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Noëleen Murray and Leslie Witz’s Hostels, Homes, Museum Launched with Ciraj Rassool

Leslie Witz and Noëleen Murray

The Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum was the site of great jubilation last weekend, when members of the Lwandle community celebrated the academic team who had told their story. Noëleen Murray and Leslie Witz’s Hostels, Homes, Museum: Memorialising migrant labour pasts in Lwandle, South Africa is a powerful tribute to the men (and later, women) who lived there. Many of those who had endured under the system of migrant labour, single-sex hostels and the control of black workers through the reviled pass book, were there to celebrate. Now in advanced years, they were joined by a range of visitors who had been instrumental in establishing the museum and who had contributed to the success of the publication.

Masa Soko, Leslie Witz, Noëleen Murray and Ciraj RassoolHostels, Homes, MuseumAcademic and author Ciraj Rassool opened the event by calling for a minute’s silence in memory of those who had lost their lives at Marikana. He paid tribute to the process the museum had undergone and the vision and energy that seen the transformation of the heritage site into its current function.

The team of authors shared an amusing account of their earliest recollections of how the unlikely project took shape. Witz said, “I first heard of the possibility of a museum in Lwandle in 1998 when the University of the Western Cape, together with the Robben Island Museum and the University of Cape Town began offering a Postgraduate Diploma in Museum and Heritage Studies that would extend vocational possibilities in the heritage sector. In the first year of the programme one of the students approached me during a break in class and told me of where he lived and spoke of plans to develop a museum of migrant labour around the last remaining hostel. I was highly sceptical. Within the boundaries of historical narratives of the Western Cape that I had read and studied over the years, Lwandle did not feature at all.”

The academic continued, “Nonetheless the student, Bongani Mgijima, seemed bright and enthusiastic and when he returned with a set of somewhat uninspiring and unremarkable photographs of the area, I promised to go there to see what was happening and how the envisaged museum was progressing. My expectations were not high,” he said.

Murray confirmed that almost a year later, in 1999, Witz kept his promise to Mgijima and set off along Settlers Way. “Bongani had indicated it would be easy to find Lwandle and the museum as it was just beyond Somerset West off the N2. Soon after leaving Somerset West, however, Leslie saw the large billboard on the left hand side of the road indicating that he had arrived at place called Heritage Park. Bongani had written an article for the local newspaper, The District Mail, in June 1998, with the title ‘Let’s talk heritage matters’ and he had given Leslie a copy.”

In the article Bongani pointed to the potential of the buildings of Lwandle being constituted as a heritage tourism site symbolising the struggle of the people. “This aspect combined with the ‘hundreds’ of praise-singers, traditional healers, handcrafts, artists, songs, traditional dancers, art performers and other cultural activists,” he maintained, made Lwandle a potential “showcase … of living heritage”. The sign for what was being called Heritage Park seemed to not contain any of the aspects that embraced Bongani’s claims to heritage for Lwandle that were under construction on the opposite side of the N2.

“The heraldic emblem for ‘Heritage Park’ on the billboard facing the N2 displayed a drawing of a bunch of red grapes and an acorn, signalling a romantic association with a past of leafy European settlement at the Cape winelands. Below the shield inscribed in a scroll of honour were the words: ‘Live, work and play in safety’. This was the motto and insignia of a gated community that was being imagined by a private developer.

“Barely 300 metres after the ‘Heritage Park’ sign Leslie noticed a large open area of land on the right hand side of the motorway. A road sign indicated the correct turnoff to Lwandle, which Bongani had described as the location of the museum project. He went past a house painted white where a flag with an octagonal decal indicated a police presence, and on to a street named Vulindlela (translated as ‘pioneer’) where long rows of buildings were all adorned with solar panels on their roofs.

“Opposite what seemed to be a taxi rank there was a small café, and across a stretch of bare dusty ground was a building that bore all the functionality of apartheid design. It was symmetrical, austere, windowless, largely made of facebrick, and had a sloping roof on either side that reached a central apex. Outside the building he saw Bongani anxiously waiting for him.

Witz took over the narrative: “Bongani invited me to enter what he proudly called the Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum. What he had done in the time since graduating with his Postgraduate Diploma in Museum and Heritage Studies was that he and Charmian Plummer, an ex-school teacher and resident of Somerset West, had begun marking out the space of this unattractive building as a museum. Having few resources at their disposal they had resorted to putting notices and photographs to the walls, using A4 sheets and prestik.

“The content of what they had labelled as an exhibition was largely a series of photographs of contemporary Lwandle street scenes by local photographers who had offered their services without payment. A notice indicated that the mission of the Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum was: ‘To commemorate the migrant labour system and hostel life.’

“I thought that Bongani was either very brave or stupid, and that it would be almost impossible for this so-called museum to survive. But I also had a great deal of admiration for him in trying to initiate this project with almost no resources and with what appeared to be very little support either in Lwandle, from other museums or from residents of nearby Somerset West. Bongani and I had joked just before I departed about Heritage Park across the N2 and Bongani indicated that he had actually approached the property developer for assistance but that this was not forthcoming.”

Murray reflected on the intervening years: “Somewhat surprisingly, a little over 15 years later and almost by chance, and despite constant threats of closure, there is a museum in Lwandle and it is the story of those fifteen years of museum making that we relate in our book. The project for this book took shape around plans for the museum’s 10th birthday in 2010 and the restoration of a migrant labour hostel, labelled as hostel 33. I had joined the board a couple of years after Leslie and it was Bongani’s enthusiasm over an architectural academic being involved that drew me into an idea of combining design and research.

“From 2008 onwards the museum had turned its attention to the restoration of hostel 33 and had secured funding from the US Ambassadors Cultural preservation Fund, the National lottery Board and the National Heritage Council. I was granted a UWC Arts Faculty two-year post-doc fellowship in the Centre for Humanities Research with the explicit intention of critically reflecting upon the processes of museum making and deepening the intellectual project of the museum. What it became was spending months in my gumboots getting to know the life and structure of the hostel, working with builders, architects, residents of Lwandle, and staff of the museum in the pursuit of what we began to call the rehabilitation of hostel 33,” she said.

Witz reflected on the recent events that had cast Lwandle into the world’s eye. He said, “Until a few months ago on Google maps the Lwandle museum was located next to the Somerset Mall. But from June this year when a series of land evictions commenced, Lwandle, became headline news. As we know in the midst of one of the severest storms in Cape Town residents and their homes in Siyanyanzela (translated meaning: ‘we are forcing’), a settlement on land adjacent to Lwandle that was set aside for the extension of the national road, were forcibly removed by the police and officers from a private security company acting on behalf of the South African National Roads Agency (SANRAL).

“From being a place that was hardly written about, and had received little attention in contemporary urban studies, Lwandle suddenly appeared to become highly visible in the national media. But at the same time as it became ‘breaking news’ Lwandle has remained dislocated and invisible – an urban ‘informal settlement’ that could be anywhere at any time. And when in breaking news a photo appears to accompany a story, an image of Khayelitsha is put in place as a generic township settlement, providing an easy replicable substitute.”

After the talk, guests visited the heritage site and heard about the process of rehabilitation, and how “the hostel 33, with a small ‘h’, became the proper noun Hostel 33, with an upper case ‘H’.”

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Liesl Jobson tweeted live from the event using the hashtag #livebooks


 

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Book details

  • Hostels, Homes, Museum: Memorialising migrant labour pasts in Lwandle, South Africa by Noëleen Murray and Leslie Witz
    EAN: 9781775820772
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!
 

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