Truth as historical recapitulation: the dead of Cape Town’s District One

Christian Ernsten*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


In this essay, I reflect on the massive and dramatic re-emergence of the dead of Cape Town's District One in 2003, and its aftermath. I discuss how the resurfacing of these ancestors helps us understand how heritage discourses operate in Cape Town, and how their agency forces us to consider what it means to live in the city during post-apartheid urban renewal. I argue that the agency of the District One dead hinges on their exposure of the internal workings of discourse and the associated disciplinary practices through which we experience Cape Town and its heritage. This story ends ambiguously. I discuss how, following the storage of the District One dead in the Prestwich Ossuary, the gaze on Cape Town was redirected away from the city's past and towards its future; I explore how their reinterment foreclosed a series of discussions regarding the reconciliation of past events with the present realities of Cape Town. I argue, finally, that truth at District One can be understood as a form of historical recapitulation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)575-586
Number of pages12
JournalInternational Journal of Heritage Studies
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Cape Town
  • ancestors
  • contract archaeology
  • decolonial love
  • historical recapitulation
  • human remains

Cite this