In the 1980s Athlone was a centre of the struggles against apartheid, particularly in respect of the student-worker revolts that characterised the decade. Today, these struggles are commemorated through the monument to anti-apartheid activists Coline Williams and Robert Waterwich and through the Trojan Horse Massacre Memorial. The commitment of Athlone to building a future South Africa without apartheid can also be discerned in the many resistance posters produced in the 1980s by various struggle organisations from the area, the bulk of which was produced at CAP, but also by commercial presses in Athlone. And besides these monuments and posters, there are also many artworks, particularly linocuts, depicting the struggles on the Cape Flats for a re-imagined South Africa.
While Athlone and surrounds were powerful spaces of resistance politics in the 1980s, at the same time, and partly influenced by the energies and ethos of struggle, they also offered a relatively rich menu of cultural undertakings during this era. Plays were frequently produced by schools, such as Belgravia, Alexander Sinton and Athlone High Schools, and also by Richard Rive and his colleagues at the now defunct Hewat Teacher’s Training College in Thornton Road; the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW) gathered together poets and writers, among them Mavis Smalberg, James Matthews and Donald Parenzee, for readings at community halls; and Vakalisa, a cultural collective consisting of, among others, Peter Clarke, Mario Sickle, Patrick and Sydney Holo, Michael Barry, Rashid Lombard, Jimi Matthews, Keith Adams, Lisa Combrinck, Lionel Davis and Garth Erasmus, held exhibitions in libraries and community halls.
In addition, Athlone was also the place where author James Matthews published the work of writers and artists from the Cape Flats and across the country through his publishing house known as BLAC; and where jazz and other music genres by artists such as Monty Weber, Tony Schilder, Hilton Schilder, Basil Coetzee and Robbie Jansen, and bands such as Pacific Express, Oswietie and the Rockets, were heard at venues such as the Sherwood Lounge in Mannenberg and the Rock Den. In the late 1970s / early ‘80s, Athlone was also the home of the Hewat Art Centre, which serviced the art needs of children, high school learners and trainee teachers.
Then there was also the Eon Group, an opera company that performed at the Joseph Stone Auditorium, along Klipfontein Road; the bioscopes like the Kismet, the Athlone and Cine 400, where locals and others spent their leisure time; and the short-lived Gallery Afrique and Oasis Gallery, run by poet James Matthews and sculptor Mario Sickle, respectively. Both galleries showed work by artists associated with the Vakalisa Arts Association and the Community Arts Project (CAP), among them Patrick and Sydney Holo, Peter Clarke, Robert Siwangaza and David Hlongwane. Other artists linked with Athlone and surrounds are Randy Hartzenberg, who taught art for many years at Alexander Sinton High School; the internationally famous painter, Albert Adams, who attended primary school there; Chris Julies, an art lecturer at the now closed Hewat Teacher’s Training College; Diane Paulse; and Billy Mandindi, who lived in Gugulethu, adjacent to Athlone.
Today Athlone can hardly be said to be the vibrant cultural hub that it once was. The jazz lounges, bioscopes, the art centre, poetry readings, ballet performances, school plays, and art in community halls have disappeared. This is not to say that Athlone is culturally dormant. The Xmas and minstrel bands still parade through the streets and perform at venues such as the Athlone Stadium, home of football in the area; art is still taught and produced at Alexander Sinton High School, as has been the case for decades; the Eon Group is still functioning to some extent; and the Joseph Stone Auditorium is still a venue for performances. Also flying the flag for culture in the area is the Athlone Academy of Music, established in 1994, and the Gugu S’Thebe Arts and Culture Centre in Langa, opened in 2000 and which runs a variety of classes in the arts. And while new genres have rooted in Athlone, such as hip-hop and street art (graffiti), Athlone is generally in need of cultural refurbishment and regeneration.
One reason for Athlone having become something of a cultural desert when compared to what it once was is that people have forsaken their claims on cultural citizenship, which was once so evident in the rich culture of resistance posters from the 1980s, for example, or the outpourings of poetry as people gave voice to the idea of people’s culture during the struggle era. Another reason for this cultural shrinkage is that, in a world of postapartheid
hyper-professionalism in which arts and culture function as business, the location of cultural organisation has become firmly entrenched in the Cape Town CBD, as witnessed by events such as the Open Design Festival and Infecting the City, also an arts festival. Most of Cape Town’s art galleries are also concentrated in the CBD and neighbouring Woodstock, an area which has become gentrified in recent times. In this scenario of centralised cultural organisation, Athlone is left in the cold, far removed from the sites of cultural action and power.
It is precisely because Athlone may be considered as a space of relative ‘cultural and intellectual desertification’ that the area was selected as a location for the establishment of a second branch of the Factory of the Arts at the Cape Town College, which, as with the branch in District Six, will operate as a satellite of the CHR. Programme details to follow.