Graffiti in Post-Apartheid Cape Town, South Africa

Carly Barnes '15 </br> BBA in Finance w/Marketing

Carly Barnes ’15
BBA in Finance w/Marketing

Graffiti in Post-Apartheid Cape Town, South Africa

by Carly Barnes


Graffiti can be viewed and understood as an important means of visual heritage that serves as a physical representation of memory. Within the context of Cape Town, South Africa, this type of visual heritage becomes especially representative of the nation’s present society wrought by a troubled history of apartheid and social injustice. “Through silent acts of witnessing and listening, wounded places allow individuals and groups to begin the difficult work of mourning loss” (Till, 108). Graffiti serves as a gateway between the people in the community and the grievances they still carry. As part of the public sphere, graffiti both expresses and shapes the “search for roots” and a “collective memory…secure from the ravages of history and a turbulent time” (Said, 177). The issues that can be found in today’s South African society are therefore often linked back to its history of apartheid through the presence of this public art.

The urban art scene in Cape Town is beautiful in its own right, as urban renewal becomes a central part of the quest for a collective memory. Colorful murals that depict different races coexisting in harmony complement murals celebrating heroes involved in the anti-apartheid movement. Then again, the prevalence of illegal and unattractive graffiti tags and throw-ups also cover the streets and offer a contesting story of the ugly side of the South African present, negating the charm of these murals. Gang signs and unkind messages displayed on street corners are an obvious reminder of the tensions that remain unsolved in South African society. Upon closer review it becomes evident that though they tell conflicting stories of the past and present, each type of graffiti contributes to a multidimensional memory that includes both positive and negative narratives of South African society. Cape Town graffiti gives voice to a number of different narratives that inform and interact with each other, opening the dialogue of past and present with the surrounding community of artists, residents, tourists, and workers of all ages and races. As public art, South African graffiti draws connections across time and space to shape a complex and dynamic historical narrative that seeks to establish a collective memory of a troubled, yet resilient nation.

I began this research project by questioning what graffiti tells us about today’s post-Apartheid South Africa and how it functions as a representation of the past. Before departing for Cape Town, the predominant results from Google searches on graffiti were beautiful works of art completed by popular street artists and a few random, colorful ‘throw-ups’ of words that were hardly, if even, legible. What soon became evident, however, was the existence of another side that had not really shown up in my research—random, non-elaborate, and often obscure tags of nondescript acronyms that offered little to no aesthetic appeal. This posed further questions about the struggle for interpretive power in the urban art scene in Cape Town. How does urban art in the form of graffiti and murals inform us about South Africa’s post-Apartheid era, and how does this play into the memory of the past? What constitutes an appropriate, yet realistic memory of the past and its representation in the present, and how is this role determined? Do the different kinds of graffiti, like anonymous tags on street corners, colorful throw-ups hidden behind auto body shops, or beautiful murals done by popular street artists offer contesting discourses about the stories of the past and the future of South African society? Or do they instead interact with one another to form a dynamic, multi-faceted memory that includes harsh reality and a romanticized version of the present? Where are these pieces of art located in relation to one another and how are they seen by the public eye. Along similar lines, why are they located in public spaces and not private ones like galleries, and what might this indicate about South African society today?

Photography and site mapping were crucial in helping me unpack the theoretical questions about the influence of graffiti in post-apartheid South Africa. Photographs and the locations of any and all graffiti, from tags to murals, that I saw throughout my four-week stay in Cape Town show details and specifics of the art, as well as provide the context behind the setting involved in this study. The names of artists, if available, also helped in the analysis of certain pieces (two of the most common were Faith47 and Freddy Sam, white South African artists based in Cape Town). I gathered data from two main locations within Cape Town—Woodstock, a former hub for the textile and clothing industry, and the central business district (CBD), located in the heart of the city. The interest in these two sites relates closely to their historical relevance and importance during the apartheid era. Up until late 1980s, Woodstock existed as “one of the few multi-racial spaces” that managed to remain primarily integrated and survive “the deliberate ‘whitening’ of South African cities” (Garside, 29). At that point, under the Group Areas Act, the process of gentrification, or the “visible component of social transformation within cities” began as wealthier white and colored families moved into the area, displacing other working-class families (Garside, 30). The central business district, however, where Parliament and Cape Town City Hall are located, experienced strict legal segregation of whites and non-whites throughout the entirety of apartheid. By focusing on these two parts of Cape Town, the importance of site becomes increasingly apparent in the telling of different narratives.

