Athlone offers us a productive space from which to think about the way the humanities may help to shape a postapartheid society. In the heyday of apartheid, the area functioned as a crossover space in which race, class and gender barriers were regularly transgressed in a social world constituted around cinemas, libraries, film societies, civic organisations, political organisations, religious formations and schools. Today, only with difficulty does one discover the traces of the ideas that generated struggles against apartheid, especially if one searches for the histories that lie buried beyond the memorials to apartheid’s atrocities, in particular the Trojan Horse Memorial in Thornton Road and the Coline Williams / Robert Waterwich Monument outside the Magistrate’s Court in the Athlone Business District. No longer available in Athlone is the Hewat Training College, an educational institution which produced a generation of anti-apartheid intellectuals on the Cape Flats. And the surrounding schools have become isolated passages to future careers, with many in the school system failing to enter tertiary education.

A need has arisen not only to return a project of the humanities to the space in which apartheid encountered its limit, but also to return there to make an argument about how the humanities, as a system of thought and field of representation, might enable a re-envisioning of the meaning of the postapartheid and the human condition. Rather than return to Athlone for the purposes of political expediency, or simply to follow in the well-worn footsteps of other developmental projects, what we envisage there is a centre for critical thinking, advanced scholarly debate, arts education and cultural production. The CHR’s project to establish a humanities centre is aimed at regenerating intellectual and cultural traditions, and designs for a non-racial society, in those spaces where apartheid left in its wake mangled bodies and seemingly lost hopes, but where it failed to kill desire.

To return a project of the humanities to the space of Athlone is of considerable epistemological and political significance. Once a major site of resistance, Athlone today is completely obscured in the historical and spatial imaginary of the City of Cape Town. Yet, in October 1985, it found its way onto the stage of world history as a result of the tragic killing by apartheid security forces of three youth in what became known as the Trojan Horse Massacre. Lodged in public memory as the site of pitched battles with the security apparatus, little has been said about the thinking that mobilised thousands of youth and community members into political action. To establish a humanities centre on the Cape Flats, in a once charged environment in the struggle for non-racialism, speaks to the very commitments that once gave rise to ideas about a postapartheid society.

The Dullah Omar Centre for Critical Thought in African Humanities (DOCCTAH) is located in the shadow of the Trojan Horse Memorial. Besides naming the violence of apartheid, the Trojan Horse Memorial is testimony to the demand for better education by students in the Western Cape in the 1980s. It also speaks to the solidarity among thousands of students during this decade, as they embarked on a series of boycotts to protest the declaration of two successive states of emergency in South Africa.

To establish a centre for the humanities in Athlone is also to recall the educational demands of students in the Western Cape, who boldly proclaimed the need for an alliance between workers and students, and who forged political organisations that exceeded the segregated boundaries of the group areas. The establishment of such a centre is also aimed at recalling the best traditions of knowledge, for which so many strived in the heady days of the 1980s, and at acknowledging the legacies of major anti-apartheid thinkers associated with the Cape Flats, such as Dullah Omar, Jean Naidoo, Johnny Issel, Cheryl Carolus, Wilfred Rhodes, Neville Alexander, Dawood Parker, Jakes Gerwel, Zoli Malindi, Lolo Mkhonto, Peter Clarke, Dulcie September, James Matthews and Richard Rive.