Forging epistemic encounters and friendships between Belgium and South Africa

I land in Cape Town on a Monday morning, on the 25 May, after an eventful and rescheduled flight. Despite the disruption, I am thankful it was rescheduled, especially since the brakes of my plane were not working! The travel takes place in the framework of a Multistakeholder Grant project that supports the forging of epistemic encounters between Belgium and South Africa on the topic of multispecies relationality, justice and repair. I am rather tired, but also curious and excited. For anyone working on restorative justice as I do, South Africa is the richest soil. Here took place one of the worlds’ most interesting and inspiring examples of political imagination, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a self-declared instrument of restorative justice. This is a land that has been through a lot of suffering but also a land that has shown a lot of vision and courage. I cannot but be humbled to touch it.

Wendy Morris, my friend and partner in the project, welcomes me. Wendy is a South African artist who lives and works in Belgium. She has arrived in South Africa a few weeks before me to retrace Simon van der Stel’s 1685 expedition to Namaqualand. I cannot wait to hear how that has gone. For the last three years Wendy has been researching and recuperating the plant knowledge that a 17th century enslaved Angolan midwife at the Cape, her ancestor, Maaij Claesje, might have had that related to the reproductive health of women. To do that, she has consulted a broad range of sources – from writings on slavery at the Cape and Indian and Atlantic Oceanographies, to medical anthropologies, ethnobotany, pharmabiology, narratives of enslavement, broken languages and lineages, persecution and harassment of midwives and female doctors through the centuries, and imperial botanies. The first time I heard about Wendy’s work of tracing, discovering, recovering, unearthing, collecting, and threading reproductive knowledge and lineage, I recognized in her an instinct of repair. I was gripped by the various female characters that were haunting her – especially her enslaved ancestor midwife Maaij Claesje- and ended up myself being haunted by Wendy’s project and intentions. Her project of tracing women’s lost, forgotten, and appropriated reproductive knowledge reminded me partly of my own work on the medicalisation of childbirth in Albania. In 2003 I had interviewed three different generations of women and midwives to trace the ‘professional theft’ that had taken place in generations replacing midwifes’ and women’s own knowledge of childbirth with an utterly male dominated, profitable, medicalised and interventionist profession. Wendy and I had found each other in Belgium, and had started to collaborate in various projects. This travel is something we had dreamt about and patiently worked to make real.

We greet and embrace each other with joy and start our ride back to our, I am told, lovely cottage near Houtbay. I witness a baboon chase, as the naughty and playful baboon messes up lots of garbage bins while looking for food. The chase is in vain, the baboon is just too good, and I am told that the whole thing is quite frequent. That afternoon we head for the botanical garden of Kirstenbosch, one of the greatest botanical gardens of the world, which is set against the eastern slopes of Cape Town’s majestic Table Mountain. We wander for hours among the wonders of the garden, postponing intentionally the pleasure of visiting as last what interests us the most, the Useful Plants Garden which has about 150 species, including many plants that would have been primarily used by women. Wendy knows too much meanwhile; she recognizes all the plants, enjoys their strong smell, but finds the explanations insufficient. Women’s ability to control their reproduction through the help of plants is never explicitly mentioned or celebrated. It’s always her fertility that is at stake, never her power to get rid of unwanted pregnancies, for which we do not even need imagination to know that must have been many, especially in contexts of slavery, abuse and poverty.

Useful Plants Garden, Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, Cape Town

On Tuesday, we head for the Waterfront to visit the Zeitz MOCAA, the museum of African contemporary art. I know almost nothing about contemporary South African artists, so being there with Wendy feels like a true privilege. At the counter they warn us about the exhibition of the third floor which contains nudities. It concerns the work of Tracey Rose, an artist’s work we are very interested in seeing. Rose is a radical voice in the international and South African art world and the museum features a large-scale exhibition of her works from 1996 to 2022, entitled Shooting Down Babylon. Rose’s work is strong: shocking, raging, brave, funny and absurd at the same time. She uses her own body as a site of protest, outrage, resistance, and healing in the context of post-colonial entanglements. Some of her works remind me of Pasolini’s work, but that can be simply due to my narrow and limited references. In her exhibition, we see also a series of sculptures titled A Dream Deferred (Mandela Balls), in which Rose proposes as a commentary on the slow disintegration of ideals upheld in the construction of a new South Africa, a topic we will come across frequently during our trip. Mandela Balls is an ongoing project to create 95 balls that represent Nelson Mandela’s age at the time of his death.

