A coincidental day
I am walking along Sea Point's promenade. My phone rings. Did I hear Noor Ebrahim passed away? He was 79.
Noor was a co-founder of the District Six Museum in Cape Town. He was a gentle and dignified man and especially an entertaining storyteller about this bruised neighbourhood on the slopes of Table Mountain. I met him years ago at the museum where I bought a copy of his book, Noor's Story: My Life in District Six.
He grew up at 247 Caledon Street and his family was forcibly removed to Athlone in 1974 in terms of the Group Areas Act. His dream of being able to live in District Six again was never realised.
While I think of Noor, I see a pigeon. One of the most striking stories in his book is about pigeons.
I stop, look up and see the wreckage and remains of Graaff's Pool in front of me. The pigeon flies away.
I remember when I interviewed Philip de Vos, he mentioned to me that he had photos of Graaff's Pool from before it was demolished and after it was destroyed.
Synchronicity is not mere thumb-sucking. The news about Noor just as I was standing in front of Graaff's Pool; a pigeon; and Philip who casually told me about his photos. Coincidence?
Noor had a love for pigeons from an early age in District Six. He could spend hours with them, rubbing their soft feathers, nattering. They coo-cooed back at him.
In Athlone, he built new cages for his approximately 50 birds. After three months he decided they should be released and he would see which of them came back.
One sunny Sunday morning he released them all. He didn't feed them beforehand; he would do that when they returned. Off they flew, their wings fluttering to freedom.
He decided to visit friends that day. When he returned early in the evening, no pigeons had come back. That night he could not sleep.
He wondered what had happened to his birds. At the time, he was working downtown for Reader's Digest.
District Six was always on his mind because he had to drive past it. On the Monday morning he decided to drive to Caledon Street, where his house had been.
“That morning," he writes, “I parked my car. I got out. All my pigeons were sitting there. I walked towards them. They looked at me stupefied, as if they wanted to ask, ‘Where is our house?' That day I went on my knees. I really cried."
Sea Point and its militant poseurs
The devastation of District Six can in no way be compared to that of Graaff's Pool. Yet, in its own way, this bathing place has had a dynamic influence on minority groups. It offered a bulwark against discrimination.
The tidal pool was destroyed in 2005 because some residents and officials were authoritarian and small-minded. Sea Point still mostly remains a snobbish, privileged and combative neighbourhood with, among other things, an indigestible hatred of the poor, especially those who ended up on the streets or in tents during the Covid pandemic.
What residents yearn for, under the guise of concern and safety, is a white enclave for wealthy socialites with no visible poverty or what they consider moral decay.
The other day, when a black family was having a picnic on the beach, a white resident wrote on Facebook: “On Rocklands Beach I saw a whole bunch of out-of-towners sitting there as if they owned the place.” In other words: the barbarians penetrated the palace.
They get quite aggressive about it too: a car was petrol-bombed because the owner gave food to hungry people during the lockdown. A black resident's tyres were slashed in the night.
People are sued because they keep insulting and slandering each other on social media. One woman who was sued had a miscarriage from all the stress and fled the country. Like me, she took pity on the homeless people, who are referred to as “vagrants causing an unsightly nuisance".
Another woman who was emotionally bullied by a group of Sea Point men wanted to take her own life and we kept vigil over her to make sure she would not hurt herself. The pièce de résistance was when a blacklist was drawn up of 10 people who must be “neutralised" because they paid too much attention to displaced people. My name was on this list.
This information is to contextualise the destruction of Graaff's Pool and to expose the true Sea Point. Unbridled hatred is not born out of a vacuum.
The history of Graaff’s Pool
The book Under Lion's Head by Marischal Murray (1964) focuses on the early days in Green Point and Sea Point. Murray writes that in 1865, Pieter Marais bought a plot directly opposite the sea which stretched from the main road to the beach road. There is also a Marais Street.
He had a lavish house built, and because he had connections with winemakers in France he named it Bordeaux. Today there is a monolithic block of flats. Marais was a prominent church council member of the Groote Kerk for decades.
His wife, whose name cannot be found in any documentation, was a superb hostess and held enormous lunches in their garden or fancy dining room. There were orchestras for background music and all the other essential paraphernalia. Life was good.
Until she got pregnant and the baby died shortly after birth. Her health deteriorated to such an extent that in 1910 her husband had a bathing place built for her with large concrete walls. She had to get a wheelchair.
From their house, he had a tunnel dug so she could get to the swimming pool in privacy and find comfort for her fragile body in the cold sea. The original name of the spot was Below Bordeaux.
