The old Cape Town Zoo is located next to the University of Cape Town (UCT) campus in Cape Town’s southern suburbs. The zoo area can be accessed from the Campus exit road, Residence Road towards Rhodes Drive. The design of the zoo and its current state tell a number of fascinating stories about the colonial and post-colonial Capetonian society. We present a short subjctive guide for visiting the zoo. You can enter it from the UCT upper campus at P17.
[Entrance at P17]
Animals and people
[Professor:] 1.‘What we can do is imagine where the animals used to be. This looks like a funny shaped concrete swimming pool; there used to be water in here and crocodiles.
Come and look very carefully — on the ground, all around — and tell me if you can see something that looks like an animal. You see his eye, his teeth, and his paws and there’s his curly tail and his ferocious claws. These are pictures of lions.’
[mozaic in the path way]
‘Zoos are metaphoric landscapes. They often materialize a set of complex ideas around nature and culture and wildness and domesticity. This zoo told a little evolutionary tale from crocodiles to hyenas and foxes through to apes and leopards, through to lions. A biogenetic story as you walk through it with lions on the top.’
[Lion’s cage with grafiti]
2. ‘When they closed the zoo in the 1980s people started living in the cages because there was a big problem with housing. And what did they do? They didn’t say: ‘oh we’re so pleased that these people have some kind of a home.’ Instead they put these bricks in so that no one could live there.
‘Look carefully at the bricks; some of them have been patched up. People wanted to live here and they would make a hole through the bricks. But then someone else would come and find out that people were living there and brick it up again…and then someone would bash a hole again…and then someone would brick it up again.’
[Patched up structures]
‘All kinds of people moved into the lion’s den. In the middle of last year a group of students moved in and they used it as an informal exhibition space.’
4. ‘Do you recognize this? It’s a part of Dutch national history; it’s the outline of the castle in Cape Town, a pentagonal star, a 17th century Dutch fortification plan. The Dutch built these all over the world where they had interests; it’s the symbol of Holland’s empire. You can go to places such as Curacao and see a fort built according to this plan. The way that it works is that it is about fields of fire, so you can catch any enemy in a cross fire.’
[Symbol of Dutch fortress]
‘It is interesting because it’s a very local symbol but transnational at the same time. The castle in Cape Town used to be the first permanent building constructed at the Cape. And later it became the apartheid military headquarters. During the struggle period this was the symbol of apartheid and now it is a tourist attraction.’
‘This zoo is built by Cecil Rhodes, a British imperialist and expansionist who had two countries named after him, and who lived in the late 19th century. The zoo was his private menagerie project. His idea for the menagerie was that it should contain animals from all over the British Empire.’
‘Rhodes was very specific about the fact that the zoo should be open to the public, but to a very particular public: a middle class [white] settlers public. It was to be a place where people would come to promenade on Sunday. He had the animals brought in and he was gifted a lot of them from all over the Empire.’
[The zoo’s central axis]
5. ‘What Rhodes tried to do was to create a hybrid landscape. It is meant to be a little bit of all sorts of things. Englishness, the oak trees; a sense of location, the [indigenous] silver trees and the fijnbos; then the stone pines, which stand for southern Mediterranean classicism. Utterly weird, isn’t it?! But that’s the combination they were going for. And the lions are meant to be wild Africa. That’s the local referent. It’s a commentary about imperial power.’
‘The point of this landscape is that it’s an exemplary landscape. It is meant to physically embody a set of big ideas. The idea is that you stand here and you gaze out …and what you’re looking at is Africa. Then you could ask the question: well if that’s African what is this? The idea is that this is not quite Africa. This is a provisional part of Africa.’
[View from the Rhodes Memorial]
6. ‘[Then] there was nature; there was wild nature and it wasn’t at all relaxing. It was experienced as threatening and awful and for relaxation you certainly wouldn’t go to wild nature. What you wanted to see were visible signs of human interventions, edifices of artificiality and human presence. Because you lived in wild nature and it was horrible!’
‘[Rhodes] had this idea that the British Empire had run somehow out of steam at the end of the 19th century and what it need was a little transfusion of wildness, of Africanness.’
7. ‘[T]here was a settlers’ society with the Cape as point of arrival. There was a lot of anxiety as with any settler’s society around notion of place and home, space, landscape, ownership and claim to territory. And there was a very specific set of anxieties around notions of Africanness. What Rhodes did here is to create a landscape like home. A little bit of Europe is created botanically, and through the animals, a biological empire is created as a form of mediated Africa.’
Just this Place
[Student] 8. ‘If you want to smoke, you come here. It’s off campus. And if you try and smoke on campus you get busted. We like a few other spots as well: the tree on the other side, the thrown. The thing is…this place is indoors. We used to have a place which we called the eagle’s nest, on the roof of the UCT graduate building. But that is blocked off now.’
‘The history of this place is that it is the lion’s cage. We had a theory that they kept slaves in here. Not a lot of people know about it. When we did find out about it, we didn’t find ‘this is dedication to anyone’ or anything like that. It’s just this place.’
[Inside Lion’s cage]
Who is my enemy?
[Squatter] 9. ‘It’s a nice place to stay here…to rest, to do your things. Many years ago I did work here with PWD, the Public Works Department. That was in the time of [F.W.] De Klerk, when De Klerk was the state president. This was a zoo for apes and that kind of stuff. I like it, because I’m sleeping at night here, and it’s keeping me safe from all the wrongdoings and from all my enemies. I don’t know who is my enemy but there are plenty people who are chasing after you without you knowing.
‘This is not actual my workplace, I just come here and I rest a little bit. I collect the small things and then I put it together and when it becomes big then I take it with the other stuff and take it to the scrap yards in Woodstock and then I get some money and then I get myself something to eat and some fags you know. I don’t smoke drugs but I drink a beer. And then me and my friend we have a good time. Maybe with a woman as well.
[Plantation above the zoo]
Please email christianernsten at gmail dot nl, if you wish to receive a detailed map of the old zoo of Cape Town.
by Andrea Brennen and Christian Ernsten. Thanks to Nick Shepherd, Ronald and Richard.