HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: After World Mental Health Day, a Valkenberg story


I am currently working on a project that allows me to sit down for extended periods of time and talk to some very interesting women. When you sit down for an in-depth profile with someone, you never know what you’re going to get.

Sometimes, the look of a life on paper is so much more interesting that when you stare at if from across the table. That’s not to say that the people aren’t interesting, but they need to trust you to tell you things. And some find their personal anecdotes easier to share than others. In my experience, it’s the older generation who can entertain you for hours. Their stories take you on tour through history and time in a way that’s so personal and special. The younger folk, however, tend to be more relatable. Their real-time (so to speak) experiences fill in the gaps the nostalgia leaves behind.

But this particular young subject was special. She was special because of the kind of work she did and because of the kind of passion she possessed. She works for the heritage department in the Western Cape and her fighting spirit matched with her wealth of information of the past had my ears pricked up as well as my heart.

One of the most interesting things she told me is that, with permissions, one could visit the older wards, or cells, as she called it at Valkenberg psychiatric hospital. As a heritage site officer, she had these gems of information tucked away because naturally, the main part of her job is to tour the Western Cape and visit sites worthy of heritage status. It’s a gargantuan task.

Anyway, Valkenberg was one of them and when she shared that if I went through the right channels, I could give it a visit, I was naturally intrigued. As someone who lives with a mental illness myself, the history of syndromes, treatments, people and doctors in this particular area of science has always fascinated me. My fascination extends into fiction of course. Films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and TV shows like the Alienest remain works of art that are completely horrifying, bizarre and intriguing. So, visiting something from centuries ago that dealt with mental illness on our very shores had me rearing to go. “Oh. But. Prepare yourself,” she said.

I’d always thought of Valkenberg the same way I thought of any “mental asylum” or “sanatorium”, as they were called. Horrid places with little consideration for human life and dignity. Having been in one myself (a more modern health-care focused on therapy and the like), I know that even those come with their fair share of problematic treatments, so I can only imagine what it was like back in the day. For a start, the institution dates all the way back to colonial times - 1891 to be specific. It gets its name from the Dutch farmer Cornelius Valk who owned the land on which it is situated. The government at the time purchased the land from him with the intention of building a reformatory for prisoners from Robben Island but instead, what manifested was something they liked to call a “lunatic asylum”.

Valkenberg was segregated along racial lines. White prisoners on one side, all the others on the other side. One of the more famous white patients in later years was South African poet Ingrid Jonker who penned many a poem about her stay. One of them is called Escape which reads:

From this Valkenburg have I run away
and in my thoughts return to Gordon’s Bay:

I play with tadpoles swimming free
carve swastikas in a red-krantz tree

I am the dog that slinks from beach to beach
barks dumb-alone against the evening breeze

I am the gull that swoops in famished flights
to serve up meals of long-dead nights

The god who shaped you from the wind and dew
to find fulfilment of my pain in you:

Washed out my body lies in weed and grass
in all the places where we once did pass.

The poem speaks to her time there and her methodical longing to be on the outside, in Gordons Bay, but all the metaphors sing of a mind and body withered and bothered by its current environment. Jonker admitted herself in 1962 citing nervous disorder, anxiety and depression as her main reasons for admission. She stayed for seven days. She was treated with medication and shock therapy and 3 years later she walked onto the beach in Three Anchor bay, stepped into the ocean and drowned herself.

Valkenberg is also a place of interest in K Sello Duiker’s novel The Quiet Violence of Dreams where Tshepo, the lead character, has a relationship with the facility due to his troubled life. There are similarities in both Jonker's and Duiker's writing. The most obvious and literal is that of dreams. The quiet, the violent and escape.

Outside of my own imagination of the historical colouring of the place and the above two mentioned examples – and then, of course, the function of the place in its forensic department in more recent times, I knew little of the “lunatic asylum”, so when my source told me to prepare myself, I was intrigued.

“You will see cells instead of wards. They kept people in cages,” she told me. I was hardly surprised. But then the information started to become both sad and scary - like something out of a Hitchcock movie. “There are scratches on the walls of people trying to get out - fingernail scratches.” “I walked out of one cell crying because someone had written something on the wall and when I walked closer, I saw that it read: please feed me, I think somehow they scratched that in as well”. Even while writing this I have goosebumps at the thought of this, it’s even scarier to think that it was only in 2006 that Valkenberg opened its new admission unit and closed down the other wards which had been in use since the early 20th century, due to unsuitable design – design that represented “outmoded and essentially custodial psychiatric practice that has no place in a modern, more humane service”.

Sally Swartz, in her paper 'Colonial lunatic asylum archives: challenges to historiography' writes (about Valkenberg): “The other side of the imposing public façade of the Valkenberg buildings can be found scattered over the extensive grounds, and include utilitarian blocks once used to accommodate various groups of acutely ill, mentally handicapped or chronically institutionalised patients, nurses homes, hydrotherapy or occupational therapy buildings. Over the Black River, where once the black insane were accommodated separately from their white counterparts is a similar scattering, now housing a community of small business enterprises (one that includes a pot-bellied pig). The buildings conform to a single (standard issue government) style on both sides of the Black River, and therefore they speak of uniformity in the creation of docile bodies, regardless of their race. Their echoing dormitories, barred windows, narrow staircases, minimal provision in terms of domestic comfort - kitchen-space, bathrooms, toilets, gardens, views - are evidence more of a herding together for surveillance and incarceration, than rest, tranquility or release from stress”.

Since my conversation with my interviewee, I have done some research on Valkenberg. There are few stories on the horror, the barred windows, the suppression of basic humaneness - little information that’s accessible anyway. What you will find is the bare minimum - info on the building, the site, the creation, the recent changes, Shrien Dewani’s time spent there etc. But no real meat on the reality of the situation or those who suffered there, and I wondered why.

The best reason I found that could explain why the archives are so bare is a quote by Patricia Allderidge mentioned in the same paper above, who writes about Bethlem Royal Hospital: "I have therefore come to the conclusion that, on the whole, historians of psychiatry actually do not want to know about Bethlem as a historical fact because Bethlem as a reach-me-down historical cliché is far more useful. ... Bethlem as the ultimate symbol of all that is evil is far too useful a space-filler to be risked in the refining fires of academic research: and it does not really matter too much what it symbolises, so long as it is sufficiently discreditable to be credible.

And perhaps that’s where we are. We do not want to know the historical facts because we’re not ready to deal with Valkenberg as the ultimate symbol of evil. I know I’m not. I still haven’t visited. But I think about those scratches and imagine those words: Please feed me, several times a day.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.