Focusing on Open City’s winning aspects – that it’s free and growing organically – Ntsie has embodied the role of facilitator. Holding back from recruiting participants, she rather focuses on widening the scope of her call. She uses Facebook, the CTP website, and flyers, which, in English, encourage the public to participate. One month, the flyers were translated into 12 other Southern African languages, but to no tangible avail — the attendees remained relatively homogenous. Ntsie reckons that exclusion is deeply psychological and will take a very long time to address; it is not simply about money or language. For her, the Cape Town environment is toxic (Church Square alone is laden with the historical baggage of slaves being sold there) and most things landing in it tend to rot. Open City has explored these themes of history and memorialization via screenings, demonstrations, debates, and artworks but there is still much work to be done. In her words, “in order to tell the story, it must be told as it is. But what is the story? And who are we telling it to?”
It is tricky to convey the truth to those with money who barely feel the discomfort. As cynics have argued, people should not be walking away from such events feeling good; then there is no empathy, no questioning, and a continuation of the status quo. Tokolos Stencils, an underground pro-poor collective, expressed this clearly one month by depositing a portable toilet filled with faeces on the square. For the most part, though, things have remained tame. While Open City has grown massively as a novel space catering for all ages, and is revolutionary in relation to First Thursdays (it is multilingual and there are no physical barriers to entry since it’s not inside an exhibition space) its success is limited within a particular bubble of Cape Town. One just needs to acknowledge the bustling market at the edge of the Grand Parade a few blocks away to sense the realities that Open City does not accommodate – those of Tanzanian trolley-pushers, Rastafari herbalists, and Congolese clothing vendors, amongst others.
Ntsie feels optimistic anyway. She is having different conversations now than she was having nine years ago, and believes that this generation of South Africans’ task is to grapple with what needs to happen now that the notion of a rainbow nation is losing its fervor. For her, Open City is exciting even if Cape Town is not. It is a “living lab” within which different variables can interact and be tested, and it will thus always be a place of questioning, reflection and imagining, perhaps even of stimulating change. I hope to agree with her one day because when I attended Open City last week nothing really surprised me: camembert on the menu, an abundance of hipsters carrying film cameras, and the displacement of the rougher residents of the square to its periphery were just some telltale signs that this occasion caters for a particular subset of the city.
Yanna Romano is an editorial intern with UrbanAfrica.Net and a postgraduate researcher based in Cape Town, South Africa. Her photographs and words explore what is unresolved and alive in the spaces she enters — the conflicting perspectives, the echoing questions, and the stories that thread them together.
Main photo: Food trucks and evening light at Open City on Church Square. Yanna Romano.Read older posts from this section