Salt River’s Wall Wars: Forging Solidarities Through People’s History

POSTED ON: September 10, 2023 IN 3rd Text Africa, Koni Benson, Thulile Gamedze, Uncategorized, Word View

by Koni Benson and Thulile Gamedze

(This article is forthcoming in the next 3rd Text Africa issue, “WALLS,” guest edited by Thulile Gamedze.)


“The making of art is the closest we have to freedom. We have the freedom to be creative. Art is almost weaponized to keep us complicit within capitalism and it is weaponized to give us a brand, and the very creativity that is so important to the freedom dream, is also the creativity that is sustaining neoliberal infrastructures that are opposed to freedom dreams.” [1]

Elleza Kelley, Freedom Dreams discussion series with Robin D.G. Kelley, 2023.

“FREE PALESTINE…From Salt River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free,” Fenton Road, completed July 2021, Source: Koni Benson.

In 2021, murals on the walls of the Salt River neighbourhood in Cape Town, became the symbolic surfaces of an ongoing solidarity struggle against forces of gentrification in Cape Town, and more broadly, against colonialism and land theft from South Africa to Palestine. These ‘wall wars’ — in which covertly edited murals frankly or subtly pushed anticolonial ideological stances — draw our attention to the ways that aesthetic work can be part of the mobilisation of community and solidarity organising for land and place.

In Salt River, a relatively new history-focused group has been part of the neighbourhood’s mission to determine what happens within and on their own walls. The Salt River Heritage Society (SRHS) was founded in 2018, to “collect, collate and record the heritage, histories and traditions of the community based on its opposition to rank gentrification and forced removals.[2] They host public events from community arts festivals, to book launches, photography exhibitions, and music performances. They also run an oral history project and organise visits to archives, walks of remembrance and solidarity, and community food and indigenous plant gardens, amongst other activities. SRHS projects are dedicated to the acquisition, preservation, and exhibition of Salt River people’s history — be it architectural, cultural or natural. Their understanding of historical work is as an active intervention in ongoing coloniality, and they seek to “liberate heritage from the lip service of romanticised pasts with zero concern facing people in the present.”[3]

It is in this spirit that SRHS, along with other Salt River neighbours, took a stand against the aesthetic invasions of Baz-Art. Baz-Art — a Belgian-French owned company operating on the African continent — uses what they call “urban art” for the purposes of marketing engagement.[4] They claim to “transform spaces,” producing murals in service of clients hoping to “launch a new product or service, or beautify the workplace.”[5] Apart from this, Baz-Art, the NGO, launched its flagship International Public Art Festival (IPAF) in Salt River in 2017, which took place there annually until 2021, except in 2020, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. For the event, IPAF commissioned and unveiled a number of murals under chosen themes in Salt River, with their line-ups consisting of half international and half South African mural artists.[6]

Vice-chairperson of the Salt River Heritage Society and film director Anwar Omar has drafted three texts on histories of Salt River street art, including more recent histories of Baz-Art involvement. [9] He comments that:

“What is very apparent from the content of the 140 Baz-Art murals currently on display in the area, is its lack of relevance to the history, heritage, and culture of the community of Salt River specifically. Less than 5% of all the art currently displayed on the walls of   the suburb is relevant to the community’s history, heritage and culture.” [10]

What we argue in this paper is that the struggles for what is on the outside of these walls is intricately connected to who lives inside these walls. Further, we argue that the battle for the walls of Salt River is part of a larger, ongoing struggle against colonial forces of displacement reconfigured in the contemporary period as gentrification, which is falsely presented as an inevitable and positive process of neighbourhood diversification, or an ‘antidote’ to segregation. But as historian Robin D.G. Kelley points out, “gentrification is not about integration. It never was. It is a form of settler colonialism.”[11]

A graffiti by-law passed in the Cape in 2010 during a soccer World Cup urban “clean up,” made walls legally inaccessible to artists who had long-established a mural and writing culture in Cape Town urban space.[12] In terms of the walls of Salt River, local artist, FERS, whose previous work has been painted over during the graffiti by-law era, describes: “it just feels like colonialism on a street art level.”[13] The City of Cape Town’s bureaucracy makes it particularly difficult for individuals and community organisations like Salt River Heritage Society to get timeous permission to put up murals. [14]  IPAF’s comparatively easy access to Salt River walls and to City of Cape Town funding since 2017, as well as its shocking decision to not pay festival artists, were initial grounds for suspicion of Baz-Art. Furthermore, the festival’s first mission statement was quoted by FERS as having described the neighbourhood as having “entered the early phases of gentrification.” The same statement went on to say that: “The movement [gentrification] is likely to help redefine Salt River as a dynamic neighbourhood with its own unique character rather than just a somewhat derelict neighbour to Observatory and Woodstock.”[15] FERS’ blog post, “The Gentrification of Graffiti,” argued:

“There are two things that are very dear to me. One is graffiti and the other is the community of Salt River. Please tell me, what is good about gentrification and how does it help people blossom into your utopian ideals? Salt River is the last community where gentrification has not been hit as hard as other affected areas within the CBD.”[16]

As a result of these issues concerning Baz-Art’s IPAF — all documented in a highly-researched article on the mechanisms of public art commissions and tenders in South Africa by Atiyyah Khan [17]— numerous local artists pulled out of the 2017 festival, and were publicly critical of the platform.[18] Khan’s article, which also exposed some of IPAF’s funding to be linked to Israeli and zionist bodies, came out in 2020, a number of years into Baz-Art’s attempts at the “transformation” of Salt River. When they were called out by the SRHS in early 2021, the fundamental political schism resulted, at street-level, in a covert aesthetic battle through murals. This battle is the focus of the first part of our discussion.

Our article reflects on forms of self-organising, asking the question “how do we resist?” in the context of multiple processes of gentrification. Crucially, it also considers collective strategies that go beyond the necessary work of defending space and correcting unwelcome or appropriated narratives. SRHS’ involvement exceeds what we might typically understand as “heritage,” participating in allied organising with likeminded heritage societies for food in the face of the deepened poverty caused by Covid-19, public forums and gardening projects, and taking overt stands against evictions and displacement in wider Cape Town. This ethos of care, coming out of a history of civic based anti-apartheid organising, has created the conditions for meaningful cultural work to emerge, that nurtures the living heritage of the neighbourhood.[19] Thus, the second part of the essay explores the SRHS involvement in autonomously produced murals supported by Salt River residents, which reflect histories of the neighbourhood and its social and political life and solidarities. In particular, we look to SRHS’s involvement in organising three new public artworks that were unveiled at their 2021 Heritage Day Community Arts Festival. “In addition to its aesthetic value,” commented Yusuf Lalkhen, the first Chairperson of the SRHS, “we want residents to pause and reflect on the [murals’] messages of social justice, value of sport in a community for youth development, and finally about international solidarity.”[20] How these reflections are mobilised to foster collective action can be seen in an exploration of the SRHS organisation of Walks of Resistance, as living creative, spatial interventions of freedom dreams, that in parallel enact the histories and solidarities written on the walls.

The Baz-Art Murals in Salt River

“All of Us?”

The mural All Of Us was created as part of Baz-Art’s fifth annual IPAF, held in February of 2021 in Cape Town. Despite 2019 talks between Baz-Art and SRHS, in which the former had agreed to work with the theme “history and heritage” (for which SHRS intended to create an interactive and ongoing timeline mural of Salt River’s history of the last 500 years), Baz-Art unilaterally went forward with the theme 100% Sustainable.

Figure 1: All of Us, Baz-Art mural by Morag Myerscough and Ilukuluku, corner of Voortrekker Road and Douglas Street, completed February 2021, Source: Anwar Omar.

The All Of Us mural (fig.1) is a collaboration between the London-based artist Morag Myerscough and the Cape Town Ilukuluku collective, who work with artists, architects and volunteers. Ilukuluku proudly abides by the guiding principles of AfrikaBurn, an annual local event offshoot of the American “Burning Man,” in which participants trek to the Karoo desert in the Western Cape for a festival of arts, which sees itself as a space of “inclusive community building, decommodification, creativity, self-reliance and radical self-expression.” The principles include benign-enough notions like “radical inclusion,” “civic responsibility,” and “communal effort.” In practice, however, these are largely realised through a community of predominantly white middle-class hippie types, who could be accused of producing more of a utopian racist enclave, than an anarchist egalitarian alternative.[21] Artist Myerscough creates colourful, design-informed works all over the world, including large-scale murals and three-dimensional, stage set-esque installations. All Of Us is twenty-one metres long and covers the outer wall of a 1940s Salt River Heritage building on the corner of Voortrekker Road and Douglas Street. The painting itself — rendered in the neat, geometric familiarity of what we could call ‘gentrification aesthetics’ — is composed of orderly patterns rendered in bright and pastel blues, greens, pinks, oranges, reds and yellows, which create a backdrop to the large, central message, reading “ALL OF US,” in letters with dimensional shadowing.

