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St George’s Cathedral Crypt: A place of memory and witness
St George’s Cathedral, an elegant stone building in the centre of Cape Town presents a calm and solid face to the world. With its soaring arches and colourful stained glass windows it’s easily identifiable as a place of Christian worship. It’s not immediately evident that it has also been a place of protest and sanctuary and a place from which the rallying call for justice has been sounded.
The Cathedral’s Crypt has recently been rededicated as a Crypt Memory and Witness Centre, a sacred space of dialogue, hope and healing, with an inaugural exhibition commemorating the Cape Town Peace March of 1989. The Archival Platform met with Father Terry Lester, Sub-Dean of St George’s Cathedral and Lynette Maart, a lay leader and member of the Cathedral’s Justice and Reconciliation Group (CJR) to find out more about this initiative.
It’s peaceful in the Cafe St George’s where we meet for coffee, and the music soars serenely as Lynette describes how on, 13 September 1989, a crowd of some 30,000 people from every walk of life gathered in front of the Cathedral and marched to the Grand Parade to protest against the violence of the apartheid regime and to proclaim that another world was possible; a world in which the dignity of every person was respected and her promise of freedom and democracy would be available to all.
Describing the Peace March as a ‘kairos’ moment , Father Lester explains that in Koine Greek there are two words for time: ‘chronos’ or chronological time and ‘kairos’ time which is prophetic time, the moment when God’s presence breaks in and people must respond; when people align themselves with God and unleash a transformative power.
Speaking almost as one, Lynette and Father Lester set the scene for the Peace March. Describing the 1980s as a decade during which the apartheid government reacted with increasing violence to those whom opposed it, the growth of mass movements such as the United Democratic front and the churches Kairos declaration in 1985, following the World Alliance of Reform Churches’ declaration that apartheid a heresy in 1982, they paint a picture of a country rendered ungovernable by an unrelenting tide of protest. They tell of the events of 6 September 1989, which triggered the Peace March. At least 24 people died on that day in clashes with police and army during a boycott of the election of a racially segregated tri-cameral parliament. The following evening, dismayed at the carnage, Archbishop Desmond Tutu retreated to his chapel to pray and seek divine guidance. The next day, at a memorial service in the Cathedral, he called on the people of Cape Town to march on parliament to protest the killings.
A week later, Archbishop Tutu linked arms with Cape Town mayor Gordon Oliver, fellow religious leaders Allan Boesak, Beyers Naude, Frank Chikane and Sheik Nazeer Mohammed, Western Cape Civic Association leader Zoli Malindi and union leader Jay Naidoo amongst others, and lead a crowd of some 30,000 people from the Cathedral, down Adderley Street towards parliament. In the crowd were Cheryl Carolus and Mary Burton. For the first time in many years an anti-apartheid march was allowed to proceed peacefully. Police stood by but they didn’t fire teargas, rubber bullets or use their water cannon against the marchers as they had on many previous occasions.
The Cape Town Peace March caught the imagination of people across the country. Over the following days 85,000 people gathered in Uitenhage; 50,000 in Bloemfontein; 40,000 in East London; 20,000 in King William’s Town; 20,000 in Durban; 20,000 in Johannesburg; 7,500 in Kimberley; 2,000 in Oudtshoorn and; 2,000 in Grahamstown. The demand for justice was heard across the country.
While the current exhibition focuses on the 1989 Peace March, Father Lester and Lynette remind us that the Cathedral has long served as a place of protest against injustice and as a refuge, earning it the title of the ‘people’s cathedral’. In the 1960s protesters including members of the Black Sash gathered outside the Cathedral with their placards. In the 1970s student protesters were stormed by police and brutally beaten on the cathedral steps on several occasions. In 1982 the Cathedral gave sanctuary to a group of Nyanga ‘squatters’, who were, in terms of apartheid laws living illegally in the area, and who embarked on a fast, vowing to starve to death unless they were granted permission to live in with their families in Cape Town.
Explaining the links between the Cathedral’s history as a place of struggle and its current focus on reconciliation and justice Lynette explains that she was an activist in the 1980s and that her work with the Cathedral provides an opportunity to continue to be an activist albeit in a somewhat different context. As she says, “it’s the kind of thing you do because it feeds your soul and gives you a different kind of energy”.
The Crypt Memory and Witness Centre is an initiative of the Cathedral’s Justice and Reconciliation Group (CJR) whose mission is to fulfil the Cathedral’s prophetic mission as a place of hope and healing through its commitment to issues of justice and reconciliation. While the exhibition commemorates an event in the Cathedral’s history, the group extends the work of reconciliation and social justice to address current concerns – among others, xenophobia, homophobia and HIV Aids seeking to make these difficult issues visible. Other programmes and activities include developing and an annual observance of South Africa’s Day of Reconciliation, promoting interfaith and other pilgrimages and opportunities including to the Church of the Good Shepherd on Robben Island, for facilitated reflection on particularly social justice issues.
The Crypt Memory and Witness Centre project team made up of about 12 energetic, and committed members has worked in partnership with institutions such as Iziko Museums of Cape Town, the District Six Museum, the City of Cape Town, the Cape Town Partnership and others to develop the exhibition and related programmes and publications. Father Lester pays tribute to the myriad people who contributed “walked the journey with them”, offering expertise, services and resources or sharing their stories through oral testimonies.
While the exhibition has been researched, produced and installed, and personal and institutional archives have been trawled for information, other activities are ongoing. There is continued interaction with people who have been involved in issues related to the church, generating new material to inform future activities.
We ended the interview humbled by the extraordinary work of the project team, inspired by Lynette and Father Lester’s passion for their work and their determination to use the Crypt as a site to explore the story of the struggle for justice, past and current, from the perspective of the faith community. But it was their turn to pose a question. “Where,” they wanted to know, “can we put the archival material that we’ve gathered, where can we keep the stories we’re collecting, so that they can be accessible to others including ordinary people.” We have no immediate answer, just a growing concern that so many of the people we speak to have invested so much of their time and energy in collecting material - treasure houses of information - that needs to be kept in safe custody for future generations. Initiatives such as the Crypt Memory and Witness Centre deepen our understanding the injustices of the past and the remarkable way in which these were overcome, and point the way to reconciliation, they make us believe, like the marchers did in 1989, that peace is possible.
Exhibition Information Brochure