The Shifting Sands of Time
A brief look at the complex transformations at work at the Macassar Beach Pavilion and its surrounds.
Destined to be returned to nature, this unassuming spot hides an interesting and complex history.
For centuries the Macassar Dunes area provided food and medicine for the Khoisan peoples. It was one of the first farms in the Stellenbosch vicinity allotted by Simon van der Stel after the Dutch arrived. It is the birthplace of Islam in South Africa. The apartheid government added its fingerprint by designating it a non-whites beach. And recently, it played host to the short-lived Macassar Beach Pavilion where, in its early years, it provided entertainment for hundreds of families, and in its last years, played host to multiple renowned international film and television productions.
Ruins of a waterpark
The Macassar Beach Pavilion
For five years, in the early 1990’s Macassar Beach was one of the most popular beaches in Cape Town. The main drawing card was the fresh, new Macassar Beach Pavilion, a family-oriented waterpark where the most important item on the agenda was a braai by sea and a hard day of relaxation. Speaking to Netwerk24 (Staff Reporter, 2019), erstwhile Macassar beach patron Theo Booysen shares his memories of the Pavilion which opened shortly before Christmas in 1991. The Macassar Beach boasted “three pools and five kiosks, water slides and a fish-and- chips shop. A beautiful pavilion overlooked the beach, there was a caretakers house, ablutions facility and lifesavers block, as well as a day camp area where there were 192 braai facilities. 62 caravan sites were electrified, 74 non-electrified tent sites and at its peak a total of 36 staff were employed by the City.”
The Pavilion was, however, doomed from the start. Built on a mobile dune ecosystem, the wind-blown sands made maintenance untenable. Exacerbated by “incidents of vandalism and burglaries, and no money to fix it,” the Pavilion fell into disrepair and eventual abandonment to the forces of nature. (Staff Reporter, 2019)
Parts of the derelict structure collapsed, paint pealed, and the ever-moving sands began to reclaim the space, pouring through windows and doors like an endless flow in some unseen hourglass counting towards infinity.
The waterpark, all but forgotten by Capetonians, enjoyed a revival in its dereliction. The more ruinous it became the more popular its legend among photographers and filmmakers. The site has been immortalised in several international science fiction productions including BBC’s Doctor Who, and Ridley Scott’s Raised by Wolves, both productions hosted at Cape Town Film Studios. At the time of writing, the Pavilion is still featured at number 3 on the list of Top 10 Abandoned Locations in Africa for production outfit Film Fixers Africa.
Regardless its belated fame, the site could not withstand its own demise.
Continued vandalism and fears that structural damage would result in injuries of the “waves of tourists, curious onlookers, and photographers who frequent the site – some of whom become victims of robbery and theft,” (Staff Reporter, 2019) resulted in the City’s choice to demolish the ruins.
“Given that it would cost the City nearly R170 million to replace these facilities, the department recommended that removal is the most sustainable and socially responsible solution,” said the City’s Mayoral Committee Member for Spatial Planning and Environment, Alderman Marian Nieuwoudt in press release issued by the City of Cape Town – Media Office (2020).
Before the COVID pandemic, the City of Cape Town earmarked R5-million for its demolition and removal (Kretzmann, 2019). Staff at the Macassar Beach Resort say when they returned to work after lockdown, the pavilion was gone.
With the Macassar Beach pavilion demolished and removed, the intention now, according to Nieuwoudt, “is to allow the coastal processes to take place unhindered and the vegetation to re-establish.” (Staff Reporter, 2019).
Macassar Dunes Conservation Area
From an environmental perspective the re-establishment of the natural habitat is good news. The Macassar Beach Pavilion was directly adjacent the Macassar Dunes Conservation Area, one of the last bastions of the endangered Cape Flats Dune Strandveld ecosystem. A biodiversity fact sheet from 2011 states that “the False Bay form is rapidly approaching Critically Endangered status. Only 30% remains, with only 19% in a good condition.” (City of Cape Town, 2011)
Protection of this ecosystem is not the foremost concern in returning the moving dunes to nature. As reported by Steve Kretzmann (2019) for GroupUp, the City is concerned with the significantly increased risks of storm-surges due to sea-level rise and climate change. There is a high likelihood of damage to property in and around Cape Town to the amount of tens of billions of Rands.
