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Free Mandela forever Cape Town

This last week, the fabulous young South African and increasingly world-renowned artist Faith47, posted an online petition to ask the City of Cape Town to please reconsider their decision NOT to restore the well-known and loved FREE MANDELA slogan on the wall of a cemetery in the suburb of Observatory.

The slogan, that has been summarily removed, was produced long ago while Mandela was imprisoned. The people that painted it risked a lot (jail / arrest / being beaten up / similar), to make sure that every single person who saw it would know that there was strong resistance to separate development and the injustice of Mandela’s incarceration.

Those people were active citizens, despite their disenfranchisement — ie despite the fact that they were not even considered citizens. We kind of owe them I think — especially those of us who respond to current calls for democratic South Africans to take responsibility for their lives and become increasingly hands-on and involved in building a better life for all.

While it may be hard to comprehend why the City of Cape Town would treat such a powerful symbol as if it is meaningless, my own sense is that this is probably because they do not appreciate or understand exactly what they are doing / not doing here. Indeed, it appears they have advised that one of the reasons for the negative response is because the site is a heritage site. This confuses me. Why on earth is it a heritage site without the slogan? Are they perhaps confused? I know I am.

The petition is doing well so far. Many of the people who have signed it have made comments that recognise the significance of the work. Some of my favourites are

History has lessons, this wall is its classroom. (Rory Clark, Cape Town)

Préserver le slogan ‘Free Mandela’ est important et nécessaire pour la mémoire collective. (Val Agathe, France)

The freedom of Mandela, the busking, the street art, the barking dogs and the independent freedom of the Cape Town residents and all who travel through it. Amen. (Lisolomzi Pikoli, Johannesburg)

Faith47 writes beautifully about what we mean by our heritage and its preservation on the petition site — and you can read that and make your own feelings about the situation known over here:


  • Lesley Perkes writes about the state of imagination, her general loss of respect for politics and big business with too few exceptions, eyesores, aesthetically pleasing moments of bliss. Every now and then she writes too about grave matters some people think are best kept to yourself. She does not. Err. Obviously. Sometimes she writes about the silencing and the wars. MsChief at artatwork, a public arts action dis-organisation based in Johannesburg, Lesley is also #lesfolies at The Troyeville Bedtime Story, a timeless legend and neighbourgood adventure, in happy collaboration with Johannes Dreyer, photographer and artist. Writer, curator, producer and general artist with performative tendencies, in February this year Lesley spoke at TED2013 in Los Angeles. It was a life experience of note. She uses her time to fund, or find funding and resources to produce artwork and advocate for make-believe.


  1. Tofolux Tofolux 16 August 2013

    This really saddens me because one gets the sense that our rich struggle history this especially in Cape Town is being obliterated and somehow replaced with something that is airbrushed. There seems to be some sort of resentment or lack of acknowledgement towards those who fought so hard and lets be frank, Cape Town produced some of the most dedicated and courageous freedom fighters, eg Anton Fransch, Ashley Kriel etc etc. It is quite ironic that NOT one memorial is evident in the City Centre. This type of action reminds one of the funeral of our ex Chief Justice Pius Langa recently. There was not one representative from the opposition parties at the funeral. This is significant noting the huge contribution that Pius Langa made to SA not only in his personal capacity but professionally. I say this because despite what ideological views you hold, there must still be some sort of acknowledgement and respect shown towards those who contributed greatly to the rebuilding of our nation. This also highlights the disingenuity and feelings of arrogant disrespect when social cohesion and responsible leadership must be a primary objective. The removal of the slogan is bad because it seeks to negate our experiences.The slogan has a deep and prevails upon us a particular meaning. It reminds us of a particular bravery during a particular period in our history and any reason to remove it, is hard to comprehend. But then again what do we expect from people who did not fight for freedom?

  2. Martin Warburg Martin Warburg 16 August 2013

    It is ridiculous to encourage graffiti of any kind. This is quite the most stupid petition I can think of.
    Have people taken leave of their senses?

  3. Lesley Perkes Lesley Perkes Post author | 16 August 2013

    Martin Warburg – I fear many people agree with you. They live in Stepford Wives. The rest of us, thank goodness, have indeed taken leave of our senses. The world is sunnier without them. We will fight with our spraycans every single one of you that thinks we should rather sterilise and wipe out our history. Have a beige day.

  4. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 16 August 2013

    Not living anywhere close to Cape Town, could I ask if that was the only graffiti on that wall? I did hear that some bright spark decided that removing gang symbols would somehow intimidate the gangs into breaking up and, to that end, graffiti was being removed. Could it be tied in with that?

    I have no problem with graffiti. I do, however, have a problem with the abysmal standards of graffiti in Pretoria. Make it funny or make it pretty or make it clever. I don’t want to know who was ‘there’ or if Sarah has dubious … umm … appetites.

  5. Mariana De Leuca Mariana De Leuca 17 August 2013

    It is deeply regretable that the “Free Mandela’ graffiti has been removed, but I question the value of having it restored. If a work of art, or an iconic work such as this particular graffiti, has been completely obliterated, can it be restored by another artist merely physically reconstructing it? Would the restored work have the same weight of meaning as the original, or would it be like having a photograph of the work – be merely a reproduction and reminder of what was originally there but without the spirit and context in which the original work was created? I believe that spirit and context can’t be recreated, and has been obliterated along with its physical manifestation. For that reason I have mixed feelings about signing the petition, but I will do it as a protest against the removal of the slogan.