Ilukuluku director Shaun Sebastian claims that the mural came about through research, and is quoted as saying “The original intention of ‘All of us’ was to speak to the local community with our research dating back to 1501 (sic), relating to the indigenous Khoisan and Indians who came to cross the Spice Route.”[22] In addition to this generic and incorrectly-dated history, Sebastian, in another article, is quoted saying that “The modern-day Salt River is an energetic hub for up-and-coming artists and architects, and [with the mural] we wanted to talk to the community by sharing ideas that could bind the community together.”[23] In this statement, Sebastian makes it seem that his vision of contemporary Salt River is of the ‘up-and-coming’ creatives speaking for its ‘historical’ residents, who now form a disappearing “community.” Not only does Sebastian implicitly prioritise gentrifiers’ presence in Salt River, but the pseudo-historical explanation of the mural betrays art’s potential to de-historisise, depoliticise, and essentially assist in the colonisation of space, whilst hiding behind sanitised messaging.

It is of note that until later in 2021, the All of Us wall was shared in part by the forty-year-old discount clothing and footwear store, Reject King, which then went out of business, and is sadly missed by many neighbours. Additionally, the parking lot next to the mural was, until recently, the site of a Victorian building which housed Dollah’s Food Takeaways, another iconic Salt River business. This is what we mean by gentrification: local people pushed out of their spaces by ‘the market,’ a force directly linked to ill-gotten historical wealth and privilege. Who can afford to occupy these spaces now? Although not directly linked to the mural, it is important to note that its site was already burdened by gentrification, in other words, the problem of “not all of us.” This was, of course, only deepened by the Covid crisis.

Figure 2: All of Us… MUST FREE PALESTINE, May 2021, Source: Anwar Omar.

Anonymous editing to Ilukuluku’s amorphous and seemingly gentri-aligned message was thus of no surprise. For a couple of glorious days in May, it read “ALL OF US… MUST FREE PALESTINE” (fig.2). It was no coincidence that the timing of the intervention coincided with the 2021 round of evictions in Sheikh Jarrah in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem. The evictions led to worldwide protests, and in South Africa, due to Covid-lockdown protocols, were organised on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. The demonstration in Salt River was organised by its wing of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC), chaired by Martin Jansen, also a member of the SRHS.[24] It was one of many decentralised marches across the city, and importantly, raised issues of resistance to eviction in both occupied Palestine, and gentrifying and occupied Cape Town.[25] The march commenced at the Salt River Circle, opposite the freshly sprayed message, where Imam Rashied Omar reminded the crowd:

“When a human being dies and we are silent, something dies inside of us… We must rally for Palestine, but if people in the DRC or anywhere else are oppressed then the Palestinians don’t need you. If you don’t fight against oppression right here in South Africa, then the Palestinians don’t need you. A sectarian struggle is one where we are only concerned about people in Palestine and not concerned about people in Khayelitsha. We say no! We need to have an intersectional struggle of oppressed people all over the world.” [26]

This turbulent period, in which the everyday violence of Israeli occupation was ramped up to extreme levels, made the ‘apolitical’ attempt underlying the large-scale ‘happy’ artwork all the more insulting to Salt River neighbours.

At this time, Baz’s track record of misrepresentation and second class treatment of local artists was long exposed, and furthermore, they were now shown, by Khan’s article, to be a zionist-friendly organisation receiving Israeli funding.[27] The discovery of these funding links, as well as Baz-Art’s false claims to a “partnership” with SRHS in a December (2020) BizCommunity article, mobilised the Society to take an explicit stand against Baz-Art, whom they had previously been open to working with.[28] Initially, SRHS had exchanged two letters with Baz-Art in January of 2021 regarding these issues, as well as asking for clarity on Baz-Art’s treatment of local artists and their position on Israeli apartheid. Later on, they issued a public statement on their stance, refuting Baz-Art’s claims of a partnership with them, and stating their own position in response.[29] Cited at the forefront of SRHS’s reasons for non-collaboration was “the close co-operation between Baz-Art and Israeli artists, the South African Zionist Federation and the Israeli Embassy in South Africa. Not only has Baz-Art obtained funding from Israel, it has actively promoted Israeli artists to participate in the IPAF.”[30]

The “MUST FREE PALESTINE” edit was scrawled across the painting in black spray paint, with no attempt at beauty, no adherence to the mural’s aesthetic goals, and a deliberate lack of respectability, clashing with the colourful, however whitewashed, painting. The effect was two-fold, on the one hand, expressing solidarity with the Palestinian struggle by exposing the zionist politics underlying the apparently-innocent festival, and on the other, calling into question Sebastian’s claims that “the community” in any broad or collective sense, condoned Baz-Art action and politics in its neighbourhood. Bringing to mind the famous “WE WONT MOVE” writings that appeared on Sophiatown walls in 1955 while the space was under threat of the Group Areas Act, the hurried nature of the added lettering made obvious both the illegality and the urgency of the inscription. Not quite getting this message, the Ilukuluku collective explained that they would have hoped the appropriation of their mural was more “tasteful” and involved more “skill,” quoted in an article on the “Fascinating Case Study of the Salt River murals” saying:

“The bottom line for us is that 1: the wall is private property, 2: before we entered this space we had built relationships with the local community to establish what the artwork would be and 3: we entered the zone and created a beautiful art piece that took about sixty volunteers over six days to complete with thousands of sponsored litres of paint, hundreds of hours and great personal sacrifices.” [31]

The statement blatantly connects Ilukuluku’s notion of “us” with the idea of having access to private property, and defends the work using what appears to be a familiar colonial logic, articulating its right to the space because the group scoped it out, and went on to force relations in it with a predetermined outcome (a mural) in mind. In effect, their complaint frames them as the victims of ‘undisciplined’ locals, who refused to adhere to the terms of spatial engagement assumed by them and Baz.

The added phrase “MUST FREE PALESTINE” exposes these dynamics, fundamentally shifting the possible meaning of the mural’s subject “us.” While before, “us” was an ambiguous designation used to produce a feel-good ‘inclusive’ slogan, the edit changes the “us” to refer very specifically to those who share an anticolonial politics. “Us,” by virtue of its site, connects local struggles against gentrification (like in Salt River), with colonised Palestinians, whose land continues to be stolen and lives continue to be violated and destroyed by the occupation.

The edit, of course, did not remain for a long time and was soon painted over, courtesy, most likely, of Baz-Art. However, its message continues to haunt the mural, perhaps more so in its absence. Having blatantly removed the anticolonial agenda from its scope, one could not help but regard its cleaned up claim to “all” of us with great suspicion. Two years later, in January 2023, the mural was again contested. This time, it was made to read “All of Us… BUT THE POOR.” This addition was not quickly erased, and stands as a stark reminder of the increasing street based residents living under the bridge across the road, as well as the imminent July 2023 municipal property re-evaluations done every four years, which, thanks to projects of gentrification, drive historic residents to sell their homes in face of skyrocketing monthly property rate bills regardless of household income.

Figure 3: All of Us… BUT THE POOR. January 2023, Source: Anwar Omar.

Interventions: Red, Green, Black and White

Other mural edits were subtler and more aesthetically rule-abiding, inserting the colours of the Palestinian flag into Baz-Art’s commissions. One such example is the mural Digital Animals by Israeli artist Pilpeled, whose presence in Salt River was one of a number of controversies in correspondence between SRHS and Baz-Art. Pilpeled was sponsored by the Israeli embassy and Zionist Federation, and, during his stay in Cape Town in 2020, did talks at Jewish day schools, which share zionist politics.[32]

Figure 4: Digital Animals, Baz-Art mural by Israeli artist Nir Peled, “Pilpeled,” Burns Street, completed February 2020, Source: Koni Benson.

Digital Animals (fig.4) is a large-scale graphic mural painted onto the yellow wall of a house on Burns Street. The image, cropped at the bottom by the pavement, stretches up to the roof of the single story house. It shows a large masked figure in profile from the chest up, wearing cornrows in their hair, a patterned shirt and vest, and a hoop earring. This figure is touched forehead-to-forehead with a creature that appears to be a kind of mechanical or armoured pangolin, seated hunched over on a rock. They hold the creature’s paw in their two hands in what looks to be an intimate and gentle moment.