Quoting the proceedings of a meeting on 15 August 2019, Mayoral Committee Member Marian Nieuwoudt said, “We may need to retreat and allow nature to provide a barrier to the ocean.” The Dune Strandveld is intended to shelter the Macassar residents who live on the northern edge of the conservation area.
Although the City of Cape Town recently published an alluring City News (2022) article titled “City’s Conservation Area in Macassar East full of wonder” stating it “boasts a very high quality Cape Flats Dune Strandveld,” the reality is that the tiny 2km2 conservation site is in a poor state with heavy pollution blowing in on the wind from the surrounding townships and suburbs, and outright dumping of broken television sets and household garbage closer to the road.
The vegetation is perhaps the area’s deepest link to its history. For centuries before the Dutch arrived in the Cape, this area was home to the “Khoisan people living along the coast [who] harvested their food and medicinal plants here” (City of Cape Town, 2016). According to a recent, and long-overdue, book titled First people: The lost history of the Khoisan, Andrew Smith (2022) identifies the likely residents as the “Goringhaicona, a group living around the Cape Peninsula.”
Today, the conservation area still provides this service to the local communities as “the Traditional Healers’ Association, for example, harvests plants for medicinal purposes” (City of Cape Town, 2010)
The Kramat of Sheikh Yusuf Al-Makassari
On the northern edge of the Macassar Dunes Conservation area, lies a significant historical monument. It is the birthplace of Islam in South Africa.
The Kramat of Sheikh Yusuf Al-Makassari is a small complex with a commemorative minaret, a dargah, or tomb—where four of Shiekh Yusuf’s original retinue are buried—and the main kramat, or shrine, where Sheikh Yusuf is buried.
According to the signage at the Kramat the monument was in a terrible state of disrepair when the grounds were purchased by Hajee Sullaiman Shahmahomed. The current shrine was built on the site of the previous and significant efforts were made to stabilise the sandy soil to support the current monuments.
Born to noble parents in 1626 in Java (Indonesia), Sheikh Yusuf was a committed Muslim Scholar. At 22 years old, in 1644, he embarked on scholarly travels to different Muslim countries, including Mecca and Yemen. Returning 23 years later, he took up a position as imam to the court of Sultan Ageng. (Rafudeen, 2019)
As Auwais Rafudeen (2019) highlights in his book on Sheikh Yusuf’s writings, they soon became a thorn in the side of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). They “engaged in anti-Dutch foreign policy, and supported uprisings against Dutch” (2019:2). Manoeuvring the pro-Dutch sentiments of one of the Sultans sons, the VOC managed to exile Sheikh Yusuf to Batavia in 1682, moving him to Ceylon in 1684. And, “seemingly fearful of the growth of an Islamic resistance movement in the Indian Ocean,” (2019:3) eventually banished him to South Africa in 1694.
The Sheikh was promptly tucked away, far from the main operations of the VOC, on a farm called Zandvliet. It is here that the exiled scholar first read the Quran on South Africa shores.
Jaco Beyers (2016:4) relates “Sheik Yusuf and his entourage enjoyed relative freedom as long as they did not stray from Zandvliet. The colony at Zandvliet quickly became a growing Muslim community attracting many runaway and freed slaves and even Muslims eager to learn the intricacies of Islamic thought.”
Beyers (2016:4) also notes that Sheikh Yusuf’s contribution stretched beyond religion, as “the first Afrikaans written in the Cape Colony was written in Arabic letters,” providing valuable insights into the development of language in South Africa.
