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A walk on the wild side
Sex and the Slaves, a tour of living history and walking theatre
“We’re starting right here at Greenmarket Square...” sings Dean Paarman with his partner Samantha Chapman. The two of them are dancing and singing on the steps of the Old Town House. I didn’t expect them to break into song. But as I’m about to find out this is no ordinary walking tour of the city.
I’m taking part today in a Steve Bolnick, Sex and the Slaves tour. A journey to all the (ahem) hotspots that made up a slave’s life in infant Cape Town. We’re off with a bang, a twirl and a promise of plenty of gossip.
Sex and the Slaves was so named for the raunchy settler days in the old Cape. There were countless relationships going on between the early Dutch settlers and the female slaves—some ending in pregnancy, marriage and then freedom for the slave.
Dean and Samantha are in high-spirits as they charge past Greenmarket’s cobblestones and onto Wale Street’s tarmac. The pair are both actors, in fact they went to theatre school together, so the shared camaraderie comes off as jolly rather than forced. While they’re walking satin ties come out of their bags and black ‘nerd’ glasses are fixed on their faces.
Suddenly, they’re in character, “Now on the slave report...” begins Dean in a newsreader’s voice. The group’s attention is held. The script has smartly inserted jokes and risqué information aplenty.
Soon we’re in colourful Bo-Kaap. The graphic buildings against the bright blue sky are awe-inspiring.
At this stop Dean and Sam act out a movie—played against a lime green wall. As we walk back towards town, Dean tells me that each scene (on the tour) will have a different theme, like the ‘movie’ one before.
Leaving the turquoise mosques and aroma of cooking rotis behind, we cross Buitengracht and head to Bree Street. “What does Bree mean?” Dean asks a Dutch man in our group. “Bree?” the man answers. “In Dutch it means wide.”
“Exactly!” says Dean. “This was an affluent area back in the day, that explains the wide streets and big houses,” he says pointing up at Heritage Square.
“Women were few, but slaves were plenty.”
Our tour turns downtown. Layer by layer, our ebullient guides are revealing parts of the old city I normally would have rushed over without a second look. Case-in-point is the inlaid copper slogan we find in the streets, it’s a VOC symbol. Dean tells us to take a step back and look at the shape the slogan is in the centre of, we do so, and see that it’s the shape of The Castle.
Into the spring-scent of the Adderley Street flower sellers we walk, listening to more cheeky history as we go. We check out the bones of the old water system in the centre of The Golden Acre, shoppers hurrying past, oblivious. We prance onto the Grand Parade where we’re told horror stories about slave torture. Disobedient slaves would be flayed and branded, and left tied to a wheel in the very same spots, where today, women sell rolls of material.
The tour’s winding down now, after a brief visit to The Castle, we’re shown the commemorative slave blocks, names in pearlescent script bonded to granite. The final stop is at the Old Slave Lodge, which is now an Izikio Museum.
This is the tour’s pièce de résistance. Here, hundreds of slaves, prisoners and mentally ill patients lived in squalor. The atmosphere was rank, though sexually charged. This innocuous looking white building in front of me is said to be the Cape’s first unofficial brothel, “Everyone was in on it, says Dean. In the old Cape, women were few, but slaves were plenty.”
Dean and Sam weave an evocative tale of sex, death and intrigue. Although the subject matter is dark, this is in no way a sad story. Many slaves were freed during this time; some even went on to become incredibly wealthy.
Their script is richly written and playfully executed. Some of the stories are just plain scandalous, I could tell you some, but that would be, well, telling.
Come see for yourself on a Sex and the Slaves tour.
By Malu Lambert
The tour costs R150 per person and leaves from The Old Town House in Greenmarket Square, Monday to Saturday. The tour starts at 10am and will conclude at approximately 12pm.