Removing murals defaces history, deepens trauma

Here a Palestine flag can be seen on a mosque in Parkwood on the Cape Flats. Photographer: Leon Lestrade / Independent Newspapers.

Here a Palestine flag can be seen on a mosque in Parkwood on the Cape Flats. Photographer: Leon Lestrade / Independent Newspapers.

Published Jan 20, 2024


Murals are part of people’s attempts to document their struggles, victories and aspirations the world over.

They often depict political, religious and historical themes which communities identify with.

Political murals are also an indication of experienced oppression. They are often angry and heroic and drag messages from the margins into the centre.

Belfast, Philadelphia and Berlin are just some of the cities where often tortured histories are depicted in bold murals.

Philadelphia is referred to by some as the mural capital of the world.

When a community experiences tragedy, trauma or marginalisation, the mural artist becomes their therapist. The boldness and size of the mural often depicts the loudness of their screams to the outside world. It is their headline story.

The mural represents their message, and its constant presence depicts the permanence of their pain and alliances and that nothing has changed in their lived experience to paint anything else.

Murals are not defacing exercises. They are trauma-filled screams. They are voices and stories that cannot be read in any other media. They are protests.

They are visuals that give voice to what is not being heard and what is not being reported on.

When the government moves in to remove a mural, its actions are tantamount to silencing the protest, muting the voice, and deepening the trauma and anger of the unspoken oppression and pain.

Globally, most murals are painted on government-owned properties – because that’s the point. It is to have one’s government and one’s media take note of other voices and issues that they may be ignoring. But more importantly, the therapeutic value of mitigating trauma and validating one’s story is its most important value.

This week, the City of Cape Town removed a mural of a Palestinian flag in Lavender Hill in Cape Town. By doing so, it deepened trauma and anger and dismissed validation of a community’s story.

By acting on a complaint, said complainant unknown at this stage, it missed the opportunity to engage the community and listen to their why.

The Northern Ireland capital of Belfast is a city of political murals. Its most famous mural is that of political prisoner and hunger striker Bobby Sands, in Falls Road. Sands died on May 5, 1981, after being on a hunger strike for 66 days and a month after being elected, as a prisoner, to the British House of Commons.

Margaret Thatcher, on the day Sands died, referred to him as a convicted criminal. His people, and most of the oppressed world, saw him as a political prisoner and martyr.

Another iconic Belfast mural is called the “Summer of 69” in Hopewell Crescent. Ivette Feliciano writes, in an article on Northern Ireland murals, that the mural depicts the story of two children, a Protestant and a Catholic, “who went to bed as friends and woke up to a bomb-ravaged neighbourhood and burned-out homes, an overnight event believed to have launched riots and the start of The Troubles”.

Belfast also has a mural of Nelson Mandela, done in 2013. Sinn Féin representative Mary McConville, who was the speaker at the unveiling, spoke of the similarities of the freedom struggles in Ireland and South Africa and focused “on the way the British and South African governments tried to break the struggles in the prisons by imposing inhumane regimes on captured activists”.

In June 2020, Belfast also unveiled a mural of the murdered George Floyd.

SA politicians need to recognise and respect diverse political histories and multiple historical alliances in their application of the law. There is no single narrative. By painting over the Palestinian mural in Lavender Hill, they tried to wipe out the words of Nelson Mandela, who said, “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”.

The City tried to silence the trauma of oppression and disrupt international political solidarity between Lavender Hill and Gaza. The screams will now only become louder.

* Lorenzo A. Davids.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Cape Argus

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