The interaction between different types of urban art also communicates a lot about post-apartheid South Africa and its link to the past. Although past “conflicts might be historically concluded….their legacy continues to impact on present society” (“Gestures”, 78). Graffiti can be recognized and implemented as “cultural symbols that respond to a situation or conflict,” usually indicating that “reconciliation has not yet been achieved” (“Gestures”, 78-9). This can be seen through graffiti that addresses different social issues and therefore offers a wide range of interpretations relating to memory. Artists and vandals alike use all types of graffiti as a way of expressing and empowering themselves while adding their own personal voices to the public sphere. Different artists display different messages in their artwork through the use of color and shapes that affect the viewer’s ‘sense-memory.’ As Karen Till explains, drawing on the work of Jill Bennett, this “sense-memory is both emotional and cognitive, constituting a ‘seeing’ rather than ‘thinking’ truth that registers ‘the pain of memory as it is directly experienced’ to communicate ‘a level of bodily affect’” (Till, 107). In the context of South Africa, this ‘sense-memory’ can have either negative or positive effects depending on the message that is conveyed and what the viewer brings to it. To provide real examples, an image painted on a rusty metal gate of a disheartened angel sitting on the ground may evoke feelings of sadness and despair, especially if the underlying message is unclear, while a colorful illustration of an earnest Nelson Mandela painted high on the wall of a building will likely evoke feelings of admiration and hope. Then there are tags of gang signs, such as ‘Junior Mafia’ on stop signs and doorways of convenience stores that almost always create reactions of disgust and fear in their viewers who have also stopped and admired the brightly painted murals in a residential neighborhood just down the street. There is no single, linear narrative. Instead, these images trigger different sense-memories that represent distinct features of a present-day South Africa shaped by the legacy of apartheid.

Since there is no single unified narrative that tells the story of post-apartheid South Africa, public art manifests a struggle for interpretive power in response to the dominant discourse of reconciliation within the nation. One might suggest that murals illustrating the end of apartheid and celebrating the achievement of universal human rights and the merging of races comprise the leading historical narrative and give a realistic account of the present, while the remaining types of graffiti serve as mere explanations for more trivial aspects of society. Marschall, however, points out the possibility that murals that portray a “non-conflictual ‘rainbow nation’ that tie in perfectly with political discourses in the new South Africa tend to downplay and sanitise existing problems and mask, rather than reflect, reality” (“A Critical Investigation”, 61). This suggests that there is no finite classification for the representation of a single true ‘reality’. Instead, the reality of the present that is defined by the past is created through the intersection of narratives carried across space and time and seen through the eyes of individuals in the community. This could otherwise be referred to as collective memory. Till asserts that “as humans move through and come to inhabit local worlds, bodies are connected to other bodies (including non-human lives and matter) in complex ways, even as the distinction between self and other is maintained through memories of intrasubjective experience” (105). The types of graffiti and their siting relative to one another link their narratives with the artists and the surrounding community in an open dialogue of intermingling historical narratives that shape both individual and collective memory.

Figure 1

Figure 1


The use of publicly shared space strengthens the impact of graffiti and increases its sphere of influence to the entire community. Community mural projects have been taken up in Woodstock in an effort to rejuvenate the area and restore its beauty. The mural in Figure 1 was painted by Freddy Sam, a popular South African graffiti artist as part of ‘I Art Woodstock,’ a project aimed to revive a residential area in the heart of Woodstock. Its colorfulness, use of triangles, and uplifting phrases such as “Our Home Our Heart”, and “We Are Beautiful Here” evoke a sense of great strength and pride that transform the area around it. This mural showcases the optimistic and encouraging aspect of South African society. Ricky Lee Gordon (the real name of artist Freddy Sam) remarks on the use of color to inspire change: “Color creates energy, energy creates inspiration and inspiration creates change. It is our responsibility to inspire ourselves to inspire others to inspire the change. Art is the remedy for this” (“Ricky Lee Gordon: 2011”).