The whole mural was initially rendered in thick black and white lines and shapes, in a style typical of relief printing, with the only dots of colour — yellow, matching the wall — in the figure’s mask, and their tiny badge. Although resolved within its own stylistic parameters, the image content could easily have been described as, well… random. Previously mentioned Salt River born-and-bred graffiti artist “FERS,” has had many of his pieces removed from walls over the years, especially following the graffiti by-law. He described seeing the (Baz-sponsored) murals of more recent years there: “I feel like they haven’t really communicated anything to the community because a lot of the narratives there are not Salt River narratives. There (are) all these weird narratives that are coming from all over the place not concerning the people.”[33]Anwar Omar comments that the newer art: “is an externally imposed initiative that is not grounded in the heritage and culture of the community and as a consequence, the art on display in the area does not align with the community’s history, heritage and cultural values.”[34]

Figure 5: Digital Animals (in Palestinian colours), June 2021, Source: Anwar Omar.
Figure 6: Digital Animals, after Palestinian colour edit was removed by homeowners, and then began to drip as a result of rain (“there’s a rumour going around that even the Bazart murals are mourning for Palestine.”) November 2021, Source: Koni Benson.

Whether we understand Pilpeled’s mural as some portrait of futuristic human–machine compatibility, or an indictment on human destruction of animal life, the message seems disconnected from its site. More significantly, the artist’s Israeli support renders the image in a nefarious tone. Digital Animals was carefully edited by an anonymous painter so as to colour the figure’s mask in red and the skin of their face in dark green, thus allowing the original black and white to fill in as the other two colours of the Palestinian flag (fig.6). Additionally, the words “Free Palestine” were written onto the leg of the creature in a rather beautiful cursive. The effect, while it lasted, was interesting, co-opting an Israeli artist’s out-of-place mural, and politically subsuming it into an image of Palestinian solidarity. Instead of complete overhaul, this intervention carried a simple demand: that public artwork in the area be imbued with a politics in keeping with the struggles of the neighbourhood and beyond.

The day after the intervention, the single retaliation, presumably by IPAF, was in the removal of the words “Free Palestine,” leaving the Palestinian colours undisturbed for a long period of time. But on the 18th of November 2021, many months after the February festival, a worker was photographed restoring the painting to its original form, an initiative organised by the homeowners, who had come to connect with the artist and festival.[35] The day after restoring the figure’s face to its original black and white, rains destroyed the efforts, causing the black facial paint to drip sadly down the wall. On one neighbourhood whatsapp chat group, jokes were exchanged that “there’s a rumour going around that even the Bazart murals are mourning for Palestine.”

Figure 7: Save Nature, Baz-Art mural by Anthea Missy, Addison Street, completed February 2021, Source: Anwar Omar.
Figure 8: Save Nature, (with Palestinian flag), June 2021 Source: Koni Benson.

French artist Anthea Missy’s mural, now almost entirely gone, was entitled Save Nature (fig.7). Painted on the walls of a house on Addison Street, the mural once depicted a colourful background of black-outlined organic shapes, from which, in one place, a disembodied forearm and hand emerged. The subjects of the painting appeared in front of all of this: two smiling, walking young people rendered in cartoonish-style holding a banner reading “save our trees, save us.”

The banner was ripe for the taking, and soon its rudimentary message was replaced by the Palestinian flag (fig.8). In this case, the ‘editorial critique’ to the mural’s pro-tree messaging, invokes the contemporary process of ‘greenwashing’ in Israel, a technique of political obfuscation and propaganda, where forests are gradually planted over masses of Palestinian land, under the guise of do-gooder nationalist environmentalism. Here, in a small and symbolic way, the politics of generic environmental messaging are decorated by the presence of Palestine — representative of the destruction and violence the Israeli settler project attempts to cover up.

Figure 9: Save Nature, (with Palestinian flag and cleared background), January 2022, Source: Koni Benson.

In January of 2022, the entire background of Save Nature was painted over to match the original white of the house walls, leaving the two pro-Palestine protestors to fight the power against a stark and depopulated landscape, effectively clearing space and better matching the style of one of the SRHS-allied murals that would appear nearby later (fig.9). That mural will be discussed in the next section.

The last editorial intervention we will mention here — although there were others — was with a mural painted in greyscale on Coleridge Street, by Johannesburg-based artists Dbongz Mahlathi and Vivasage. The mural (fig.10) is a close-up, photorealistic depiction of Salt River resident and SRHS executive member Kulsum Viljoen’s face and hands, which hold her green prayer beads — her Tasbih — all backgrounded by the patterning of her embroidered prayer dress or robe.

Figure 10: Baz-Art mural by Dbongz Mahlathi and Vivasage, Coleridge Street, completed February 2021, Source: Nawawie Mathews.

Before the mural’s execution, the artists had visited Kulsum to find out more about Salt River’s Islamic culture. In particular, they wanted to find out about how women dress for their salaams and what beads they wear, as well as about what Quran stands and prayer robes look like, and so on. They had taken photographs of what Kulsum showed them. Her friend, fellow SRHS executive member, and past Baz-Art employee, Nadia Agherdine[36] says that Kulsum had thought that the beads, the robe’s patterning, and the stand were to be the subjects of the eventual mural. But on Baz-Art’s opening day, Kulsum said she “froze” on Cecil Road. After recognising her robe, hands and beads on the wall, she was “livid” when she came closer and saw that her face had been painted without her consent.[37] In terms of granting permission to use a person’s face in a public artwork, Nadia explained that “in the case of Kulsum’s mural, they asked to take photographs to paint the pattern of her dress and her hands and beads, not her face. If it was her face, she would have had to sign permission.”[38]

Figure 11: ‘Kulsum’s Wall’ (with Palestine edit, “FROM SALT RIVER TO THE SEA PALESTINE WILL BE FREE”), June 2021, Source: Anwar Omar.

Given the violation, and her ignored letters to Baz-Art to remove the image, Kulsum now claims the mural as her own, to do with as she pleases. She has since directed the adjustment of the mural so as to be “accepted within the Salt River area,” including the addition of red and green into her scarf and a red tear dripping from her eye: “the watermelon effect” (fig.11).[39] A speech bubble appears next to Kulsum’s mouth, declaring: “From Salt River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free.”

In the midst of defending Israeli apartheid and after multiple failed attempts at intervening in the clandestine mural-adjustment process, Baz-Art proceeded to commission a PR article which attempted to appropriate the narrative and reposition themselves as “welcoming” the “evolution” of the artworks. They quote Baz-Art co-founder, Alexandre Tilmans:

“While we are a strictly apolitical and non-religious organisation, we welcome creativity and talent and we know the medium of street art is a powerful platform for activism…But of course, it would be considered ethical and professional to speak to the original artist and get the necessary permission.”[40]

SRHS-Aligned Murals

Salt River Heritage Community Arts Festival

“The oral and living histories and heritage has been erased by the apartheid experiment.   It’s critical that communities reclaim their status as a people who have contributed greatly to the nation.”[41]

Shabodien Roomanay, co-founder of the SRHS

Against the backdrop of these instances of anonymous insurgent mural editing, the tensioned correspondence between SRHS and Baz-Art, and the various crises of the pandemic — which exacerbated existent forces of eviction, gentrification, and the colonisation of land — other cultural work emerged. Sometimes initiated by the SRHS and their investment in the neighbourhood’s history, instances included independently organised murals, a community arts and culture festival, and ‘walks of resistance’ in Salt River and beyond.

For Heritage Day of 2021 (September 24), SRHS organised the Salt River Heritage Community Arts Festival on September 25th, which was focused on the unveiling of three original murals they had commissioned to artists who live in, or have significant relation with Salt River. Anwar Omar explains that this work is part of “a concerted effort by the SRHS to present an alternative narrative in terms of Street Art in the area, spurred on by a growing sentiment within the community, that the art currently on display on the walls does not speak to the history, heritage and culture of the community.”[42]

The largest, most complex, and most collaborative of these is a mural installation called the Palestinian Roadmap, also commonly known as The Wall 4 All (figs. 12–16). Conceptualised by Cape Town artist and photographer Nawawie Mathews and put together by him alongside a team consisting of artist Nazeer Jappie and Arabic calligraphy artist Tasneem Chilwan, as well as her daughters Iman and Sufiya, the work is multi-dimensional, multimedia, and includes a politicised telling of key historical moments in the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation, symbols of colonial resistance, and names of freedom fighters. The nine weeks of work that went into the wall were a lesson in the art of education, conversation, collaboration, community, solidarity, and the art of work, with the team staying in close contact with the homeowners, chatting with many passers-by, and fine-tuning the histories and historical figures that would be written into the mural, through back-and-forths with the SRHS.

Figure 12: ​​Palestinian Roadmap (The Wall 4 All), Salt River Heritage Society associated mural, by Nawawie Mathews, Nazeer Jappie, Tasneem Chilwan, and Iman and Sufiya Chilwan, Addison and Chapel Streets, September 2021, Source: Koni Benson.

