The interior is dominated at one end by a pulpit (1824) and a gallery, made of yellowwood and stinkwood, that runs around the back and the two long sides.
This is one of the loveliest buildings in Cape Town. And to think it was very nearly demolished to make way for a car park. Your heart stops when you hear what they wanted to do – and often did – in the 1970s. One of the oldest churches in South Africa that still exists in its original form, it was nearly lost when the hotel next door needed room to expand. By then, its congregation had largely been resettled on the Cape Flats – in fact, it was proposed that a replica be built in a coloured township on the fringe of the city. We’re lucky that it is still standing.
The Suid-Afrikaanse Sendinggestig was built in 1804 by the South African Missionary Society, an offshoot of the Dutch Reformed Church. Its primary purpose was to convert slaves to Christianity by providing religious and literacy instruction, and this was the first official slave church in the country. For over two centuries, slaves formed an integral part of daily life at the Cape. They were builders, artisans, coopers, food vendors, fishermen, grave diggers, water carriers, wood collectors, gardeners and porters. Even modest homes would have owned a slave or two, perhaps a housemaid, or a nursemaid for the children. It is estimated that 63 000 slaves were imported between the mid-17th century and the early 19th century.
The building’s magnificent facade, designed by FW de Wet, with its fluted Corinthian pilasters, dentilled cornice, plaster swags and urns, is one of the high points of Cape Town’s city centre. Although it is much smaller, it bears a strong resemblance to the facade of Strand Street’s Lutheran Church, both of which are essentially large halls for preaching in. Along with the Groote Kerk, these venues all had a similar liturgical purpose in that they were ‘preaching boxes’ dominated by a pulpit, in this case, a wonderful neoclassical one approached by a double flight of steps.
Fortunately, the Sendinggestig, or Old Slave Church – now one of the oldest surviving buildings in Long Street – was saved from the fate of much of old Cape Town, given national monument status and turned into the South African Mission Museum Today, this gracious building plays an important role in commemorating the city’s slave heritage. Nearby, you will find the Slave Lodge; a plaque in Spin Street marking the site of the Slave Tree, where slaves were auctioned; the Town House, from where important notices and proclamations concerning slaves were read; Greenmarket Square, where fresh produce was sold and where there was a fountain from which the slaves fetched drinking water; Platteklip Stream on Table Mountain, where they went to do the household laundry; and, on the corner of Darling and Buitenkant streets, the site of the Whipping Post, where slaves were tied while receiving corporal punishment. It is not always easy to reconcile the brutal reality of our past with the architectural treasures it produced.
The fagade on Long Street, a baroque edifice of great beauty, has a temple front articulated by four Corinthian pilasters on high bases.
Saved from demolition in the 1970s, this delicate little church is no longer in use other than as a museum. The floor is made of slate quarried on Robben Island.