Graaff-Reinet: Persistence of white supremacy in the Eastern Cape

Picture: Bheki Radebe/Independent Media

Racism – white supremacy – is still deeply entrenched and memorialised in most, if not all, the former settler colonial towns and cities of South Africa. In fact, institutionalised racism and institutions that represent racism and white colonial power are protected by the constitution, the supreme law of the land in South Africa, and are characterised as “national heritage sites”.

One such town that continues to be a significant, yet silent, torchbearer of the legacy of white supremacy in this country is Graaff-Reinet. Graaf-Reinet was established by the Dutch East Indian Company in 1786 and is South Africa’s fourth oldest magisterial district or town in South Africa, after Cape Town, Stellenbosch, and Swellendam. 

It is named after the settler governor of the Cape Colony, Cornelis Jacob van de Graaff, and his wife, Hester Cornelia Reinet. This is considered the first “Boer Republic” in South Africa. Cornelis Jacob van de Graaff, like all other settler colonialists before and after him, was responsible for horrendous atrocities against Afrikan people in the Eastern frontier during the Second War of Dispossession (Second Frontier War) of 1789-1793.

The town contains over 220 European settler colonial hertage sites, institutions and landmarks – more than any other town in the country. Heritage refers to the whole complex of organizations, institutions and practises devoted to the preservation and presentation of culture and historical memory.

It was irony, tragedy and satire to witness the two worlds that exists in this Karoo town, rich in histories of struggle and resistance against colonial invasions and land dispossession, last week Saturday when we buried Dinilesizwe ‘Bra Dini’ Sobukwe, son of Pan-Africanist stalwarts, Robert Mangaliso and Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe.

Although Bra Dini lived in a street surrounded by white neighbours at number 14 North Street in Graaff-Reinet, many of whom he helped and interacted with during his lifetime, none of these whites were present, neither at his memorial service, nor at his funeral. Their often declared ‘universal’ and ‘Christian’ values of good neighbourliness were not applicable to Sobukwe; a telling irony considering that it was his father, Mangaliso, who taught the oneness of the human race. That spirit of oneness exists only in the imagination of Black people.  

Navigating through the town one is also confronted by the racial architecture and spatial setting of Graaff-Reinet that speaks volumes. On side of the town is located the impoverished uMasizakhe and Kroonvalle townships; far removed from the white suburbs located at the centre.

Right in the middle of town three specific colonial sites I refer to as an unholy trinity of State, War and Church: Queen Victoria Hall, erected in 1910 in commemoration of the reign of Queen Victoria and King Edward VII; War Memorial known as “Victory Peace Angel” or “Angel Park” in honour of Graaff-Reinet men who died in the first European Tribal War (World War I), mounted on 07 November 1923 and unveiled by H.R.H. Prince Arthur of Connaught; and the Dutch Reformed Church also known as Grotekerk.

Constructed in April 1886 and consecrated in 1887, the Grotekerk is modelled on Salisbury Cathedral in England. The church is a wealthy one amidst this destitute and wretched community, and still attracts a large congregation to its doors. Surrounding this church, and at the very tail end of this unholy trinity are situated all the banks: Capitek, FNB, ABSA, Nedbank, Standard Bank; they encircle the big church (Grotekerk).

Then right at the end of the white community is the now closed old Graaff-Reinet Swimming Pool. It belonged to the municipality, but was subsequently sold to a private owner who couldn’t sustain the business. Today this old Swimming Pool lies in ruins, abandoned, whilst the children in the local Graaff-Reinet communities have absolutely no recreational facilities.

One local colleague, Thabiso Olifant who guided my brief tour, informed me that the Pool was closed by whites who detested sharing it with Black people. As we drove past the Pool I noticed an imposing pyramid uphill and requested that we drive towards it to investigate. It is a colonial monument built in commemoration of the founding of the Union of South Africa on 31st May 1910.

The Union of South Africa was formed under British dominion as an exclusively white settler colony that excluded Afrikan people in its constituted citizenry. Afrikans were not regarded as equal citizens under the law in this settler colony established in their Ancestral soil. It was exactly eight years after the signing of the treaty of Vereeneging which had brought the Second Anglo-Dutch (Anglo-Boer) War to an end.

Interestingly, this racist settler colony became one of the founding members of the League of Nations (now United Nations) even though it was established on principles and values that contravene the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The four sides of the pyramid monument bear memorial plagues engraved the words ‘Cape Colony’, ‘Transvaal’, ‘Natal’ and ‘Orange Free State’. These are the four white colonial states that were united to form the illegitimate state called South Africa.

This racist monument represents the defeat of Afrikans and victory of European colonialism in South Africa. However, like countless other colonial monuments, it is protected by the prescripts of the law in this country, regarded as a national heritage site. But the critical question is whose heritage really is celebrated, conserved and memorialised here, and to whose benefit is such conservation and memorialisation deemed necessary?

Significantly though, all these plagues are defaced by members of the local community who expressed their contempt and disgust by writing with charcoal on the white plagues the words “Jou Poes”. All four plagues bear this powerfully symbolic graffiti. Beyond this racialized architecture and stratified spatiality of Graaff-Reinet, it is the superior economic and social standing that white people in this town hold that exposes the silent persistence of racism – white supremacy – in this Eastern Cape town.

It is therefore no wonder that this town gave birth to one of the greatest intellectuals and philosophers of the Azanian soil, Professor Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. Birthed here and schooled in the neighbouring communities of Healdtown and Alice, Sobukwe went on to crystalize the ideas of (Pan) Afrikanism that would challenge the entrenched system of savage Herrenvolkism.

The contemporary fight against racism – white supremacy – must interrogate and look beyond the institutionalised racism in big cities and towns.  The ‘bigger fish’, so to speak, are located in the small towns and rural areas like Graaff-Reinet. These are today’s silent vestiges and enclaves of the evil.


Thando Sipuye is an Afrikan-centred historian and a social scientist. He is an executive member of The Ankh Foundation and the Africentrik Study Group based at the University of Sobukwe (Fort Hare). He currently works as the Programme Officer at the Steve Biko Foundation. He writes in his personal capacity.