The large artwork was spurred on by Nawawie and Quaniet Richard’s identification of the need for accessible public knowledge on Palestinian histories, in aid of local solidarity organising. During the Sea Point iteration of the Palestine solidarity march in May of 2021, the two realised how important being armed with this kind of knowledge was, in order to counter the factual distortions of Israeli narratives, designed to sanctify their initiation of apartheid society. The almost all black-and-white piece consists of a few different sections clustered around the corner of Addison and Chapel Streets. On Addison Street, a portrait by Nazeer Jappie of late political cartoonist and creator of ‘Handala,’ Naji al-Ali, is painted on the same wall as the (much-reduced, much-adjusted) Anthea Missy mural mentioned in the previous section, which now depicts pro-Palestinian struggle. Nazeer, newly out of art school, was invited to join the team after he began to notice the “commotion” happening on Chapel Street in the first days of installation, and asked Nawawie about what was going on.[43]

Figure 13: Palestinian Roadmap (The Wall 4 All) detail, Naji al-Ali portrait by Nazeer Jappie and the map of shrinking Palestine since 2018, Addison Street, September 2021, Source: Koni Benson.
Figure 14: Palestinian Roadmap (The Wall 4 All) detail, Naji al-Ali’s character Handala by Nazeer Jappie, surrounded by keffiyeh pattern and chronology of recent Palestinian history, Chapel Street, September 2021, Source: Koni Benson. 

Al-Ali’s portrait was completed on the 29th of August 2021 (fig.13), the twenty-third anniversary of his death in 1987. He was shot in London and died some weeks later, having dedicated years of his work to drawing political satire that was particularly critical of Israeli colonialism in Palestine. Al-Ali’s famous character Handala is a heartbreaking cartoon self-portrait. Frozen at age ten, having lost his family home to the 1948 Nakba, where over 700000 Palestinians were forced out of their homes by Israeli paramilitary, Handala stands barefoot dressed in rags, with his back facing the viewer, a symbolic rejection of the status quo which continues to normalise the absolute violence of Israeli occupation. Al-Ali claimed that Handala would only begin to age once he was able to return home to his land and was liberated from oppression. Thus he remains a child, now widely popular as a symbol of Palestinian resistance. In many ways, The Wall 4 All seeks to conceptually map out this ‘return,’ including a representation of Handala, who faces towards the timeline tracing the historical processes which have created and continue to create Palestinian oppression (fig.14). Significant moments of zionist organising are mapped and dated, along with events like the Balfour declaration, the Nakba, the Gaza occupation, and so on, educating the viewer on how the Israeli settler project in Palestine came together over time.[44]

Figure 15: Palestinian Roadmap (The Wall 4 All) detail, “Human Responsibility Trumps Everything,” Chapel Street, September 2021, Source: Koni Benson.

The timeline is plotted above a graphic of a road, below which the keffiyah pattern, emblematic of Palestinian solidarity, decorates the walls, stenciled just above street level.[45] To the left of the timeline, a wall, headed with the phrase “Human Responsibility Trumps Everything,” shows thirty-six names of anti-colonial activists, including many South African struggle activists, Pan-Africanists and others.[46]

An olive tree — “​​You can see it’s rooted into the keffiyeh” — spreads from its roots around pavement level, up to its branches and leaves near the roof of the house (fig.16).[47] The only colour in the entire mural is the Palestinian flag, tied to one of the olive tree’s branches. The olive tree, having grown on Palestinian land for thousands of years, is a cultural symbol of the people’s ancient belonging to the land, providing intergenerational livelihood through the sale of olives and oil. Olive trees, known to live for 500 years on average, bore witness to the Nakba and everything preceding it. From the perspective of the occupation, the olive trees must surely be a living, growing reminder of the violence underscoring their presence in Palestine. As such, it is no surprise that the trees are routinely subject to zionist attack.

Figure 16: Palestinian Roadmap (The Wall 4 All) detail, Olive Tree with Palestine flag, Chapel Street, September 2021, Source: Koni Benson.

Beyond the keffiyeh, the tree, Handala and the flag, the work of solidarity built into the imagination of the wall is nowhere more apparent than in the keys, hung on what Maren Mantovani — a visiting activist from the Palestinian Stop the Wall Campaign — later told SHRS, was in fact barbed wire produced in South Africa and sold to Israel for use in the occupation (fig.17).[48]The act of hanging keys on the wire is in remembrance of the ongoing trauma of the Nakba, in which families were and are left with nothing but the keys to their stolen homes. Because of this painful history and its continuation in places like Sheikh Jarrah, keys have become a symbol of resistance, as well as faith in a future return. This could not be more resonant with apartheid South Africa, where keys people kept after being violently removed from District Six, Sophiatown, and any other areas deemed through the 1950s Group Areas Act to be ‘white,’ connect us to generational narratives of home and displacement. Here, by 1982, over 3.5 million Black people had been forcibly removed, sometimes only holding onto the keys of their bulldozed doors.[49]

One of the last conversations the late Dr. Anwah Nagia (featured on one of the other walls) had with his lifetime comrade and friend Siraj Desai as he battled Covid, was about the ongoing District Six land restitution campaign: “He had a vision of a new community arising in the area and he wanted us to pursue that…He always told the story of how people still have the keys to their houses, even though they are not living there [and] for us to advance this cause.”[50]

When The Wall 4 All was near completion, Nawawie gave a key to every person involved in the wall and asked them to choose where, on the dated timeline, they wanted to hang them. One person chose the year their father passed on,[51] one chose the year they were first involved in school boycotts in the 1980s in South Africa,[52]one chose the year of the Nakba to mark the process of their own miseducation and re-education about the Israeli occupation.[53]

Figure 17: Palestinian Roadmap (The Wall 4 All) detail, keys, Chapel Street, September 2021, Source: Quaniet Richards.

The keys are memories, maps to the doors that this kind of cultural work intends to open, offering ways to connect struggles against evictions, whether in the name of gentrification, colonisation, or so-called ‘birth-right.’ In Salt River, a living space of the politics of inter-nationalism and inter-generational education, there is an orientation of call and response. Throughout the process, for instance, the mural team was in constant conversation with Boeta Noor Gerum, who lives in the house onto which the mural is painted. His only request was that they made sure to paint a white stallion on the wall next to his front door to remember the horse stables of old Woodstock at Bromwell Street, where his family was evicted generations ago.[54] Yet years later, in 2023, SRHS’s application for City approval for this mural remains stalled because in 2022 the City’s sub council solicited and accepted an ‘objection’ from the Zionist Federation of South Africa, as part of its duty to consult at community level for approval of murals. The sub council did not communicate with any organisations based in Salt River on this matter.


By mapping history through keys, The Wall 4 All is activated by people’s heritage in Salt River and beyond. Although its focus is on the history of Israeli occupation of Palestine, it is made alive by the residents of Salt River, who hang keys in solidarity, recognising the connectedness of oppression and liberation from “Salt River To The Sea,” and everywhere in between. In the lead up to and since the unveiling, the wall has been visited by Hanan Jarrar Qarout, the Ambassador of Palestine to South Africa, Muna El-Kurd, a well-known Palestinian activist from Sheikh Jarrah, and Maren Mantovani, from the Palestinian “Stop the Wall” Campaign. Other visitors have included the Deputy Director of Amnesty International, and artists including Luyanda Nogodlwana and Siphokazi Mpofu from Ukwanda Puppet and Designs Art Collective who visited with the University of the Western Cape’s Center for Humanities Research (CHR) Director Heidi Grunebaum and Convenor of the Factory of the Arts, Itumeleng Wa-Lehulere.

In these visits, the wall comes alive in various ways. Qarout, for example, offered historical edits and additions to the timeline. El Kurd signed one of the white lines in the road and hung a key, saying, “I chose the 2009 year to put my key on… because this was the year where the Israeli occupation settlers took over half of my house and other houses in Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.”[55]Mantovani, as mentioned, enlightened us on the wall’s barbed wire, and its embodiment of the disturbing connectivity between occupied Palestine and South African securitisation. The CHR visit sparked ideas of possible life-sized puppet shows dedicated to a production in development about the life and legacy of Charlotte Maxeke, honoured on the section of the wall dedicated to freedom fighters from history.[56] This was brought to life by Kothar, homeowner Boeta Noor’s granddaughter, who chose to learn about and present on Maxeke’s 1870–1939 life history for the Heritage Day festival. The mural also opened up ideas for possible collaborations, like an outdoor screening of Grunebaum’s 2013 film, Village Under the Forrest, which explores the hidden remains of the destroyed Palestinian village of Lubya, which lies under a purposefully cultivated forest plantation called the “South Africa Forest.”[57]

Although only a mural painted on a surface, the work opens outwardly, into the active, living world with all its social possibilities, resonating with cultural work rooted in the spirit of resistance to injustice.

