Soapbox Speakers

‘The Stone’

Cape Town South Africa

“The Stone” was a large boulder on open ground at the top of Caledon Street, in Cape Town’s famous District Six, a mixed race working class district close to the city centre.

In 1901 two men established regular open-air meetings every Sunday at The Stone: F.Z.J.Peregrino, a West African publisher of the South African Spectator, and John Tobin, a local ‘Cape coloured’ businessman. Their object was to create a forum “for the political education of the masses”.

John Tobin was the son of an Irishman. Both worked in the Kimberley diamond mines. Tobin got his first ideas of politics from his experience in those mines. An eloquent speaker and an avid reader, Tobin was well able to interpret the politics of the day, which he read aloud and debated during the Stone Meetings.

The meetings became an institution in Cape Town, a part of its life. They had a strong and direct influence on the opinions of its people. One observer described the meeting:

“The Stone is at the top of a circle of smaller stones. These smaller stones are the reserved seats; you must come very early to secure one of them. The space enclosed by them is vacant, but outside the circle are gathered some hundreds of Coloured men, Kafirs, Hottentots, Cape boys, half- castes. They are probably representative of very race”.

The ‘Stone’ meetings debated serious issues that had far reaching consequences. There, John Tobin and Abdullah Abduraman, a pro-British Muslim doctor, founded the African Political Organization party (APO). It was the first mixed race political party in South Africa.

The Labour Advance Party was founded in 1905 from the Cape Town Trade Union Council and Social Democratic Federation. Both organisations debated at the Stone meeting, and both advocated for a forty-eight hour working week, and universal, free and compulsory education.

However, after the Boer War (1899-1902) South African politics was already moving to the right. Franchise (the right to vote) was not granted to black Africans. Cecil Rhodes (businessman and Prime Minister of the Cape Colony) wanted to establish a state based upon the principles of eugenics, and in 1948, in a whites only election, the National party was voted in. The National party was committed to the total introduction of apartheid.

In 1966 District Six was proclaimed a White Group Area and thereafter, over a period of 15 years, the modest homes of  66,000 mixed race people were systematically bulldozed. Their community and kinship networks were destroyed and many lives were shattered. The Stone Speakers’ Corner never recovered. However, it’s historical significance  cannot be forgotten.

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