At 73 years of age, in 1699, Sheikh Yusuf died in exile. He was buried in Macassar, named after his hometown, and a shrine was erected on his grave.
There is some disagreement about whether the remains of Sheikh Yusuf still lie in Macassar, South Africa, or whether they were repatriated to Makassar, Indonesia (modern-day Ujung Padang). According to Beyers (2016:4), Sheikh Yusuf was returned in 1705. An information pedestal erected at the Kramat suggests that there is some evidence that Sheikh Yusuf was still buried in the Cape in 1705.
The ever-shifting sands of Macassar embodies the ever-changing nature of this small piece of land, a place trapped in transition.
At the start of this creative exploration, I wanted to take impressive pictures of a strange, abandoned place near the city I now call home. I imagined the space of the Macassar Beach Pavilion would harbour an interesting tale of the rise and fall of a waterpark that got eaten up by the dunes.
The reality, as it turns out, is far more nuanced. From supporting the first peoples of South Africa, through to harbouring the last vestiges of an endangered ecosystem that will hopefully shelter the people of Macassar from climate change, this place is richly layered.
This unassuming spot on the coast of False Bay has had a deeply transformative impact on the history of the country. South Africa’s forgotten movie star.
Beyers, J. 2016. Beyond denial and exclusion : the history of relations between Christians and Muslims in the Cape Colony during the 17th-18th centuries with lessons for a post-colonial theology of religions. Hervormde teologiese studies. 72(1):1-10. DOI:10.4102/hts.v72i1.3117.
City of Cape Town – Media Office. 2020. City commences with demolition of derelict buildings along coastline. 12 May 2020 Available: https://www.capetown.gov.za/Media-and-news/City%20commences%20with%20demolition%20of%20derelict%20buildings%20along%20coastline%E2%80%8B [6 October 2022].
City of Cape Town – Media Office. 2022. City’s Conservation Area in Macassar East full of wonder. City News. 8 June Available: https://www.capetown.gov.za/Media-and-news/City’s%20Conservation%20Area%20in%20Macassar%20East%20full%20of%20wonder.
City of Cape Town. 2010. City of Cape Town Nature Reserves. 2nd. Cape Town: City of Cape Town. Available: https://web.archive.org/web/20101122115114/http://www.capetown.gov.za/en/EnvironmentalResourceManagement/publications/Documents/CCT_Nature_Reserves_book_2010-02.pdf.
City of Cape Town. 2011. CAPE TOWN’S UNIQUE BIODIVERSITY ENDEMIC ECOSYSTEMS – 5. Cape Flats Dune Strandveld City of Cape Town.
City of Cape Town. 2016. Macassar Dunes Conservation Area City of Cape Town.
Film Fixers. 2020. Top 10 Abandoned Locations in Africa [Blog, 3 May 2020]. Available: https://filmfixers.co.za/2020/05/03/top-10-abandoned-locations/. Available: https://filmfixers.co.za/2020/05/03/top-10-abandoned-locations/ [9 October 2022].
Kretzmann, S. 2019. Rising sea levels already causing problems for Cape Town. Groundup. 30 August 2019 Available: https://www.groundup.org.za/article/rising-sea-levels-already-causing-problems-cape-town/ [30 August 2022].
Rafudeen, A. 2019. Introduction: The worldview of Shaykh Yusuf. In Spiritual Path, Spiritual Reality: Selected Writings of Shaykh Yusuf of Macassar. A. Rafudeen and Y. Dadoo, Eds.: University of South Africa. 1-20. DOI:DOI: 10.25159/056-4.002.
Smith, A.B. 2022. First people : the lost history of the Khoisan. Cape Town, South Africa: Jonathan Ball Publishers.
Staff Reporter. 2019. Macassar Beach resort crumbling. Netwerk24. 24 June 2019 Available: https://www.netwerk24.com/netwerk24/macassar-beach-resort-crumbling-20190619-2 [13 August 2022].