Walks of Remembrance, Walks of Resistance

In February 2021, graffiti appeared written along the brown concrete wall of the Liesbeeck River, in a place very near to Salt River, known as the Two Rivers Urban Park (TRUP). It read “Same Colonizer Different Ships,” in a bold white text. It was painted over by November — by the same coloniser, no doubt — preceding the beginning of the major construction of a four-and-a-half billion rand giant business park development. The development, now owned by wealthy white South African property developer, Jody Aufrichtig, of Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust, will house Amazon’s Africa headquarters as its anchor tenant.[58]The TRUP area is along the banks of the Liesbeek and Black Rivers, near to the edges of the current boundary of Salt River, in the neighbouring Observatory. The land, a river floodplain, is sacred, known as the |gamirodi !khais, the Place Where Stars Gather. It is also the site of the 1510 Battle for Salt River, the oldest recorded anti-colonial armed struggles, fought and won by the indigenous Khoe against the Portuguese, who were raiding their children and cattle. The decision to develop the land into a business park is thus a racist cultural violation, as well as ecologically irresponsible.[59]

Figure 18: “SAME COLONIZERS, DIFFERENT SHIP,” painted on Liesbeek River wall, near Two Rivers Urban Park Amazon Development, July 2021, Source: Koni Benson

The SRHS Alliances Subcommittee, in conjunction with the Observatory Civic Association (OCA), Goringhaicona Khoi Khoi Indigenous Council, the Two River Urban Park Association (TRUPA), Heritage societies from the Bo-Kaap, Bonteheuvel and Langa, and the Oude Molen Eco Village, organised a ‘walk of resistance’ on Freedom Day, 27 April 2021.[60] The aim was to register their opposition to the Amazon River Club Development, through the reinstallation of a commemorative plaque (that had been vandalised and not replaced by the City), and a walk, which paused at various sites to tell of Black histories in the Cape. These included a site where the Khoi-Khoi used a star navigation system for years before the arrival of the South African Astronomical Observatory, Oude Moulen, where the British incarcerated Zulu king Cetshwayo kaMpande, a remaining Mill stone, marking histories of Islam in the Cape, as well as the history of slave labour and Khoe/Enslaved relationships in the area — and many more.

The walk, although organised around the reinstallation of a plaque — a visual object — operated on a number of other levels.[61] It was at once a walk, a commemoration, a protest, and an act of solidarity with the Khoe groups currently losing sacred land to the horror of Amazon. Walking together, in the face of heavy police protection of the site,[62] and reflecting on histories of both success and defeat in resistance to colonial encroachment, was an act of resistance and reclaim itself.[63] In the walk’s keynote address, anti-apartheid struggle stalwart, Reverend Allan Boesak spoke against the idea of “unremembering:”

“This is a battle against unremembering. Now unremembering is not simply forgetting that things have happened or forgetting to write it down in a history book by accident. Unremembering is a deliberate process by those in power and by those with power. Unremembering is taking out of history, distorting history, reshaping history, rechannelling history in order to fit the dominant narrative of those in power and those with power. We are here today to tell them that that process of unremembering has failed because we are here to remember, to recall and we shall honour and tell our children what happened here… We are tired of a City administration that acts like a traumatised post colonial recolonising power.”[64]

Another Walk of Resistance was organised on Youth Day, beginning in the Bo-Kaap, to commemorate the uprisings of June 16th, 1976.[65] This walk began in front of the Bo-Kaap Museum with protest music by Sites of Struggle, a collaboration between conscious hip hop group, Soundz of the South, Asher Gamedze and Zwide Ndwandwe. This walk confronted colonial statues in the city, including of Jan van Riebeeck and Jan Smuts — the first prime minister of the British-colonial Union of South Africa, whose statue stands at the doors of the Iziko Slave Lodge. The walk included several components: a cleansing ritual; education on gender, enslavement, and the erasure of slave memorials in Cape Town; a statement from the Bo-Kaap’s SmutsMustFall campaign; the delivery of a Khoe memorandum to the President, reminding him of his promise to establish a Resistance and Liberation Heritage Route (RLHR) that would run through TRUP, and much more.

In effect, the Walks are active in similar ways to the edited murals, and The Wall 4 All, which explicitly push a conscious critique of mainstreamed, whitewashed narratives about spatial histories and colonial occupations. Through connecting a vast number of manifestations of colonial violence — in evictions, statues, gentrification, apolitical “beautification,” neoliberal land developments, multinational corporate presence, continued settler-ism, and so on — these cultural work actions refuse the sanitised messaging that is typical of South African ‘democratic’ era. Furthermore, part of what makes them interventions in People’s History is the way they bring together people from across segregated silos to forge a public and re-inscribe meaning in defending an historic and future commons from below.

Living Legacies of Apartheid Era Trailblazers

These are not surface level contestations. Behind the paint on the walls, are the walls themselves, and the material resources with high stakes that they represent, seen through land enclosures, housing evictions, and entitled corporate and NGO driven ‘upliftment’ projects bulldozing their way through the city. Two weeks before the SRHS community street art heritage day event, the organisation received a slap suit “ceases and desist” letter from Baz-Art’s lawyers threatening to sue the SRHS for its public stance on Baz-Art’s treatment of local artists and support of the occupation of Palestine. It argued that SRHS had made “numerous false accusations, defamatory remarks and slanderous statements against our client regarding baseless accusations of funding and affiliations.”[66] They reminded SHRS, a locally registered heritage and conservation body, that “our client has the continued support of the City of Cape Town in its endeavours to assist the local and artistic community and possess the requisite authority to act in the manner that it has in providing such assistance.”[67]

After much stressful discussion, the SRHS decided to proceed with their Heritage Day organising, and to neither respond to the intimidation, nor to publicly expose this threat. As summarised by the SRHS Chair, Yusuf Lalkhen:

“History will show that Salt River belongs to the people of Salt River and not to an external entity…Their story line is to buy into our story, appropriate our story. It is typical of all colonising, occupying exercising. You appropriate the story and make people believe you are there in the interest of people. But our street art will undermine their story line that they were part of it…Their position will come to nothing in the face of what we do, that is the essence of non collaboration. You invite me to say something. I say nothing… we keep doing our work, applying for permits, getting more walls, more local artists, our story line will continue. They have money and waiting to use it. We don’t have money. Or time. We are in it for the long run. Let’s keep our long goals in mind.”[68]

In addition to the Wall 4 All, the Community Street Arts Festival unveiled two other SRHS-aligned murals of people whose involvement in Salt River is very much alive in the neighbours’ imaginations, and whose ongoing legacies SRHS supports in taking forward. The first of these depicts Judge Siraj Desai, alongside his mentors Dullah Omar, Anwah Nagia, and Bennie Kies, in a realistic style painted by Mitchell’s Plain street artist Gogga, aka Natheer Hoosain (fig.19). The freedom fighters are painted in a greyscale palette, backgrounded fully in black, aside from a ghostly rendering of the South African flag, and an image of the Salt River Railway Institute, both painted in full colour. The Salt River Railway Institute, a building significant for the area’s social and political history, has long been nominated by SRHS as a provincial heritage site to be allocated for ongoing community use, and protected against preying private developers.[69] On the far right of the mural, the following text is written in white: “Without Justice in the world, there cannot be freedom or peace.”

Figure 19: Solidarity Installation, painting of Judge Siraj Desai, alongside his comrades and mentors Dullah Omar, Anwah Nagia, and Bennie Kies, Salt River Heritage Society mural by Gogga aka Natheer Hoosein, Tennyson Street, completed September 2021,Source: Koni Benson.

The mural was formulated in response to a charge of misconduct laid against Judge Desai by the South African Zionist Foundation in June of 2021, accusing him of breaching the code of Judicial Conduct. This was because of his unapologetic stance against Israeli occupation, which he describes as a “condemnation of apartheid Israel and in defense of Palestinians that are persecuted by the unjust laws and war crimes conducted against them.”[70] Accompanying him — per his request — is firstly Dullah (Abullah) Omar, who passed on in 2004. Omar grew up in Salt River and was a practicing Woodstock lawyer and Unity Movement stalwart. He was instrumental in representing many anti-apartheid activist organisations, including the Pan African Congress (PAC), the Black Peoples’ Convention (BPC) and the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO), and individuals, including Nelson Mandela and Salt River High School students during the 1976 student uprisings. Omar also played a key role in the 1989 Salt River Anti-Drug march. He became the first Minister of Justice in the democratic South Africa and oversaw the setting up of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Dullah Omar, like many, credits the development of his political awareness to Benny Kies, his English teacher at Trafalgar High School in District Six, who is also depicted on the wall. On the unveiling, Imam Rashied Omar described Kies, who passed away in 1979, as an “unsung hero,” and “one of South Africa’s most important anti-apartheid intellectuals, political theorist and struggle activist in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.”[71]The Imam also reminded the crowd about the role of the Woodstock Salt River Walmer Estate Civic Association (WOSAWA), in assisting people in Salt River facing apartheid evictions, as well as the work of unifying civic associations which is no less of an obstacle in the face of competitive property regimes and neighborhood improvement district zoning today, than it was in the past.

