Whose voice? Between slavery, identity and gentrification in Cape Town – an interview with Sam North (Episode 7)

Sam North when the Rhodes memorial was being removed at UCT in April 2015/Picture by Sam North
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Sam North is an AHRC PhD Heritage Scholar at the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull and the School of Cultural Studies at Leeds Beckett University. His research to-date has focused upon recovering forgotten voices of the past within the British World.

Sam first graduated from the Department of History at University of Hull in July 2013 with a first class BA in History. His final year undergraduate dissertation explored white poverty in South Africa during the 1920s and 1930s. He subsequently studied for a MA in Historical Research at the University of Sheffield where his thesis investigated the anti-slavery movement in Britain between 1787 and 1833 with a particular focus on Sheffield abolitionism. This was completed with Distinction in September 2014.

Outside of academia, he has worked for the National Trust at Clumber Park, researching experiences of the First World War on the estate. He has also worked with secondary schools at heritage sites across Yorkshire including industrial heritage in Sheffield and BME heritage in Hull.

The ‘Column of Memory’ in the Slave Lodge/Picture by Sam North

As a city, Cape Town sits on top of an uncomfortable history of colonialism, slavery, and formal racial segregation. This history has an uneasy relationship with depictions of the city in tourist publications as an inclusive world of adventuring, beaches, dining, and warm weather. Cape Town’s problematic relationship with its slave past runs deeper than this. Slavery is a history which until the fall of apartheid in 1994 remained largely forgotten in public memory. Efforts to confront this history remain fitful and highly contested.


Slavery at the Cape differed in style from most other systems of enslavement involving Europeans and Africans. Rather than serving as a source of human labour, the Cape was the recipient of enslaved people from Dutch Batavia – modern day South East Asia – as well as from elsewhere in Africa, predominantly Madagascar and Mozambique.


Memory and recognition of slave roots in South Africa has been marginalised by decades of subsequent subjugation and selective promotion of settler histories. The majority of slave descendants were classified as ‘coloured’ by the state.

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In a democratic post-apartheid South Africa described as a ‘Rainbow Nation’ by then-president Nelson Mandela, the freedom to associate oneself with a variety of identities has become possible. Slavery, however, has remained somewhat clouded in shame amongst descendants, whilst the African National Congress government was initially reluctant to promote what it perceived as a divisive ancestral history which evoked a separatist ‘coloured’ identity. Attempts to memorialise the enslaved were minimal during the first decade of democracy, and characterised by debate and contestation. When a developer discovered a nineteenth century working class cemetery beneath a plot in Prestwich Street central Cape Town in 2003, a campaign was mobilised by people who identified as slave descendants to prevent exhumation of the remains which they claimed were those of their ancestors.


For those opposing exhumation, the central issue was respect for their ancestors, with other points of contestation relating to who should and should not have the right to speak and act on their behalf. The other side of the argument was represented primarily by academics and representatives from state agencies, with a common thread of argument being that exhumation and analysis would in fact give greater voice to the human remains by revealing biographical information.

– Sam North

In this conversation, we discuss many issues, amongst which are:

  • Identity issue
  • Whose voice is to be heard
  • The link between gentrification and dignity
  • The concept of social justice


  • Listen to this episode on Mixcloud
  • You can listen to the previous episode here
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