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Community House

Community House, in Woodstock, Cape Town, a site of activism from the mid 1980’s has been declared a provincial heritage site. While the building continues to house NGOs and trade unions, the tenants have raised funds to develop a labour and community history museum precinct centred around the Trade Union Library (TUL) and its archive. The intention is to enable Community House to reassert its identity as a vibrant forward-looking centre of debate and action – a worker and community resource for reflection, knowledge production and self-organisation.

Community House serves as a site of memory and living heritage that acknowledges and propagates the role of the labour movement and the struggles of working class communities for a united, non-racial and democratic South Africa.

Community House celebrates and communicates the diverse and contested voices that comprise and contribute to the ongoing social and political histories of community house.

In doing the above, Community House will continue to provide a sustainable site of activities for our ongoing struggles for a just and equitable society.

Statement of significance

The Community House Conservation Management Plan of 2009 notes that significance holds the potential to change over time – as new information arises and perspectives and interpretations change, and includes the following statement of significance: “Community House is a unique, historic site of living heritage located in Salt River, Cape Town. A site of activism, it shaped and continues to shape the socio-political landscape of its extended communities and our country. In its twenty-one years of existence, Community House remains what its founders envisioned it to be, a vibrant centre for social change and community action.

In the mid-1980s, apartheid South Africa saw heightened repression, the revival of the worker’s movement and an intense struggle for liberation. As a centre of militant spirit and action, Community House played an important role in a defining period in South Africa’s history. As a site and springboard for mass struggles, it bore witness to the unifying role of labour in the struggle for liberation. During this time, for many throughout the country, Community House symbolised organised opposition to inequality, discrimination and oppression. Today, as home to a community of activists engaged in broader struggles for social transformation, Community House retains this symbolism. It stands thus as an authentic symbol of resilience, of fighting spirit and of hope for the future.

Organisations that formed the backbone of the anti-apartheid and labour movement were housed at Community House. From this site some of the largest strikes and anti-apartheid campaigns were organised. The organisations, meetings and events that took place here during the 1980s and 1990s mark its historic significance.

It is the only site in South Africa that provided and continues to provide a collective home for those involved in the broader labour movement. And, since its inception, the Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU, its union affiliates and organisations servicing and supporting workers, have been the backbone of Community House.

The suppression of black worker rights in South Africa is embedded in its history of apartheid and capitalism. The emerging independent trade unions of the 1970s and 1980s thus regarded worker rights as indistinguishable from broader human rights for all. Within South Africa, in the 1980s, the labour movement embraced its role as a unifying force in the struggle for liberation. Thousands of workers and local communities were mobilised in the fight for justice and equality for all South Africans.

Regarded as a safe haven for the activities of the liberation movement, workers cold converge on Community house. They not only fought for better wages and working conditions but for equality for all, and against all repressive laws. By 1988, every major mass-based organisation faced bannings and restrictions. In July 1989, the Mass Democratic Movement declared a countrywide defiance campaign against these bans and restrictions. In September, Community House witnessed the planning and preparation of the historic “purple rain” march and the march of 100,000 people through the streets of Cape Town. The defiance campaign proved a turning point and by february1990 political organisations were unbanned. Post 1994, the labour movement’s role has been to actively voice and redress the racial, social and economic inequities facing South Africa, Community house has been the site f dissonant voices that have steered the course of the new democracy,

The meeting halls, in particular, are a vast repository of memory. Over time, they have witnessed the activities of thousands of workers on strike, in meetings and launching campaigns. Here the campaign for a non-racial Labour Relations Act was launched; the strategies of striking workers form the Vineyard Hotel were developed, as well as those of the bus drivers, railway workers, hospital workers and teachers on strike in the 1990’s.

The halls have witnessed the release of political prisoners from Robben Island; they were the nerve centre of the first election campaign of the ANC in 1994, they have hosted cultural workers and gumbas, training workshops and meetings and the painting of innumerable banners. These halls have hosted countless community activities; weddings, funeral wakes, 21st birthday parties and karate classes.

Whilst the labour movement has played a critical role in shaping South African history, within the terrain of national heritage, these rich and dense narratives continue to remain largely untold. However, in the 1980s a number of labour and community activists were commemorated in the halls and foyers within Community house. Those commemorated demonstrated selfless dedication to the struggle for the liberation of the South African people. Some played a critical role in the revival of the trade union movement, especially in the Western cape. Others left the country for military training or were forced into exile. All were detained by apartheid’s security police. All with the exception of one were murdered by the apartheid state. People that Community House intende commemorating include:  Elijah Loza, Storey Luke Mazwembe, Jeanette Curtis, Ashley Kriel, Neil Aggett, Imam Haron and Wilfred Rhodes. Their histories of struggle and sacrifice represent the histories of thousands of others who were detained, tortured and killed by the apartheid regime.

Thus, Community House commemorates and memorialises not only their role but also the role labour, social justice and community organisations played and continue to play in the forging of a just and equitable society. As such the symbolism of Community House speaks to the struggles and aspirations of workers and working class communities, not just in South Africa but throughout the world.

The site itself has a history of service and support. Its use as an institution for young white women workers in the first half of the 20th century has the potential to yield complex interpretations of the history of the workers movement and the socio-economic constructions of apartheid in salt River and provincially and nationally.

That Community house continues to function as a site of activism, reinforcing its legacy, is in itself an act of remembering – promoting ideas that sustained the struggles of the past and reinforcing the memories of those who sacrificed their lives for liberation.

Projects and programmes

These will include:

  • An oral history programme
  • Archival research
  • Reade Union Library archive and library development
  • Commemorative art installations
  • Exhibits, signage and other displays
  • Public programming including youth education
  • Source: Community House Invitation to artists to submit proposals, attached.


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