Finally there is Doctor Anwah Nagia, previously quoted, who passed away in September of 2020 from covid, and is remembered as a community activist who played a major role in the campaign for the restitution of the displaced residents of District Six in the 1980s and 1990s. Of Nagia, neighbour Shareeda Bakkus, says, “with great sadness I can say we lost a hero.” When she was in crisis, with her house being put on auction at the peak of apartheid, and without money to purchase it, she “didn’t know this man Anwah Nagia from a bar of soap, and this man came up to me and he said ‘come to my office in town.’” Both Nagia and Desai assisted Shareeda through every step of fighting for her home, and so for her, the people in “that picture… played such a big role to me as a person.”[72]

Figure 20: Inspiration, Baz-Art mural by Israeli duo Brothers of Light, Tennyson Street, completed February 2018, Source: Anwar Omar.

Desai’s mural killed two birds with one stone. Apart from celebrating the Salt River-allied activists, lawyers and neighbours, it was painted over a 2018 Baz-commissioned piece by the Israeli duo Brothers of Light, Inspiration, on the walls of a home opposite to where Desai was born (fig.20). Homeowner Suhail Wing-King talked about not really being consulted or being able to negotiate with Baz-Art when what he agreed to have on his wall was not what went up: “Once it was up, I was a bit worried because it’s not in line with… our belief structure and things like that, because it had masonic images on it…”[73] What’s more, he said, the image was a reminder of Baz’s breaking of the cultural boycott on Israel.[74]

Figure 21: Desiree Ellis, Salt River Heritage Society mural by Robyn Pretorius, Fenton Road, completed September 2021, Source: James Stent, GroundUp [story link].

The Desiree Ellis mural on Fenton Road pays homage to the founding member and second captain of Banyana Banyana, and celebrates the heritage of girls’ and women’s soccer in South Africa. Painted by artist Robyn Pretorius, the mural highlights the Salt River legend born in 1963, who played soccer while attending Dryden Street Primary School and Salt River High School, even though neither had girls’ soccer teams. Young Ellis “jumped over the fence to play football with the boys” at Dryden, as well as playing in the streets.[75]She was eventually scouted at Salt River High, where she played annually as part of the teacher’s team against the boys, and thereafter joined the Athlone Celtic club in 1978.[76]

Apart from just playing, Ellis and her parents, the latter interviewed in a public SRHS webinar in the lead up to the launch, organised soccer clubs for girls. Her teammates formed their own club called “Joyces United,” after six years of playing for the eventually-defunct Celtics, and thereafter formed Wynberg St Johns club. Playing between a number of clubs in the years following, including St Albans, which she also co-organised, Ellis and her teammates would eventually found Spurs Women’s Football Club, “a club with which she would become synonymous.”[77] Ellis debuted in the newly formed national women’s team in 1993 at age thirty, scoring a hatrick against Eswatini in a blow-out match. She captained the team for a full decade, and today coaches Banyana Banyana. Beyond her international fame, in Salt River, Ellis is known personally— as a kid, teenager, and thriving adult — whose insistence on defying patriarchy’s dictation of the sports arena, is recognised in the particular tones of her character, rather than her celebrity.

In the mural, Ellis is shown from the shoulders up, wearing the recognisable green and yellow of the ‘Springbok’ jersey, and an expression of determination on her face. In the background, Cape Town is indicated via the darkened silhouette of Table Mountain, with familiar shapes of Salt River row houses preceding it. To the right of Ellis’s face, the Salt River Blackpool Football Club field and the net of the soccer goals come alive through the addition of the green outline of a dynamic dribbling figure — Ellis — about to shoot, and, no doubt, score. The unveiling of the mural was an opportunity to also debut the long-awaited, recently launched first ever Girls’ Team at Salt River Blackpool Football Club, who lined up in uniform along the wall as the ex-Chairperson of SRBPFC, Mr. Hassan, handed the current Chairperson the historical minutes of the club, dating back to the 1950s.

Artist Robyn Pretorius posted a photograph of the finished work on her Instagram profile, accompanied by the following caption:

“So recently… I took part in a community project run by the @saltriverheritage in Cape Town with the aim of elevating local voices through #streetart, music and dialogue. I was accepted by a community who not only embraced my mural honouring a Saltie native and SA’s National women’s football coach @desiree_ellis06, but also accommodated my every creative need. This included some lekker Salomies and boerewors rolls dripping with Dhanya sauce” (27 September 2021).

The caption makes clear the kind of regular social life built into the production of cultural work, which effectively displaces the image or object itself, and instead foregrounds the relationships that take place through the processes of making work in community.


Historical and present narratives of Salt River are not only battles over the walls of particular houses or buildings, but for the land surrounding the semi-industrial neighbourhood of row houses and factories. The Walks of Resistance, as moving, and site-specific interventions, are solidarity-informed social history gatherings, which could be considered as the necessary antidote to attempts at land theft via meaningless but dangerous ‘beautifications’ (ala Baz). They take place in solidarity, on sites where they are needed.

The wall-based — and walk-based — wars of Salt River not only educate us on ignored social histories, but they highlight the underhanded and corrupt ways in which land dispossession continues to take place, using strategies like ‘art-washing’ to sanitise brutality. As Elleza Kelley’s opening words echo, we see how art and creativity can be weaponised for sustaining neoliberal infrastructures. Anwar Omar comments that “the use of Street Art is both clever and deceptive, creating the illusion of insurgence and rebellion while being created only at the mercy and in favour of developers.”[78]

In other words, walls, however decorated, can act as surfaces with the potential to inflict status-quo ideals of private property, accumulation, racialisation, and state violence. But more importantly, when activated by the personal and political life of their site, they can be part of social histories and public history practices, informed by anti-colonial work, communal care, and solidarity in resistance to the forces of capital accumulation. This is an important part of the Salt River Heritage Society’s orientation to liberating ‘heritage’ work and ‘heritage’ days from the non-accountability of current politics of gentrification and displacement.[79] This work, of course, is not without the obstacles of repression and silencing through underhanded legal means, or through City bureaucracy, which seems only to work for initiatives prioritising the influx of capital, rather than those invested in the care of its citizens. When SRHS applied to put up two murals ahead of the 2022 Heritage Day events — one of four Salt River Feminist Freedom Fighters and one of the 1510 Battle for Salt River, all with the requisite homeowners and neighbors approval — they were ignored.[80]

The ‘work’ of cultural work, which includes radical approaches to People’s History projects, is in opening up the space for participation, collective thinking and meaning-making around creative interventions. In order for it to happen, sites need to be recognised for what they are through the people living in them — social networks with politics and heritage.[81] In Salt River, histories of struggle fought by diverse groups against colonisers, gentrifiers and developers, root the neighbourhood politics, where local and international solidarity in the face of oppression, is illustrated in no uncertain terms on its walls.


[1] Elleza Kelley, “Freedom Dreams, Episode 4 with Elleza Kelley and Robin D.G. Kelley,” Haymarket Books Live, 2 March 2023.

[2] SRHS Statement, “Salt River Heritage Society, Baz-Art In Discord Over Principles,” (4 Feb 2021) (Emphasis added).

[3] Lutfi Omar, “Why does the Salt River Heritage Society feel it is important to embark on this walk of Resistance” correspondence with Marecia Damons for GroundUp. 15 June 2021. Quoted with permission.

[4] The company was formed by French CEO of XO Africa, Sebastian Charrieras, and Belgian Alexander Tilmans. Tilmans is a co-founder of a craft-beer, distastefully named Leopold7,reverberating the history of King Leopold of the Belgian Congo, which when criticised was justified as the name of “an ancestor brewer” and the name for the “African version” of the beer, was subsequently changed to L7.

[5] Their usual services include murals, content creation, marketing, and workshops.

[6] Over the period, the NGO produced over one hundred murals, with about half created by international artists and half by local artists. See, Atiyyah Khan, “Spatial apartheid: Public art in South Africa and the politics of space,” News24 (11-06-2020).

[7] In fact, in the 19th century Woodstock- Salt River was one super-municipality and known as the second largest “Town” in the Cape after Cape Town. Patric Tariq Mellet, “A brief history of the emergence of Salt River suburb in Cape Town,” Camissa People: Cape Slavery and Indigene Heritage blog post, 19 June 2023.

[8] A City Improvement District (CID) is a defined geographic area within which property owners agree to pay a levy for “supplementary and complimentary services set to enhance the physical and social environment of the area.” This has been made possible by new bi-laws to promote privatisation and outsourcing to private companies- becoming an “improvement district” enables “extra rates” to be paid by “property owners” to supplement the public services provided and in most cases begins with private security.

[9] Omar directed the documentary film Salt River High 1976 – The Untold Story, and is currently enrolled in an MPhil in Conservation and the Built Environment.

[10] Anwar Omar, “Contextualising Street Art in Salt River,” unpublished paper, cited with permission. Also see Rashied Omar, “Keynote Address at the Community Arts Festival,” Salt River Heritage Society Event, (25 September 2021).