    I agree with Momma Cyndi that the removal of the graffiti is probably due to the city’s attempt to ‘clean-up’ graffiti which is linked to gangs marking their territory, and to prevent the perceived inner-city decay that comes with it, but it seems that the beaurocrats, and probably most citizens, in their ignorance, are unable to appreciate some graffiti as art or even to recognise its iconic value to society. I don’t believe their motivation was to deliberately obliterate our history, and If I were religious I would say “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do”.

  6. Mariana De Leuca Mariana De Leuca 17 August 2013

    On further thought, and you may shoot me down in flames for this, I have decided not to sign the petition, not even as a protest, because I don’t want the City to give permission for the slogan to be reproduced. I feel that a mere repainting of the words with the permission of the City will be an act devoid of real meaning because the value of art lies in its context. I believe doing it without their permission will create some space for the ‘reproduction’ to be done in a similar context to the original: as an act of anarchy, defiance and protest and with (almost) the same risks attached to it.

    Thanks to people like you and Faith47 for making this known. I had no idea before reading your article.

  7. Skerminkel Skerminkel 19 August 2013

    Do I understand the piece correctly: Someone painted “Free Mandela” on a cemetery wall decades ago. It was removed. Some people want it back. Council said no. We should sign a petition to recreate the graffiti?
    Sorry, no. If you can have it recreated, I assume you have good photographs of it? Put that in a museum, then go and spend your extra energy on freeing the children who cannot go to school because of gang violence. Or the ones who do not have textbooks. Or the ones who do not have schools at all (despite No. 1’s promises in parly.)
    Mandela has been quite free enough for more than 20 years.

  8. GrahamJ GrahamJ 19 August 2013

    In the late 80s, there was a wall on a busy road into Jo’burg upon which was painted “Hang Mandela”. A week or two later another person had painted the word “on” in a different colour between the two original words. It was quite a talking point for a very long time because people could discuss which sentiment suited them.

    All three words are gone now. They served their purpose. All memories cannot be displayed forever.

  9. Tofolux Tofolux 20 August 2013

    @ Moma cyndi as always your comments are cold and callous.
    @Lesley, Faith is a brilliant artist and her free-handed works (yep all over Cape Town) eg the one near ”district 6″. She is of our time and of our generation and will certainly do justice to OUR art and OUR views. An idea though, isnt there a chance that someone could run a search for the person who painted the slogan? A collaboration between the two would be ”off-the-wall” (no pun intended). SIgnificantly though, the slogan was reminder to us, especially those from UCT who had taken to the streets at the time, how close we were to challenging the ”white” priviledge and it somehow signified a ”we-was-here” attitude. Yep that close.

  10. Lesley Perkes Lesley Perkes Post author | 20 August 2013

    Thanks Skerminkel, I have been thinking about your comment and, yes, funders choose between good things and there is a lot of pressure on what is urgent and what is considered priority. Me I think the arts, imagination, heritage are priorities tho if I had to choose between feeding someone that hadn’t eaten and the arts I would choose the option that is a life and death choice. However, if we don’t address long-term serious issues at the same time as the immediate crises, we are going to be in crisis mode forever. Also, in this instance, considering the almost complete lack of arts education at schools and the increasing lack of history and the humanities generally, this particular work ism as Paul (above) says, a classroom. But I wouldn’t mind the debate here – a museum piece would be welcome though our museums generally have no budget either.

    And of course there would be plenty of funding for both if budget wasn’t something to make a few people rich.

    And also thanks GrahamJ – that’s fascinating. Hang on Mandela. I like that. And yes, we do lose some of our memories. Not sure that means we should be happy to lose this one on the grounds that local gov say the precast wall itself is a heritage site. Especially as the work is still meaningful. Debate open.

  11. nguni nguni 21 August 2013

    @ GrahamJ – that’s essentially the difference between Jo’burg and CPT.
    Quick, witty and then move on on the highveld and slow, painful memories with resentfulness in the Kaap.

  12. Capetonian Capetonian 21 August 2013

    @ nguni

    At least in Cape Town they wrote “Free Mandela” and not “Hang Mandela”. Quite a big difference in sentiment there! The “Hang ‘on’ Mandela” graffiti has also been removed, hasn’t it?

  13. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 21 August 2013


    I think that is called ‘plagiarism’. You need to think up your own comments occasionally. maybe you can manage to find a shred of originality when you explain exactly what you objected to in my comment

  14. Zeph Zeph 22 August 2013

    Paint it back – it still has relevance but in a differnt context.

  15. Capetonian Capetonian 22 August 2013

    @ Momma Cyndi

    Unfortunately Tofolux touches everything with the grubby fingers of racism and politics, even art.

  16. Debo Maybe Debo Maybe 6 December 2013

    Maybe just maybe I was one of more than one who did the original graffiti. This was one form of expression during an oppressive and violent time in our history. We believed in our slogans and they had meaning. To be caught was to be detained without trial/beaten by state perpetrated violence and usually treated with brutality at a time that human rights was not valued by the apartheid regime. Viva Madiba, Aluta continua

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