Cape teacher, musician and visionary Vincent Kolbe was no ordinary man
Cape son Kolbe used his library post to create a public space for building unity as race laws divided his family, writes Struan Douglas
The late Vincent Kolbe’s love of books and music has been recognised by the University of Cape Town (UCT), which has renamed the UCT Knowledge Commons the Vince Kolbe Knowledge Commons.
Kolbe was born in District Six, raised a Catholic and befriended other youngsters at the Holy Cross Church where he learnt to play piano and drums. He had a great passion for the multiculturalism of the District Six and Bo-Kaap communities, where people lived in harmony.
After finishing high school, he worked as a stack attendant at the Lieberman Library in District Six. He then studied at UCT, qualified as a librarian and began working for Cape Town City Libraries.
His first wife was of Polish origins and they had four children. When race classification was introduced, some of his children went to white schools and some to coloured schools, a very painful division for the family.
Kolbe used his position at the library to create a public space for socialising and building unity. His librarianship was organic, holistic and integrative, emphasising access to education through learning.
District Six Museum director Bonita Bennett first met Kolbe in 1969 at the Bonteheuwel Library. "He was responsible for instilling a love of reading in me and in so many other children in the neighbourhood," she says.
"He had a knack of making reading and books sexy. It was there, too, that I was introduced to the importance and enjoyment inherent in cultural life. Art classes and stamp-collecting club meetings became a complementary site of cultural expression.
"This was true for so many people of my age who were exposed to the literary charisma of Vincent Kolbe."
Bonteheuwel Library became a place of community activism with live music sessions and public debates. This provided the necessary space for "creolisation", the term Kolbe used to describe the unity of Cape Town.
In the 1980s, Kolbe provided banned literature, which resulted in the library being watched by the security police. He always found ways to empower people through education and telling stories of people whose contribution to building SA was never heard under apartheid.
He was a founding member of the Robben Island Museum, the organisation Musical Action for People’s Power and the District Six Museum.
Colin Miller, director for Global Arts at the University of Delaware, was mentored by Kolbe. "Vincent would always say once you set up something, you move on. You don’t hold onto it. It talks to letting go of power and control. We share, we give and we let go, so it can grow. We don’t own these things," he says.
Kolbe was an advocate of the power of music to bring people together. He had experienced this in Cape Town in the 1950s, when it was the country’s dance capital, with ballroom and social dancing happening all over the city from Thursday to Sunday nights. He hosted regular Sunday jam sessions that were always documented at his home in Lansdowne.
Concert promoter Paul Sedres met Kolbe at one of his last jam sessions before his death in 2010 at the age of 77.
"I arrived with a group of international dance experts at his home, where his party was in its final throes. Vince’s body was in decline but you’d never have thought so as he got up to do spontaneous demonstrations of Cape jazz dancing with each of the astonished women."
Kolbe was a great dancer, a talented musician and a quintessential storyteller. He was a font of knowledge and a fountain of inspiration. He shared his knowledge openly and freely.
David Kramer was a regular visitor to his home, where he enjoyed soaking up the history and connecting with the many people passing through. French historian Denis-Constant Martin’s latest book, Sounding the Cape, is dedicated to Kolbe.
Kolbe’s legacy includes a number of permanent exhibitions of oral history including the Sound Archives, Cape Town Jazz History, the Vince Kolbe Collection at the District Six Museum and the UCT Oral History project.
These archives are a collection of material largely dealing with the communities of District Six and Bo-Kaap. He "shows you how you get to know your city through the people who have lived there", Miller says.
In 2002, Kolbe received an honorary master’s degree from UCT for his commitment to community and education. And in March 2017, after discussions with its library executives, building renaming committee and development office, UCT renamed its knowledge commons the Vince Kolbe Knowledge Commons.
Started in 2007, the Commons provides students with access to the electronic database of the university’s libraries. It is one of the most popular services on campus.
Students and staff use the space for research, meetings, seminars, group study and reflection. It encourages young students to read, engage and develop critical minds.
More than 10,000 students use the facility every year. It
has 96 computer workstations, eight fully equipped group study rooms, an audio-visual viewing room, a large training room, office facilities and a team of librarians and student navigators.
"We think it captures much of what Vincent Kolbe believed a library should represent," says UCT libraries head of special collections and archives Renate Meyer.
Bennett believes Kolbe would have celebrated the UCT Commons’ collaborative approach to learning.
"It is hoped that young people, as their interest becomes piqued by the unfamiliar name on the door and plaque, will be interested and inspired by his story," she says.