[11] Robin D. G. Kelley, “What is Racial Capitalism and Why Does it Matter?” Katz Distinguished Lecture in the Humanities, Simpson Center, 17 Nov 2017.

[12] According to the by-law, any public graffiti that was created without the City’s permission will be removed. If caught, offenders could face a R15,000 fine or imprisonment. Mayoral Committee Member for Safety and Security; and Social Services, JP Smith proudly explains that his Graffiti Unit has a budget of over R1.5 million and street artists explain the effects of the new by-laws and permitting system for local artists. Ashraf Hendricks, “A tour of Salt River’s iconic graffiti,” GroundUp (28 April 2017), and Quasiem Gamiet, interviewed by Koni Benson, Observatory Cape Town, 1 February 2021.

[13] Quoted in Atiyyah Khan, “Spatial apartheid: Public art in South Africa and the politics of space,” News24 (11-06-2020).

[14] Nadia Agherdine explains the permissions process: “To get a permit you have to complete an application form and it requires a sketch of  what you intend to put on the wall, permission from the home or building owner, and from 3-4 neighbours around where it will be placed. If they won’t give permission or ask for changes on the sketch, then you are required to make those changes. You then submit that to the city. The city says it will take 4-6 weeks. In our experience as SRHS it has never been that fast. For Baz-Art, they get funding from the City of Cape Town for their International Public Arts Festival and under that funding it says they will be granted permits for murals. They have to complete the permit application like anyone else, but because they already have this funding agreement, their permits come faster… And we know they do not have permits for every mural they have put up.” Nadia Agherdine interviewed by Koni Benson, 24 March 2023.

[15] Quasiem Gamiet, “The Gentrification of Graffiti,” Fersyndicate Blog, (February 2017). (Emphasis added) Accessed 2 Dec 2021:

[16] ibid

[17] Atiyyah Khan, ibid.

[18] These have been public debates, featuring artists written into Baz-Art’s proposals without their permission, and artists whose historic work Baz has painted over in Salt River. This includes: Breeze Yoko, Nardstar, Fers. See Khan, above, and Andrew Robertson, “Graffiti artists tag ‘exploitative’ festival” Weekend Argus (19 February 2017). and Lisa Isaacs ‘No local artists involved in festival’ Cape Times,14 Feb 2017; Baz-Art: Let’s Discuss

[19] The SRHS approach comes out of a history of anti-apartheid neighborhood based political organisation which specifically worked to cross the segregated city for unity and today finds allies in many Group Areas/forced removals informed heritage societies being formed across Cape Town today. In the case of SRHS many of the stalwarts who started or are involved in the SRHS were part of the Unity Movement related organisation, WOSAWA (Woodstock, Salt River, Walmer Estate Civic Association) which was specifically against ‘narrow civic organising,’ and worked to align and link student and sports boycotts, trade union worker actions, with community civics.

[20] Shakirah Thebus, “Salt River arts festival aims to put justice first,” Cape Argus (23 Sept 2021).

[21] For more on Ilukuluku, see “Ilukuluku and Bright Sparks Transform Cape Flats School, AfrikaBurn, (August 6, 2020), Availble: And AfrikaBurn’s “Guiding Principles” can be found here:

[22] iAfrica, “Street Art—The fascinating case study of the Salt River murals,” iAfrica (August 19, 2021) and Ilukuluku’s instagram post about the mural and their ‘extensive research:’

[23] “UK artist, Morag Myerscough, creates huge mural on Salt River landmark,” DWR, (March 2, 2021)

[24] A number of organisations participated in the walking event, including the SRHS, South African Jews for a Free Palestine (SAJFP) and the Salt River Residents Association (SRRA).

[25] The march in Sea Point actually sparked the idea for a SRHS-supported mural that will be discussed later.

[26] Imam Rashied Omar, Address at Salt River Palestine Solidarity March, Salt River Circle, (29 May 2021).

[27] Khan, ibid.

[28] Baz-Art co-founder Alexandre Tilmans: “This year we partnered with the Salt River Heritage Community, which will assist in giving all participating artists a solid understanding of the nuances and history of the area. This serves as inspiration for the IPAF 2021 murals. A feature of next year’s festival will be a large-scale mural dedicated to the 300-year history of Salt River and painted by local children who are currently learning about street art in their curriculum” in Biz Community, a marketing and branding media company hired by Baz. “2021 International Public Art Fest to focus on being 100% sustainable,” Biz Community (24 Dec 2020).

[29] SRHS had been in discussion with Baz-Art about doing a wall dedicated to their interactive 500 year timeline of Salt River’s history. Of course, IPAF’s theme change for 2021 to 100% Sustainable, rather than on history and heritage, made whatever agreements they had had seem rather insincere. This timeline had been featured at the inaugural launch of the SRHS on Heritage Day in 2018, presented to the South African Association for History Teaching Annual Conference in 2018, and shared as an interactive history writing methodology for future planning at the Cissie Gool House Heritage Impact Assessment Co-Design Workshop in 2021.

[30] Salt River Heritage Society, “Salt River Heritage Society, Baz-Art in Discord over Principles,” Public Statement, February 4, 2021.

[31] “Street Art—The fascinating case study of the Salt River murals,” ibid. Also published as Liesl Frankson, “The Evolution of Street Art and the Salt River Murals,” Afropolitan (25 August 2021).

[32] The South African Zionist Federation (Cape Council) arranged for Nir Peled to take part in a community art project with two local Cape Town schools — Cape Town Torah High and Good Hope Seminary School, to share about Israel and his art. “Internationally acclaimed artist spends time with local students,” Cape Jewish Chronicle (April 1, 2020), Baz-Art also publicly thanks its sponsors, including Israel In South Africa, the Israeli Embassy (18 February 2020):

[33] Quasiem Gamiet, interviewed by Koni Benson, Observatory Cape Town, 1 February 2021.

[34] Anwar Omar, “The Explosion of Street Art in South Africa,” unpublished paper, cited with permission.

[35] It is important to acknowledge that Salt River residents are not homogenous and that even amongst homeowners on board with mural initiatives there is a range of views on the various organisations working in the area, and responses to the politics and practices of gentrification.

[36] In 2017 Nadia was asked by organisers of the Salt River Residents Association to be the liaison between Salt River and Baz-Art. After the festival she approached Baz-Art asking them what will be left in Salt River after the festival? Their plan was to train two residents to become accredited Western Cape Tour Guides. Nadia explained: “I then signed a contract with Baz-Art to work for them for two years, as a payback for them paying for my course, which I did not mind. The agreement was they would pay 200 of the 600 rands per person per tour.  After the two years were over, in 2019 I was then part of the SRHS and we started speaking to Baz-Art about our heritage pieces that could go up on the wall. In 2020 when they wanted me to be a guide, I said I was not happy with 200 rand and they said that is all they can afford to pay me. In addition our vision was not aligned with theirs because in 2019 we said we wanted the theme of heritage and history and Alex then came in and said no, it is already 100% sustainable. I was conflicted but that is when I then resigned. They then recruited guides from beyond the neighbourhood to show tourists the Baz murals in Salt River year round.” Nadia Agherdine interviewed by Koni Benson, 24 March 2023.

[37] Kulsum Viljoen, interviewed by Koni Benson, (Salt River, Cape Town, January 2022).

[38] Nadia Agherdine interviewed by Koni Benson, 24 March 2023.

[39] Kulsum Viljoen, interviewed by Koni Benson, (Salt River, Cape Town, January 2022).

[40] “Street Art—The fascinating case study of the Salt River murals,” ibid. Also published as Liesl Frankson, “The Evolution of Street Art and the Salt River Murals,” ibid.

[41] Shakirah Thebus, “Call for locals to help document Salt River’s rich history,” Cape Argus (20 July 2021),

[42] Anwar Omar, “The Explosion of Street Art in South Africa,” ibid.

[43] Nazeer Jappie interviewed by Koni Benson, (Salt River, Cape Town, 21 August 2021).

[44] For those wanting to learn more about the process of Israel’s colonisation of Palestine, see: Nur Maslha, The Palestine Nakba: Decolonising History, Narrating the Subaltern, Reclaiming Memory (Zed Books, 2012); Edward Said, The Question of Palestine (Vintage Press, 1992).

