Apartheid for sale in one of Cape Town's trendiest suburbs

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is shocked to discover a nest of price-tagged white supremacist bric-a-brac in a Kalk Bay antiques shop

22 July 2018 - 00:02 By Haji Mohamed Dawjee
A bench at a bus stop reserved for the use of whites only in Johannesburg in the 1960s.
A bench at a bus stop reserved for the use of whites only in Johannesburg in the 1960s.
Image: Gallo Images/Getty Images

From the dark corner of an overpopulated Kalk Bay second-hand store, among the scrappy bits of old Reader's Digests and National Geographics, the perfect chair stared at me: a single, hardwood, detached train seat wrapped in blue leather.

But as I ran my hand across the dust, I uncovered a history I wasn't ready for. The back of the seat was embossed with five bold letters, top and centre: NZASM, standing for Nederlandsche Zuid-Afrikaansche Spoorwegmaatschappij, or the Netherlands-South African Railway Company.

We had gone out searching for a chair. Not too small, not too big; comfortable enough for a guest when they visit (our apartment is tiny and seating is limited) and small enough to tuck away as part of the décor when not in use.

There's something so comforting about having a place to call your own, and the seat has its home in so many English figures of speech relating to this sense of comfort. Take a seat, keep a seat, pull up a seat. All of these encompass one thing - a sense of belonging.

I love a good chair and, more than that, I love a good second-hand chair.

We all have our preferred aesthetic and mine is that I love a story, so everything I own needs to tell one. And where better to find stories than in an antique store?

A chair is such an easy, simple thing. It's just always there, its use so obvious. A chair is for sitting, resting, waiting. A chair is for travelling. It's where you while away the hours between countries or towns. On planes, trains and buses, and in cars. Sometimes, a chair is that in-between space where your clothes live after they've exited the cupboard and before they enter the laundry bin.

A chair requires little thought - that is, until it reveals itself to be so much more than just a chair.

An item of furniture designed and designated for the comfort of the coloniser as they travelled about this country from 1887 to 1902

Like when I discovered that chair, in that dark corner, in that popular store. An item of furniture designed and designated for the comfort of the coloniser as they travelled about this country from 1887 to 1902.

Not all stories are good stories, and this story was one I did not want staring back at me in my tiny lounge. Telling its tale of oppression to me over and over again.

More than that, I was certainly not going to pay for a piece of history I so much despised. The thought crossed my mind to have a conversation with the store owner about the chair, but antique stores in Kalk Bay are a dime a dozen and not every owner is a historian.

Besides, five letters embossed on a chair do not the perpetuation of oppression make. They could mean anything, right? I mean, they didn't - but they could. So I left the store, and I left the chair, with some false notion of responsible and conscious shopping intact, and moved on to the next.

Up the stairs on a Kalk Bay side street you will find an apartment that poses as a store. It has more knick-knacks than the other second-hand shops put together. Everything seems to be arranged by material. One room is dedicated to brass, for example, another to dinner sets.

The bathroom seemed to be reserved for apartheid memorabilia. An uncomfortable cave of forbidden fruit. A bunch of crap from apartheid lying around in the toilet.

The bathtub was filled with the shocking "whites only" signs, which seemed to be quite well kept. The walls were decorated with old South African flags and portraits of Verwoerd and the like. A room of one's own ... their own. A portal to the past, perfectly preserved - and not in the critical and educational way these very items are kept in the Apartheid Museum, for example.

At first I comforted myself with the thought that at least the owner had the sense to dump the lot in the bathroom. But this false sense of comfort quickly dissolved when, seconds later, an employee of the place walked into that bathroom.

She was an elderly black woman in a domestic worker's uniform. In one hand she carried a dust cloth and spritz bottle, and with the other she rummaged through her own painful past that worked hard to spit on her. She was looking for something the owner had requested on behalf of a customer. A white customer.

The spirit of apartheid lives and breathes in the hands of a black woman whose job it is to dust off paraphernalia loaded with racism, cultural resonance and heinous acts against humanity

Here we are in South Africa, it's 2018, and the spirit of apartheid lives and breathes in the hands of a black woman whose job it is to dust it off and polish it every day so that her white employer can sell paraphernalia loaded with racism, cultural resonance and heinous acts against humanity.

Why is this allowed?

The sale and auction of Nazi memorabilia, for example, is banned in several European countries, including Germany and France. Why? Well, firstly, because they are reminders of monstrous crimes against humanity. Another reason is that preventing their sale means preventing (to an extent) anti-Semitic behaviour.

People in many countries who want to glorify Nazi Germany and all that it stood for by collecting relics and creating shrines in their own homes will find it very, very hard to do so because it is illegal to purchase or sell any material that is a manifestation of that fascism.

In South Africa, it is the opposite.

How can we cleanse a past when we still live in a present stained with the blood of "whites only" signs?

How do we defend artefacts that may be useful in the study of history, when we are asking the black working class to go around stores like these and relive the experience of their own past, the torture their families went through, the pain of their circumstances - and, more than that, when we ask them to preserve it?

How does that store owner sleep at night, I wonder?

How does that woman sleep at night after not only having to look apartheid in the face day after day, but after also being responsible for "taking care" of it?

Where do we draw the line between antiques and apartheid?

When will we draw this line?

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