Figure 2

Figure 2

Other pieces in Woodstock inspire change through blatant statements about the issues still remaining in today’s South African society. Faith47, a well-known South African graffiti artist, constructs a bridge between the political assurance of a better way of life and the omnipresent reality of the unequal society that still exists. One such mural located on a rusted metal gate on the corner of Albert Road and Grey Street, is a depiction of a winged angel kneeling facedown over a tombstone with the words “The Freedom Charter” written on it (see Figure 2). Behind the mural, one can hardly make out the outline of the old sign of an auto body shop. For anyone familiar with the 1955 Freedom Charter, the message is quite clear. The Freedom Charter, a document created by the African National Congress (ANC) that gathered ‘freedom demands’ from the South African population to give all citizens equal rights during the apartheid era, seems to be failing to accomplish its original task almost sixty years later in the context of democracy. Nearly twenty years after the end of apartheid and the shift to ANC rule, many demands stated in the Freedom Charter remain to be achieved in today’s young South African democracy. The strategic location of the mural makes its tragic beauty easily visible to Woodstock residents and tourists driving along Albert Road, one of the main streets running through Woodstock. The simplicity of the image and the clear visibility of “The Freedom Charter” written on the tombstone immediately make an emotional impact on anyone that comes across it and it generates curiosity among those who are unfamiliar with its statement.


Each of these murals in Woodstock offers distinct interpretations because of the different uses of color (bright versus dull), kinds of words (proud versus purposeful), and sites of placement (someone’s home versus a rusty gate). The individuals portrayed in each (mortal versus immortal) and their body expressions (a skyward look versus a buried face low to the ground) also distinguish between the messages of pride and of dejection that the murals display. Faith47’s deliberate placement of the Freedom Charter angel on the rusted metal gate of the old auto body shop on the corner of a main road evokes a palimpsestic memory where “one element,” the angel, “is seen through and transformed by another,” the erosion of the gate (Silverman, 4). Any other setting would not convey the same tragic narrative without the symbolic layering of time and history. Faith47’s intention through her art and the way it is perceived by the public forges a connection between the individual and the community. As Max Silverman puts it, “the notion of memory as palimpsest provides us with a politico-aesthetic model of cultural memory in that it gives us a way of perceiving history in a non-linear way and memory as a hybrid and dynamic process across individuals and communities” (Silverman, 5).

Figure 3

Figure 3


The central business district (CBD), where government buildings like Parliament and Cape Town City Hall are located, experienced the strict enforcement of legal segregation under apartheid. This is notable in the representation of graffiti in the area. High on the wall of a building on Upper Darling Street, visible from the road, is a mural illustrating the history of the decades of struggle to end apartheid (see Figure 3). Just a short distance down the street is Cape Town City Hall, where Nelson Mandela made his first speech in 1990 after being released from Robben Island. Each decade carries a different theme in the struggle against apartheid from the pass laws in the 1960s to the end of apartheid and the presidency of Nelson Mandela in the 1990s. The mural dehumanizes the oppressors who appear as faceless silhouettes, while the saddened expressions of the oppressed are quite clear. The depiction of the end of apartheid in the decade ‘90’ shows Nelson Mandela standing solemnly among other important political activists. The dehumanization of apartheid officials against the blacks’ somber expressions prompts an aching memory of a grueling past without eliciting anger or placing the blame on anyone; instead it serves to acknowledge this past and to celebrate the success of collective resistance.

Figure 4

Figure 4


Close by Parliament in CBD, on a partially torn down building in a parking lot across from the Company Gardens on Queen Victoria Street, is a mural of a blindfolded Lady Justice by Faith47 (see Figure 4). The blindfold covering her eyes symbolizes objectivity and her chin tilted toward the sky indicates a hope for change. Her exposed neck makes her look almost vulnerable, yet she seems fierce and determined. The double-edged sword to the left of her head represents the power of reason and integrity and the scale on her left shoulder signifies the weight of merits of opposing sides in a particular case. She is holding neither one of these, suggesting the lack of control she has over fairness, reason, and integrity in the present South African society. Finally, above her head is a phrase from the 1955 Freedom Charter that reads, “All shall be equal before the law.” The objective of the mural is clear, to insiders as well as tourists: equality under the law has still not been achieved almost twenty years into South Africa’s new democracy and something must change. The longer gross social inequality continues to torture South Africa, the more permanently it becomes engrained in society.