[45] Keffiyah is a widely recognisable black and white pattern usually worn on scarves. “During the British Mandate, especially during the 1946 Arab Revolt, Palestinian rebels used the keffiyeh to hide their identity to avoid arrest. When British Mandate authorities banned the keffiyeh, all Palestinians started wearing it to make it harder to identify the rebels. These events turned the keffiyeh into a symbol of resistance in Palestine, which continues to this day.” “The History of Keffiyeh: A traditional scarf from Palestine,” (September 24, 2018),

[46] These include: Albert Luthuli, Steve Biko, Charlotte Maxeke, Simon Bolivar, Edward Said, Frantz Fanon, Beyers Naudé, Robert Sobukwe, Patrice Lumumba, Che Guevara, Ghassan Kanafani, Winona LaDuke, Nelson Mandela, Bernard Wrankmore, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Naji Al-Ali, Usman Dan Fodio, Chris Hani, Imam Haron, Sam Nujoma, Rosa Luxemburg, Omarl Al-Muktar, Julius Nyerere, Fatima Meer, Oliver Tambo, Arundhati Roy, Tawakkol Karman, Ambedkar Nagar, Leila Khaled, Winnie Mandela, Anwah Nagia, Violeta Zúñiga, Allan Boesak, Achmad Cassiem Sedick Isaacs.

[47] Nawawie Mathews interviewed by Koni Benson, (Salt River, Cape Town, 21 August 2021).

[48] Maren Mantovani, interviewed by Koni Benson, Salt River, Cape Town, 30 October, 2021.

[49] Platzky and Walker, The Surplus People: Forced Removals in South Africa. (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1985)

[50] Sukaina Ishmail, “Activist Dr Anwah Nagia Laid to Rest,” Cape Argus (30 Sep 2020), accessed 4 Sept 2021:

[51] Tasneem Chilwan interviewed by Koni Benson, (Salt River, Cape Town, 21 August 2021).

[52] Nawawie Mathews interviewed by Koni Benson, (Salt River, Cape Town, 21 August 2021).

[53] Koni Benson, interviewed by Nawawie Mathews (Salt River, Cape Town, 21 August, 2021).

[54] His son in law who lives with him, Na’aim Saiet, was born in District Six and he and his brothers “moved to Salt River when they were still toddlers…said that the history of forced displacement was common to Palestinians and the people of Salt River.” Quoted in James Stent, “Salt River community celebrates shared heritage with the Palestinian cause: New murals a break from ‘cultural gentrification’,” Ground Up, (27 September 2021).

[55] Muna el Kurd interviewed by Koni Benson, Salt River, Cape Town, 23 October 2022. Also see: Keshia Africa, “Muna el Kurd visits historic Cape neighbourhoods,” Cape Argus (24 October, 2021).

[56] “Performing Charlotte Maxeke” CHR, (July 1, 2021),

[57] Heidi Grunebaum and Mark Kaplan, The Village Under the Forest (Grey Matter Media, 2013)

[58] In 2015, many hundreds of years after the VOC incursion into the area, this sacred land had become state-owned, it was sold for a mere twelve million rand to Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust, who have gone on to rezone it to make way for the multi-billion rands-worth mega development. ‘Africa’ headquarters so that it can fulfill it’s origin dream of becoming like the Amazon river- a river that eats up and incorporates all small rivers as it grows (apparently Bezos first called his company Cadabra but did not like how it was misheard as Cadaver, he then considered calling his company “Relentless,” but changed it to sound more friendly… which is also telling).

[59]Steve Kretzmann, “Heritage Western Cape slams River Club development plan,” GroundUp (19 February 2020); Leslie London, “The River Club Development: What is Really at Stake?” New Agenda: South African Journal of Social and Economic Policy. No. 79 (2021); ‘Black River development: Here’s why we are against it,’ ; Jonty Cogger and Robyn Park-Ross, “How to whitewash colonial pain and trauma” Mail and Guardian (24 Sept 2020), 

[60] The alliances subcommittee was launched at the AGM in January 2021 and tasked with:

1.Solidarity- urgent action/support/alliances- starting with TRUP and the Cissie Gool House occupation in neighboring Woodstock; 2. Build networks of Progressive/Radical Heritage Societies- Bo-Kaap, Wynberg, and also getting to know and see where there is overlap with neighboring civics in Woodstock and Observatory; 3Drafting a Charter/Manifesto of principles/visions for our neighbourhood/city.

[61] The plaque reflects the period between 1488 to 1652, before the Dutch arrived, the dispossession of Khoe lands by the Dutch, the first Khoi-Dutch war of 1659–1660 and its aftermath.

[62] Kelly Gillespie, “Freedom Day “Walk of Resistance” Oude Molen EcoVillage

27 April 2021, 9h-12h30,” “Report to the South African Human Rights Commission as per Section 11” (27 April 2021).

[63] See “Walk of resistance against Amazon River Club development,” ;“Stop the River Club Development,” 

[64] Rev Allan Boesak, Freedom Day, Walk of Resistance, Two Rivers Urban Park, 27 April 2021.

[65] Shakirah Thebus, “Group walks through the Cape CBD to protest Amazon development at River Club site,” Cape Argus (17 June 2021),

[66] “Baz-Art // Salt River Heritage Society (“SRHS”) / Cease & Desist Defamation,”Letter from C&A Friedlander Attorneys on behalf of Baz-Art to the Salt River Heritage Society (10 Sept 2021). (Emphasis added).

[67] Ibid.

[68] Yusuf Lalkhen, Salt River Heritage Society Executive Meeting, 9 Sept 2021. Quoted with permission.

[69] “Nominating the Salt River Railway Institute as a Provincial Heritage Site”, (19 February, 2020).

[70] Desai quoted in Tammy Petersen, “Zionist Federation lodges complaint against Siraj Desai, accusing him of being a ‘politicised’ judge,” News24 (10 June 2021).

[71] Imam Rashied Omar, “Keynote Address at the Community Arts Festival,” Salt River Heritage Society Event, (25 September 2021).

[72] Shareeda Bakkus, interviewed by Koni Benson and Anwar Omar, 5 September 2021, Salt River.

[73] Suhail Wing-King, interviewed by Koni Benson and Anwar Omar, 5 Sept 2021, Salt River.

[74] The Heritage Day celebrations took place under threat of the cease and desist letter accusing SRHS of false claims about Baz-Art funding, amongst other things. Only a year later, when Baz-Art tried to move into District Six and faced a stronger alliance threatening their attempt to establish their festival in the CBD did they admit to accepting Israeli funding and agree to end Israeli sponsorship. They however still hosted Israeli artists. See Tara Fienberg, “Israeli Artists Paint the Town Despite Attempted Boycott,” South Africa Jewish Report (3 March 2022). Also see: Nomalanga Tshuma, “International Public Arts Festival’s Baz-Art drops Israeli government funding” Cape Argus, 25 Feb 2022.

[75] Natalie Yolanda Ellis, interviewed by Koni Benson, 5 September 2021, over Zoom.

[76] Gasant Abarder, “Desiree put women’s soccer on the map,” Cape Argus, 4 Sept 2015.

[77] Gasant Abarder, ibid.

[78] Anwar Omar, ibid.

[79] SRHS is not alone in this approach. For example, see the proceedings of “Forced Removals, Urban Renewal and Memory Politics: Claremont Heritage Project, Constantia Heritage Project, Salt River, Liesbeek River,” Museums and Museologies in South Africa, University of the Western Cape and the Goethe Institute South Africa, (District Six Museum, 22 September 2022).

[80] This mural, printed on a temporary banner, includes Gadijah Isaacs, a garment worker unionist at Rex Trueform who mobilised black women on the factory floors and secured bursaries for local medical school students in the area; Zuraya Abass, a Yengeni Trial co-accused, who worked on the Freedom Charter, and founded of the organisation Molo Songololo; Karima Brown, journalist who stood against corruption; and political activist and writer Gladys Thomas.

[81] Nurturing these social and political networks enabled an alliance of District Six heritage organisations to call on the SRHS to share their experiences and stand in solidarity when Baz-Art decided to shift their Festival out of Salt River and into District Six/ CBD in 2022. 

Author Biographies

Thulile Gamedze is a Johannesburg-based cultural worker — producing writing, curricular, drawing and clothes — interested in the dialogic possibilities that emerge through the collapse of disciplinary structures. She has published writing on artistic and political work, as it unfolds in and outside of art spaces. Thuli teaches irregularly in art history at the University of the Witwatersrand, and is a member of Africa South Art Initiative (ASAI). She was a member of iQhiya, a collective of Black women artists, who actively exhibited between 2015 and 2018, including at documenta14: Learning from Athens. She is part of an ongoing collaboration with her sibling Asher Simiso, with whom she works and writes as gamEdze and gamedZe, and is also part of Overnight Services with Abri de Swardt: a museum sleep and dreaming project.

Koni Benson is an historian, organiser, and educator. She is a lecturer in the Department of History at the University of the Western Cape working in the areas of Urban History, Public History, Gender History, and Oral History. Committed to creative approaches to linking art, activism, and African history, she works with various archives and collectives coproducing histories across southern Africa. She is a member of the Salt River Heritage Society, and a co-convener of Revolutionary Papers, a transnational research and teaching project of anti-colonial movement materials. She is the author of Crossroads: I Live Where I Like (illustrated by the Trantraal Brothers and Ashley Marais, forward by Robin D.G. Kelley, PM Press 2021/Jacana 2022).