The day after we take the boat to Robben Island, the island in Table Bay just a few kilometers offshore from Cape Town that has been used since the 17th century, as often islands have been, as a place of imprisonment, banishment, and isolation for the sick and unwanted, the socially undesirable, the politically feared. Thousands of political prisoners were held in the island. Nelson Mandela spent there 18 years. Today the island is a museum and a bird sanctuary.

The boat that takes us there has the name of Krotoa, a Khoi woman who at 12 years old, in 1655 was taken to work at Cape’s first governor Jan Van Riebeeck’s home as a nanny for his children, as a servant for his household and later as a translator and negotiator for the Dutch, straddling literally two worlds. At the end of her life Krotoa was banished to Robben Island. The Cape is full of haunted places, where spirits of ancestors tortured, killed, and enslaved roam and whisper their stories and their truths. Robben Island is certainly one such place. Once landed at the harbour and before being brought to the maximum-security prison, to see among other things, Mandela’s cell, we are taken on a bus tour through the island to trace other haunted places of its multilayered history, such as the lepers’ church and graveyard, the Lime Quarry where the prisoners were forced to work, and the buildings where political prisoners, such as Robert Sobukwe, were imprisoned. The guide is very knowledgeable and generous with his knowledge of the island. The tour at the prison itself offers us less in terms of knowledge but is nevertheless a humbling experience because it is given by an ex-prisoner, a tradition we feel might be soon changing as the ex-prisoners are slowly aging.

Nelson Mandela’s cell, Robben Island, Cape Town

Leper graveyard Robben Island

At the end of the tour, we take off our shoes and enter the Moturu Kramat, a sacred site for Muslims, built to commemorate Sayed Adurohman Moturu, the Prince of Madura, who was one of Cape Town’s first imans exiled to the island in the 18th century. Kramats are holy shrines of Islam and mark the graves of Holy Men of the Muslim faith who have died at the Cape Cape. The city is circled by several kramats, which are believed to protect it. The circle starts at the Tana Baru, goes up to the kramats on Signal Hill, and then carries on to Oudekraal, Constantia, Macassar and Robben Island. In the days that come, we visit some of the other kramats as well.

The Moturu Kramat in Robben Island and Kramat on Signal Hill, Cape Town

In the afternoon we are joined by Liselotte, a student from KU Leuven who is doing an exchange programme in the University of Stellenbosch. Liselotte was a student in the course Gevangenisstraf als Doorleefde Realiteit where I participated as a moderator. The course is held in prison and consists of 12 KU Leuven students and 12 incarcerated students. The course creates among other things, a strong bond among its community, and therefore I am extremely happy to see Liselotte, and learn about her experiences as a student in South Africa. In the evening we meet our colleagues, Prof. Clifford Shearing who leads the Global Risk Governance programme in the Public Law Department at the University of Cape Town, and Ashleigh Dore, Project Manager at the Endangered Wildlife Trust and leader of an exciting pilot project of implementing restorative justice to wildlife crime. We are here to learn from them and offer our support. Thanks to our collaboration, Ashleigh has also found the inspiration and drive to embark on a PhD project.

Clifford Shearing, Wendy Morris, Ashleigh Dore, and Brunilda Pali, Cape Town

The day after, we meet Nadia Kamies, a writer and researcher who has recently completed a deeply personal PhD titled Shame and Respectability: a Narrative Enquiry into Cape Town’s ‘Coloured’ Families through Photographs, Cultural Practices and Oral Histories. Nadia is a collaborator on Wendy’s Expedition to the Copper Mountains, the Fieldguides for a Preternaturalist, and travelled with Wendy to Namaqualand. They are happy to meet up again. Nadia is guiding us through historical sites in Cape Town today.

