A tale of two balconies

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the Cape Colony was a British territory, a crowd would gather below the balcony on the Buitenkant Street side of Cape Town’s historic Old Granary building to hear who had triumphed in the latest general election.

Today the Old Granary is home to the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, dedicated to broadening appreciation of the couple’s legacy of service, love and tolerance.

From 1893 the Old Granary was occupied by the Chief Inspector of Public Works. According to Cape Town’s chief architect in 1900, AC Howard, a dense “sea of heads” would gather below the balcony from where politicians who wished to address the crowd would do so from the balcony.

“On such days we had to make our exits through the back door when it came time to go home. Those were days when very little work was done; in fact all our time was taken up in watching the gathering crowd and noting the comicalities which were always present. Alas, those days are gone forever, with the introduction of the ballot box,” he wrote in The Architecture of Cape Town (1908).

It was almost a century later that democracy came to South Africa when, on 27 and 28 April 1994, for the first time ever, all South Africans voted.

As the 27th anniversary of South Africa’s first democratic elections, marked annually as Freedom Day, approaches, the thought of the Old Granary’s balcony, from where that faint semblance of democracy was declared, leads on to thought of another balcony, from where the triumph of true democracy was declared.

On 9 May 1994 Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, standing beside Nelson Mandela on the balcony of the Cape Town City Hall, raised Mandela’s hand and declared him South Africa’s “brand-new, out-of-the box-president”. In all the ways that count, Mandela was South Africa’s first president: the first one to be chosen democratically.

Standing on the balcony beside Mandela, the Archbishop declared that the country’s citizens had, together, in voting, discovered their South Africanness, and their pride in being South African. On those days South Africans declared a resounding no to racism, hatred, violence and alienation from each other.

The Old Granary is one of Cape Town’s oldest buildings, erected between 1808 and 1813 when the Cape was a British colony. It has seen colonialism and apartheid pass by. It is now home to an organisation that believes firmly in that hard-won democracy.

Photo credit: City of Cape Town (left) and Louise Gubb (right)