Three stone cottages stand just outside the entrance to the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. For generations, these cottages were occupied by gardeners, masons, foresters and the people of Protea Village. The cottages are now part of the national botanical garden, a monument to South African natural heritage and also to the memory of Cecil John Rhodes, who left his property ‘to the nation’ in 1902. In 1658 Dutch colonist Jan Van Riebeeck granted the farm Kirstenbosch to Leendert Cornelissen, who was responsible for felling yellowwood trees “for the purpose of selling wood to the [Dutch East India] company and other free masons to prevent indiscriminate hacking of the forest.” This farm was one of three neighbouring estates that relied on slave labour. The other farms were Boscheuvel to the south of Protea Village (later renamed Protea and now called Bishopscourt), and the two farms Paradys and Boschbeek (later renamed Fernwood Estate). For four years after slaves were emancipated in 1834, they were required by law to remain ‘apprenticed’ to their masters. At Boscheuvel, farmworkers settled near the estate’s western border which was shared with Kirstenbosch. This area later became known as the ‘bo-dorp’ of Protea Village.
Bishop Robert and Sophia Gray established the Bishopscourt Estate in 1848. The Grays proceeded to convert the Khoi, Xhosas and the “Mosbiekers” (many of whom were Muslims from Mozambique) who lived there. The Church of the Good Shepherd was established in 1864 and became a central institution in the lives of the Protea villagers who built the stone church and cottages with stone quarried from the mountain.
Between 1966 and 1969, approximately 120 Protea Village families were forced to leave their homes under the Group Areas Act. It was a significant blow to this old and close-knit community. The Protea Village Project was started in 2001, and was born out of the Museum's commitment to telling the stories of forced removals throughout South Africa, and inviting these forcibly removed communities to make their own contributions.
In October 2002 the Protea Village Action Committee (PROVAC) and the Museum opened the exhibition A History of Paradise, about the life of the community of Protea Village. Light boxes, family photographs and trees, a baptism register and archaeological fragments from the former Village gave visitors a taste of the colourful life of Protea. For the purposes of the exhibition we conducted our research in the State Archive and also interviewed ex-residents of Protea. Approximately 55 families shared their stories with us.
Ex-residents from the community also participated in a series of workshops which allowed them to creatively engage with their memories. This process was aided by the use of photographic material sourced not only from archives and libraries, but also from their own private collections. For many of the participants, the workshops provided the opportunity for them to meet up with friends they had not seen in decades.
The stone cottages situated at the entrance to Kirstenbosch continue to embody a sense of a place shaped by history and nature. They are the focus of ongoing negotiations between Kirstenbosch and the Protea Village ex-residents, who are reclaiming their right to return to their previous homes.