The Secret Cenotaph of Cape Town


Unbeknownst to most visitors, the Western Cape and its principal city have a few alternative geographies, which make for intruiging surprises to those who explore on foot.

For instance, there’s the dotted-line “ring of spiritual protection” created by the region’s many kramats (muslim holy sites; see the Cape Mazaar Society), which can be found in the unlikliest of places, from Robben Island to wine estates, and which are supposed to shield our part of the world from evil influences.

And then there’s this cenotaph, found in the tall grass along High Level Road (map), as it crests its first rise upon leaving the city center (where it’s known as Strand Street).

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While not quite the same thing as a kramat (which comemmorates an individual), this monument of a piece with the spirit kramats represent. It marks the site of an 18th century Muslim graveyard, which was used, first, by slaves brought to Cape Town from Indonesia, Malasia and Suriname by the Dutch East India Company, starting in the late-17th century, and, later, by their descendants – who today are sometimes referred to as “Cape Malays”.

If my memory serves, the graveyard was shut down following an outbreak of disease – during which suspicion fell, probably without warrant, on the admittedly-crowded graveyard. A rebellion ensued, which was put down (violently, in all likelihood), and a new cemetery, miles away, was established. This proved to be a major inconvenience for the inhabitants of the Bo-Kaap (the area above the CBD, closest to the cenotaph – traditionally where the slaves and their descendants have lived), for their burial traditions prescribed carrying the the body in procession, on foot, to its grave.

Moral of the story: look out for ghosts in Green Point!