We start with a visit to the Castle of Good Hope, the oldest colonial building in South Africa. The fortress was built by Dutch colonialists in the 17th century and has been the centre of civilian, political and military life at the Cape for centuries. Sailors, soldiers, local Khoikhoi, women and slaves were used as workforce. Many efforts are currently being made to transform the image of the castle from a place of armed colonial conquest, apartheid oppression and banishment, into a centre of memory healing and learning. We visit the Cape Muslim and Slave Heritage Museum, a community museum, which narrates the history of Cape’s people starting with the Portuguese and Dutch interaction with the indigenous people of the Cape and weaving through colonialism, emancipation of slavery, imperialism, apartheid, pass laws, separate development, the tot system and many other challenges that South Africans experienced over the past 400 years. From the high walls of the fort we see also the site-specific installation “Crying for Justice” by Haroon Gunn-Salie, a sculptural graveyard which is made up of 118 graves excavated into the landscape, symbolising the 117 known activists killed in detention by apartheid security forces. The last grave acknowledges activists killed in detention and who remain unaccounted for. The work highlights the need to dig up the past to reveal the truth behind these brutal killings and is intended to remain in the landscape until the truth is revealed. The word JUSTICE functions as a reverberating call to continue the fight for truth, justice and accountability in post-apartheid South Africa.

Installation Crying for Justice, by Haroon Gunn-Salie, Cape Town

Afterwards our little group splits in two. Wendy and Nadia visit the District Six Museum and I and Liselotte visit an exhibition on Desmond Tutu in the nearby Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation. Before its destruction under Apartheid, District Six was a highly diverse and vibrant community of freed slaves, merchants, artisans, labourers and immigrants, with close links to the city and the port. District Six thus became one of the main urban targets for destruction in the city of Cape Town. During Apartheid, more than 60 000 people were forcibly removed to barren outlying areas aptly known as the Cape Flats, and their houses in District Six were flattened by bulldozers. Since the late 1980s, the District Six Museum Foundation has played and plays an important role in the ongoing work of memory and restitution. At the Tutus’ Foundation we see the exhibition Truth to Power: Desmond Tutu & The Churches in the struggle against apartheid, which maps Tutu’s extraordinary legacy for peace and justice. We see several cartoons by Zapiro, a South African cartoonist who celebrated Tutu’s relentless activism through truth and satire. This one here is one of my favorites, it shows Tutu on the land of truth, with a map in his hand, lost, as he tried reaching the land of reconciliation in vain.

Photo from Exhibition Truth to Power: Desmond Tutu & The Churches in the struggle against apartheid, Desmond and Leah Tutu’s Legacy Foundation, Cape Town

In a similar spirit, we also read an important quote on the wall that illustrates the heart of why the Truth and Reconciliation Commission actually did fail in terms of achieving the ideals of restorative justice.

Photo from Exhibition Truth to Power: Desmond Tutu & The Churches in the struggle against apartheid, Desmond and Leah Tutu’s Legacy Foundation, Cape Town

In the evening we are joined by Joshua Cohen, an anthropologist who, together with Nadia, is one of the collaborators on Wendy’s Fieldguides project. Joshua wrote a PhD on healing ecologies in the Kamiesberg, a reflective investigation into relationships between kruiedokters (herb doctors), plants and patients. This research has guided Wendy in her project and though they have been working together on a contribution for the Fieldguides, they only meet in person this evening. Joshua has travelled from the UK to work on his contribution to the Fieldguides. Before the pandemic cancelled plans for many projects, Nadia and Joshua were set to work together on a food project in the Western Cape. It is the first time that they meet in person too. Joshua, Wendy, and Nadia share with excitement details and insights about their travels to Kamiesberg. We are thankful for all the conversations, for all the knowledge shared, the plans made, but most of all for the generous friendships that were forged during our time in South Africa.

Wendy Morris, Nadia Kamies, and Brunilda Pali, Signal Hill, Cape Town