Walls, Fences and Private Prisons

3330867580_f8166df799_zIn 1652 my ancestors landed at the Cape of Good Hope on good days, or the Cape of Storms on bad days.The first thing these intrepid travellers, representing the merchant capitalist Dutch East Indies Corporation on landing, did was to build a wall called the Fort, which later became the Castle. So they landed at the Cape, but they never quite arrived, for inside the Fort/Castle they replicated Holland and for those walled out the wall represented exclusion, threat, inhospitality.

Europe was experiencing a mercantile boom as a result of global trade, and this trade represented intense competition between, Spain and Portugal on the one side and the Dutch on the other.  The old feudal order was slowly decaying and the might of the great monopoly corporation of the time, the Catholic Church was being challenged on all fronts. The challenge came from the Renaissance, a revival in free thinking that would eventually see even the great monarchies of Europe crumbling before the new class, the business class, the bourgeoisie.

The Khoi herders and the San hunters at the Cape must have been puzzled by this disembarkation, this landing without arriving, this population that on landing imprisoned itself immediately behind walls. Prisoners who needed no prison guards, who armed themselves to defend their own imprisonment. But then the Khoi and the San had no prisons. But, they soon got to learn about prisons as they would be among the very first to be imprisoned on Robben Island.

Like a cancer the imprisonment, the walling of people and the fencing of land spread out from the Cape of Good Hope Storms towards the interior, driven by these strange tribes of Europe who liked to imprison themselves and the land, and to systematically, under the force of arms exclude others from it.

However, what made all this activity even stranger was the fact that all the names had to change. The names of rivers, the names of places, the names of animals. The energy with which the land was being fenced and walled was absolutely amazing and the greater the area being fenced and walled the more the indigenous peoples were excluded from the land. The entire land was being imprisoned and defending the land or its animals brought certain retribution from those who had landed at the Cape in 1652, those who would lock themselves in behind walls and fences. Those who landed, but never arrived.

I grapple with these things, because I want to arrive, and have since I was twenty years old decided to get out from behind the walls and fences and meet the people with whom I am sharing this country and continent, and to do so without a gun in my hand or ‘property’ (newspeak for private prison) to defend. So crawled out of the larger and was surprised that I was not met by a cloud of assegais raining down on me. I have sat down under a karee boom and had beer with those whose ancestors inhabited this land before 1652, yet now only have access to between 14% and 16% and found them most accommodating, humane and not in any way embittered. We, my ancestors and I have squeezed the vast majority of the people of this land into matchbox and RDP houses as we walled and fenced most of the rest of the land for ourselves, and having taken the lion’s share of space for our own, be it spacious private prisons, forced the rest of the population to cling to the edges.

More recently we realised that it was unsustainable to defend our privileged private prisons ourselves, so we came to an arrangement which allows the black majority of South Africans to elect their own prison guards and to guard themselves. This is what must be meant by ‘civilising’ the ‘others.’ Teaching them to build walls and fences in which to imprison themselves. However, seeing that we have taken up most of the space, despite being a minority, we caution the people who inhabited most of this land without walls and fences before 1652 not to have so many children, how will they fit them all into 14% to 16% of the land after all?



  1. Mtutu Bevela · · Reply

    Well written.
    Sadly the opinion contained in this article is on par with the best from Hollywood.
    Total fiction

  2. Mtutu interesting but contradictory comment. Did Jan van Riebeeck not land at the Cape in April 1652? Did Van Riebeeck not work for the Dutch East India Company? Was one of Van Riebeeck’s first instructuctions not to build a fort, and then later a castle – or is the monstrosity still standing there in the city not a castle? Were the Khoi and the San not among the first to be interned at Robben Island? Is there not an obsession with crime and security (walls and fencing) in this country? Do you find white and black South Africans mixing freely beyond the workplace. Do white South Africans visit black friends socially in townships and squatter camps?

  3. We are a self imprisoned society. Some are imprisoned by their property, others are imprisoned for their lack of property.

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