In those days, there was a stigma attached to people in wheelchairs, hence the preoccupation with privacy. Therefore, right from the beginning, this place was a safe haven against prejudice.
Later, when the Marais family moved, the famous Graaff family moved into the stately home around 1920. They granted the swimming pool to the public in 1929; hence the name Graaff's Pool.
Gallivanting and prying
From then on, it became a hangout for nudists; at first only for men, towards the end also women. Gay men came here to relax in the 1970s, when it was illegal to socialise in groups in public.
The walls protected them from a hostile world, created a place where they could bathe and gallivant at night. If you were caught, you were locked up. Gay clubs were also banned.
Danie Botha writes on Litnet about the stigma in those years: “You weigh the pros and cons. Finally, you descend a concrete staircase from the promenade.
“The people on the benches and against the railings are watching you. You believe they know very well where you are going, what you want to do. Especially if you don't have swimming gear with you. When are they not going to shout something mocking or insulting after you?"
I first went there in 1980, mostly to peek at some of the forbidden fruit. What amazed me was the number of old, straight, Jewish men with potbellies and grey chest (and other) hair, stretched out on the left. They usually played chess and discussed the horses. Their section was called the stock market.
On the right were the queens, as they were known then, with their colourful towels. This section was called the fairy dell. There were carefree days, with the smell of the sea and suntan oil that smelled like pineapple (listen below to Johannes Kerkorrel's Somer).
On the Facebook page Gay Seniors South Africa, a member writes: “I met my partner there on January 1, 1990; we are still together after 33 years."
Another person writes: “My friend and I used to go swimming there for an hour or two a day. My fondest memories were not of the naked bathers. There was a natural rift in the rocks on the open sea side of the pool itself. I caught many large lobsters there."
The arrival of the moral guardians
Who would have thought? Nelson Mandela ensured gay people were decriminalised. Yet, in cosmopolitan Sea Point, the Ratepayers' and Residents' Association waved the sceptre and insisted the walls had to go. The councillor in charge at the time was JP Smith.
Every stereotypical piece of nonsense was used in the attack against Graaff's Pool; even the media participated in the campaign. People apparently believed it was a place for paedophiles, drug addicts and criminals. There was said to be a woman in the block of flats across the road who, standing on a chair, could see naked men.
Historian Neil Overy writes: “That the pool survived the fascist apartheid government but not the democratically elected Cape Town government makes one think."
In 2005 the pool was finally destroyed and a piece of history of the gay demi-monde was erased.
Farewell and departure
On my last visit, when I heard the news of Noor's death and remembered the story of the pigeons, I slowly walked along the footpath (see video below). When I got to the end of the path, it was destroyed. To get in there I would have had to climb over rough rocks and large pools.
As Overy further writes after he also visited and felt helpless: “Can Mrs Marais save me? Did she come back to swim, to ease her pain? I want to tell her to stay away; she will only be disappointed by what the City of Cape Town has started."
Now, all that will always remain is destierra: uprooting.
Expert’s view on Graaff’s Pool
I spoke to Cape environmentalist Jim Hislop, the author of books such as Wheatfields & Windmills (about the old homesteads and farms of Observatory) and Behind the Castle (about the early estates, houses, streets and residents of District Six):
“It is only in the last 60 years that we have become aware of how certain places have a special meaning for various races, religious or specific groups. Graaff's Pool is one of these places.
“The demolition of the large Victorian mansion in 1959 to make way for the eponymous flats made Graaff's Pool the only link to that historical period.
“Obviously it was first a private swimming pool, but it later became a popular meeting place for male nudists, later also women, and especially nude bathers from the LGBTQI community. With its high walls, it gave people privacy in a hostile urban space.
“There was a time when one could be arrested for ‘homosexual activities'. You couldn't even hold hands in public without the fear of being punished.
“As someone who is part of the LGBTQI community, I felt the City of Cape Town gave us a collective slap in the face. Rather, the pool should have been preserved as a heritage site, and not just for its connection to the old Bordeaux estate. The ruins of Graaff's Pool now remind me of a time of hatred and humiliation.”
Walk along on a wobbly path to the ruins of the pool to see what it looks like today:
Listen to Kerkorrel's song Somer, which captures the zeitgeist of this area. He mentions the Carousel that also didn't survive:
District Six's demolition cannot be compared to Graaff's Pool's, but here is an interview with the recently deceased Noor Ebrahim about his life and his pigeons.
Here is also a video of a conversation Sarah Darby had with Noor eight years ago:
♦ VWB ♦
BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you.