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Vincent Kolbe Knowledge Commons: Empowering people through education

The Knowledge Commons library at UCT an innovative education platform was re-named after popular historian and inspiring cultural and community activist Vince Kolbe during national library week.

Interview Colin Miller

University of Delaware, Director for Global Arts: Run a residency programme and a professor in the music department teaching a course on popular music and the global sound. We make it up as we go along.

My trajectory with Kolbe was him as board member of MAPP that was the place I got to know him. He was also a board member on the Robben Island museum. A very important role, he was one of the funding members of the Robben Island Museum.

Vincent was engaged 100% with everything. His commitment and life experience was closer to D6 having grown up in the Bo Kaap and his dads family live in D6. He worked in the Lieberman library in D6. As a young man his mom and his grandmother lived in the Bo Kaap. His parents were never married, his dad lived mostly in Johannesburg. His dad's family of Italian background lived in D6 and he recalls being there most weekends.

He had a typical CT community life experience, mom with a Bo Kaap connection, the Italian immigrant family living in D6. He was brought up Catholic. That was a central part of his upbringing. He recalls many days spent at Holy Cross, the table tennis, the musicians and young kids hanging out. It was very much a part of his growing up experience. Because it was D6 people moved very easily between different communities, Muslim, Catholics, Saint Marks Anglican Church. When I think of Vincent I think of all these multiplicities. That is why he is who he is. He grew up in that.

His mother and grandmother were central to his growing up in terms of instilling certain values. His mother was a dress maker, typical working class coloured family job a women would have done on that time – the clothing industry. She was more artisan – she didn't work in a factory. It meant lots of people coming through the house.

As an older man, the librarian experience at the Lieberman. He started working there straight out of school. As a librarian at Bonteheuwel, my generation started engaging with Vincent the political activist and the educationalist. The library was a public space where he educated people. This is the connection to the KC in terms of access to education. The Bonteheuwel library became that. But also access to books that were banned. Vincent risked a lot. High schoolers and young university students would go to the library and Mr Kolbe would find ways for these young people to have access to banned literature. The library was watched in the early 80s by the security police. It was a site of community activism through learning and a public space. And that was what MAPP was too, a centre creating space for learning. Whether it was books or music, how do you empower people through education and popular history.

That for me was the most mind-blowing experience when someone can walk you through a graveyard and tell you about families. There were Jewish families, Muslims, Christians. He would walk to the site and know the people. That was the ultimate Kolbe, how you know your city through people who have lived and passed on and how he could make connections in that way. That is the reflection of the world he grew up in D6 and Bo Kaap it was Jewish, Muslims, Christians and a small black population that were then forcible removed to Ndabeni which became the first place of forced removals for black people in D6. It was close to the dockyards so labour was provided.

The spirit of D6 he carried on?

He was one of the founding members of the D6 museum. It came about as an idea post '94, the time of the land restitution issue. Anwaar Nagi was heading up the D6 land restitution committee. Together with that committee they had this idea of bringing people together from D6. There was a whole legal process and that became the catalyst to bring people together around memory. The church in Buitenkant where the museum is now was loaned to them for two weeks. The mosques and the churches remained in D6. People could still go back and worship. The museum came about as this process of restitution of bringing D6 ex residence together. They decided to have this two week gathering where people brought back any memories, materials, photographs or stories. What was intended as a two week exhibition became what the museum is today – a permanent site. And that is how the sound archive came about as a depository for stories. The sound archives was Vincent Kolbe's brainchild. It was about documentation for posterity, telling the stories of people whose stories were never heard. And there were specific projects around history, prioritising music history of Cape Town. The oral history project, the material collections and stories and music. That was Vincent Kolbe's legacy and I hope that comes through with the KC that they made a conection to the archives.

We formed a joint project with the UCT CT oral history project. Dr Sean Fields. There is aoral history archive at the UCT library. That is where Kolbe played a central role. Vincent would always say onec you set up something you move on. You don't hold onto it. It talks to letting go of power and control. He did that with the Robben Island museum as a board member, he resigned after 5 years. Similarly with the D6 museum; “We share we give and we let go, so it can grow. We don't own these things.” And he would be able to do that beyond the politics of it.

Vince's own oral history?

Elaine and I we would talk about it often after Vincent passed – who is going to be the person to do a phd on Vincen Kolbe. Am I there to take up this massive task? But it would be a fascinating one. I put together the VK collection in the D6 museum archive. Another is the CT Jazz History collection. That exists, an extraordinary collection, photographs, videos, music, interviews and they overlap.

People always think of Vincent the musician. Vincent always broke down that notion. He said Colin, at 20 off I stopped playing music. I had to make a decision. I was a librarian I had a family and I had to prioritise these things. I wasn't a musician, it was the Moses's, the Schider brothers – they were the musicians. I played piano and drums. He learnt that at the Holy Cross. That was his musical education. He made a conscious decision that he was a librarian and had a family and had to commit to that. He played music but was never a professional. There was only one recording of Vincent he was brought in on the piano for a dance band and it was a samba. 30 years later he started playing again and that was part of the oral history project. With jam sessions, it was a conscious effort to create these spaces in homes to have jam sessions. And obviously Vincent's home was the one. But the whole idea of jam sessions was to document it. We would often have a camera. That was what that was. They were great get together but with the intention of recording it and bringing people together. Music as social meeting.

Another myth that Vincent broke down was the CT was the dance capital. It was a place where ballroom dance and social dance. CT was a place of dancing – music was functional it was for dancing. Clubs were few and far between – they were dives. There was the Naz, these few clubs. Vincent never played there. CT was a dance city that is what people did Thursday Friday Saturday. Vince was a great dancer. He danced. Music had a very strong social function.

Personal story, his first wife was classified as white. They were divorced. When the race classification kicked in it was very difficult because some of their kids went to white schools and others went to coloured schools. And you weren't allowed to integrate – he remembers his kid walking on the other side of the road and not being allowed to greet him. From his first marriage he had 3 kids. And he had a 21 year old son that died. He walked me to his grandmother's grave, his mother's grave and his sons grave. That was Vincent. He had his own painful story. And he had his bright humorous side. He lived through having his own family classified and not being able to engage with them. A lot of people lived that first hand. Brian Engelsson bass player. Brian and Vince were buddies since the age of 12, they remained boys until Vince died. They were so close. Brian's two brothers were classified as white and the other side of the family classified as coloured. So-called coloured people went for that classification because it allowed them better access to jobs and schooling. Brian is an example of exactly that. And most of the guys have these stories – there was a white and coloured side of the family. Just as there was in the African community. That was very painful for Brian too, he used to see his family and have to ignore each other. Vincent epitomises CT and those experiences – beyond just knowing it but having lived it.

Barbershop concept?

He steered me in the direction of that as a side. Jimmy Adams the saxophone player. His dad was a barber. Mr Adams was one of the few barber shops and when I sued to talk to Jimmy Adams about that. He would share that the barber ships were these meeting places for musicians. His dad was a banjo player. Jimmy started playing banjo and ta the age of 12 he heard Cups n Saucers and Christopher Columbus play at a dance and that set off the bells to become a saxophone player.

Inspiring people?

Trevor Manuel, the minister from Bonteheuwel was very close to Vincent as the library was a site. Another person was David Kramer. These were the kind of people that felt inspired by Vincent. People would come there just to be there and soak it up and connect. Denis Constant Martin has a section in his book, Sounding the Cape, on Vincent. I had the honour of having Vincent as my mentor. He inspired people like this. And shared knowledge openly and freely. He would always say I am not the writer, you write the stuff. I will tell the stories.

 

 

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