Figure 4 (detail)

Figure 4 (detail)

In order to understand the messages of these last two murals, it is important to understand their siting in the central business district of Cape Town. Both pieces of art are situated within close walking distance of important government buildings and are easily visible to all kinds of different people, such as citizens, tourists driving through CBD or visiting the Company Gardens, and people that make use of the parking lot there. As much as they each evoke intense emotional responses to the past, their images are thought provoking and communicative. One message attempts to reconcile a harsh past, while another pushes for further change and social transformation.

The analyses of all four murals show the influence of location, history, and artistic intent in the creation of distinct yet interrelated narratives that help form an active and changing memory.Graffiti also can act as a medium for storytelling. Whether it is obvious or not, they type of graffiti and where it is located help inform certain aspects of a society that may otherwise remain invisible and unthought in everyday life. The use of public space becomes critical because it allows artists to foster a relationship between their art and the people that come into contact with it. Within the context of Cape Town, South Africa, a place once ridden with the brutality of legal segregation and severe oppression no less than twenty years ago, graffiti provides an important backdrop for understanding its society today and how it has been shaped by the events of its past. It helps serve as a memory of the past, as a representation of the present, as a guide to the future.

As soon as paint leaves the artists’ paintbrush or spray can, the artists’ expressions come out in the art they put on display. Then the art is able to stand on its own within the setting where it was placed. The artists have a clear influence over what representation they want to portray and the impression they want to give to the public. Beyond this, however, is the deep history of South Africa and its struggles and victories that alter the meaning and understanding of the graffiti specific to the context of the nation and its people. The same tags or murals placed in a country that has experienced a different past would not carry the same significance as it does in South Africa, not only because of the space, but because the people would not share a common history or possess the same sense of community as those in South Africa. Even the particular sites and locations, such as sides of buildings, rusted-over metal gates, and houses in specific areas of Cape Town with distinctive histories, help shape the representation of South African society.

South Africans often take proud ownership of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ and South African culture and speak positively about the end of apartheid, the influence of heroes like Nelson Mandela, and the hopefulness for a unified nation. On the other hand, there are huge issues that still exist racially, politically, economically, and socially that have hardly improved, if not worsened. As Faith47 points out in the Freedom Charter Project, much improvement still remains to be seen to restore equality and unity in South African society. Violence, gangsterism, drugs, and AIDS run rampant throughout the country, particularly for the vast population of South African people, mostly blacks, living in poverty.

People that have left a mark in a public space, whether they are anonymous vandals or respected graffiti artists, bring each of these characteristics to the surface of everyday life for a purpose. This is not to say that feelings of strength, pride, despair, optimism, and defeat did not already exist in Cape Town without public art; but they are just being brought to light through physical representation. In Faith47’s words, “South Africa [is] a very complex country; it could take lifetimes to understand it. It’s very beautiful, and the people here are hard as nails, like ninjas, with big hearts. The class divide is so strong and there are many empty pockets. A hungry man is an angry man, so there is a lot of violence and the economics are worrying” (Faith47). Graffiti illuminates all aspects of South Africa’s society, including the good, the bad, and the ugly to help foster a sense of community and collective memory and to inspire change.

Additional Images


Faith47. “Faith47.” Interview by Sarah Mcmaster. FormatMag 8 Mar. 2009: n. pag. FormatMag. Web. 17 July 2013.

Garside, Jayne. “Inner City Gentrification in South Africa: The Case of Woodstock, Cape Town.” GeoJournal 30.1 (1993): 29-35. JSTOR. Web. 18 July 2013.

Marschall, Sabine. “A Critical Investigation into the Impact of Community Mural Art.” Transformation 40 (1999).

Marschall, Sabine. “Gestures of compensation: post-apartheid monuments and memorials.” Transformation: Critical Perspectives on Southern Africa 55.1 (2004): 78-95.

“Ricky Lee Gordon: 2011 AHN Awardee.” Arts and Healing Network. Arts and Healing Network, 2010. Web. 18 July 2013.

Said, Edward W. “Invention, memory, and place.” Critical Inquiry 26.2 (2000): 175-192.

Silverman, Maxim, and Andr Gide. Palimpsestic memory: The Holocaust and colonialism in French and francophone fiction and film. Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2013.

Till, Karen E. “Artistic and activist memory-work: Approaching place-based practice.” Memory Studies 1.1 (2008): 99-113.