A marker of past and present

Patricia de Lille, mayor of Cape Town

Constantia occupies an interesting space in Cape Town – and not just in the literal sense.

Of course, the valley is a place of immense beauty and natural charm. But it is more the space in the popular imagination that I am talking about.

As one of our city’s wealthier areas, Constantia is used as a byword for privilege and a marker of our past and our present.

In our Council meetings, Constantia is used as code for entrenched privilege and wealth and everything that goes with those signifiers in the South African context. That is what I mean by being a marker of the present and the past.

In a country where wealth and opportunity was literally structured to exclude the majority while benefiting the few, it may be only natural that places like Constantia become contested terrain – a reminder of the very real products of what it looks like to have and to have not.

In the context of historical injustice, those reminders can be difficult to swallow. But I don’t think we need to become defensive about them.

Indeed, while it can be hard to confront these issues, I think it is our duty as South Africans to do so in order to move forward together from a fractured past.

And in considering that past, and pushing beyond its symbolism, Constantia’s is in many ways the South African story.

People have been living in what we now call Cape Town for thousands of years. But it is here in this area where one can start to see the themes of our past emerging at the crossroads of different cultures and people whom circumstance and fate brought together.

The farms that surround us have that story written in their soil.

Hundreds of years ago, the Dutch treated Constantia as a country retreat and, as we know, a site of wine agriculture and other farming activities. Some of their homes, and their graves, remain.

But they did not live here alone.

Indigenous people, the Khoi and the San, and those who descended from them as well as the Malay lived and died here.

Later, they would be joined by French exiles and British colonists.

And over the centuries, these people and their stories gathered together. Theirs were not always happy tales.

The mountains that surround us were the last retreats of many slaves attempting to escape captivity – most of whom died in the elements, unshackled but alone.

At the other end of this road, a Muslim kramat stands amid the vineyards, a testament to the pain of religious exile and isolation. And all around us, the memory of communities long since removed live with us.

In Strawberry Lane, a plaque commemorates those who were forcibly evicted in times gone by. The descendants of those commemorated there live in places like Retreat and Steenberg today.

They still come to Constantia behind the wheels of their cabs or their gardening trucks. This is the history of this area – rich, deep, and complicated.

But I am not recounting these tales to embarrass anyone. I am reflecting on this symbol to interrogate what it stands for, this is not just Constantia’s story. It is South Africa’s story. I think we all need to know it.

My job as a leader is to understand it, appreciate it, and know how it needs to shape the decisions we make.

It has shaped the social compact that I believe Cape Town needs in order to survive and grow. That compact is one of cross-subsidising the poor with the rates of those who are not.

This is a progressive realisation of rights for everyone shaped by our history. I have to try and get services to those who cannot afford them.

I do not believe that it would not be morally just for those who were structurally set up to have few chances in life to try and get by with what little they have alone. I think it is the duty of all of us who can to help them.

That is the essence of the socio-economic redress we are trying to achieve in Cape Town in the interests of a more lasting reconciliation.

But I do not take this social compact for granted.

I am grateful to each and every one of you for the part you play – in paying your rates, in contributing to our economy, and in being engaged residents and citizens. Because the other side of our social compact is making sure that people get what they pay for, including the people of Constantia.

In Cape Town that means reliable and uninterrupted basic service. It means roads which are usable. It means a government that is honest and won’t stand for corruption. And it means the basic goods of the state which allow society to function.

And I know that we are not perfect.

I know you sometimes feel the frustration of congestion or waiting too long for a decision from some part of the Council.

We are working on these things, amid all of the other demands we have to meet in trying to strike a careful balance between all of our residents.

We charge you to live in your own homes with our rates and tariffs but know this: we never forget the contributions you make to our broader society.

I continue to believe that South Africa has a bright future. But unlocking our potential means knowing and understanding our past.

And it means appreciating the symbols of places like Constantia – for all of the pain, beauty, triumphs, and tragedies that they stand for.