Waleed looks out the window. The bus passes District Six. It moves “with cruel slowness”. Fozia is clenched and silent. Her face has “the glaze and stillness of a statue”, as she mourns the destruction of the District. Waleed’s response is different; he is determined to look, to register the damage. He tries “to hold the ruin in his gaze”. He sees a Khoi man running, an image from another time. The man’s gestures are flowing, his feet barely touch the ground. It is an image of grace, given to the child as a sign, or as a gift. For the duration of the image, time turns back on itself and the past is made present. To the recent destruction of the District and the contemporary landscape of ruination is added this image from a time before the city, when hunters and herders owned the land: same place, different time. We are invited, or directed, to contemplate the fate of the indigenous people of the Cape. Loss piles on loss: apartheid, forced removals, racial slavery at the Cape, the genocide of the Cape San. Such is the roll call of history. At the same time – this is one of the implications of the passage from Nadia Davids’s novel – these events are not gone and in the past. They form part of the contemporary experience of dwelling in the city, even if it takes the eyes of a child to discern them. More than this, they may hold the keys to the future; of if not the future, then a future, a different and more hopeful future. The mother is clenched, silent, lost in grief. The child – emblem of the future, repository of hope in the sign-system of the novel – is searching, curious, receptive. The Khoi man appears as a fugitive image: fleeting, fragile, “poised to take flight”.
One of the images that the discipline of archaeology gives us is the image of the city as palimpsest. That is, the idea that the city exists not only as a surface phenomenon that meets the eye, but also as a set of layers in the ground, each layer corresponding to a prior period of occupation. Dig in any historical part of the city and you will find the remains of other times, other materialities. When archaeologists excavate house foundations in the city centre it is not unusual for them to find stone tools and ostrich eggshell beads in the deepest levels. The remains of the city are arranged in their layers, or strata, like chapters in a book. What does it mean to say “like chapters in a book”? The materiality of these remains is not available for us to “read” like writing or text. Rather it demands (or asks for) a different kind of appreciation, a different kind of engagement. What is the nature of this engagement? This is not an easy question to answer, for it is at precisely this point that disciplinary languages are impoverished, or break down. Nevertheless it remains an important question, not only for archaeology but, if we follow Waleed (that is, if we follow Davids), for a future of dwelling in the city.
Scholarship is famously (or notoriously) logocentric; that is, it is focused on words, text, the idea of writing. Memory, experience, being in the world: all make the journey into narrative and into writing in order to acquire meaning. In so doing, they are shaped, edited, trimmed, captured by the formal world of signs. Victims of historical catastrophe are encouraged to tell the “story” of their loss, as a means to “catharsis” and “closure” (like the closure of a well-told tale). They externalize their pain as narrative (they shape it, they edit it, they give it form). With each re-telling the story gains life, becomes fuller, rounder. And what of the teller? Like the ancient mariner he or she is forced into an endless round of repetition. As their story fattens they seem to lose definition, to pale. The telling of the tale serves to domesticate experience, to make it available to others in a form that is readily graspable and appealing after the tastes of the times. It enters the industry of words. You could re-pave Horstley Street with Masters and Doctoral dissertations. Each one is written with total conviction that the passage to narrative history is an act of redemption. Turn this around: “history” becomes a technology of capture and consignment. History becomes the means by which we domesticate experience, capture the past, and consign it to the space between the covers of a book and the timelessness and stasis of the library. Historically speaking, the idea of the text acted as a technology of capture of space or territory. The conquistador arrived with a gun in one hand, and a book in the other. Now the idea of the text acts as a technology of capture of time. “The past” is consigned to its own time-space, safely divorced from “the present”. We “re-visit” the past through carefully staged encounters, like a relative in an old-age home. With relief we escape back into the sunshine, away from the cloying small of arrested time.
District Six exists as a landscape of ruins, mostly house foundations and the debris of occupation. To the official city archive, and the archive of memory, is added another archive, an archive of fragments. When archaeologists of the Archaeological Contracts Office excavated two adjoining houses in upper Horstley Street in 1994 and 1996, they found “shards from at least 101 ceramic vessels”. These consisted of porcelain and refined earthenwares, with a small number of “pearlware shards”. One quarter of the glassware assemblage was comprised of “bottle caps for alcoholic drinks: wine, spirits and beer”. They also found objects small enough to fall through the gaps in the floor: “a variety of small metal objects, including nails, screws, bottle tops and numerous pieces of plastic (mostly broken parts of larger items)”. The largest single category listed under “personal assemblage” was buttons, “including examples manufactured in South Africa and in England”. The team also discovered “a cut glass brooch, a silver chain, a small brooch in the shape of a key, a pendant engraved with a cow’s head and the name ‘ELSIE’ [as well as] a hair-clasp decorated with plastic flowers and a small collection of unstrung beads”. The list continues with “a bisque clay doll and several plastic dolls heads, a plastic toy soldier [and] a lead American Indian with rifle” (Hall et al. 1994: 3-8, Hall 2001).*