A gathering was recently held in Cape Town to read my essay, Unpick, Restitch: Doilies, Medorahs and Labouring Plants. The essay is the first in the Fieldguides for a Preternaturalist series of chapbooks, within the project, Nothing of Importance Occurred: Recuperating a Herball for a 17th Century Enslaved Angolan Midwife at the Cape. The project was inititated by South African artist, Wendy Morris, whose enslaved ancestor, Maaij Claesje of Angola, was a midwife in the Company slave lodge in Cape Town.
My writing is about trying to piece together a narrative of who I am, where I come from, and where I belong. In order to recuperate these erased narratives, I have drawn from an ordinary archive – oral history, family photos and objects like my grandmother’s scarves and the doilies she crocheted. The objects that our grandparents found important to make, keep and pass down to us, give us a sense of belonging. The things that they touched and used, hold a history that fills in the blanks in the official archives and challenge the dominant narratives that would have us believe that we were less-than.
During my research, I came across the Flower of Maryam, the labouring plant of the essay title. The plant, which was usually brought back by pilgrims from Mecca in its dried state, had been used as a visual tool during labour and was passed down from one generation of women to the next. At the start of our programme I immersed the plant in a bowl of water to help us keep track of time.
After Wendy gave an overview of the larger project, story-teller and poet, Philippa Kabali Kagwa, led us into the reading with an invocation. It was a privilege to hear my essay read in a multitude of voices that cut across any divisions of colour, religion, gender or age, and a testimony to the power of story to connect us. By the time our gathering came to a close, the Flower of Maryam had opened, a powerful representation of rebirth, community memory and women’s agencies over their bodies.
The gathering was organised by Deep Histories, Fragile Memories, a research group at LUCA School of Arts, Brussels, and the Cape Town Museum.
Joy has been popping up in my feeds a lot lately. One of the more recent posts was an image of a jazz musician, Jon Batiste, playing freedom songs and hymns on a joyfully decorated upright piano at a protest march in New York. 972 more words
When I turned 50, I decided that it was time to equip myself with the tools necessary to write the stories of where we come from. I was convinced that providing a platform to share and acknowledge our painful past was fundamental to reconciliation in our country. Certainly, after 25 years of democracy we seemed to be no nearer to recognising each other as simply human. Being the mother of two young adults bestowed on me a sense of urgency. However, gaining a Masters in Creative Writing (from the same university that in the 1980s required me to apply for a government permit to attend because of the colour of my skin), opened up the path to a deeply personal journey, one that would lead to a PhD in History and Heritage Studies.
Early on in this journey it became clear that I needed to retrace our history way back to the arrival of the Dutch at the Cape, an event that occurred within the global context of slavery and colonialism in which they were major players. The impact of slavery and colonisation on South African society has receded far behind the more dominant history of apartheid and yet, the racial hierarchy that accompanied it not only laid the foundation for apartheid, but shaped attitudes to race and sex that continue to inform the present.
The benign version of slavery presented to us at school was reinforced by charming paintings of colonial Cape Town, the colourful houses of the Bo-Kaap and images of benevolent masters who wanted only to ‘civilise’ and take care of the black bodies under their care. This narrative concealed the brutality and dehumanisation of the people who were brought here as a source of labour, a commodity, to be sold and traded. After emancipation, other ways to maintain control over workers were introduced, such as the notorious dop system that has left its legacy of foetal alcohol syndrome and high infant mortality rates in the Western Cape.
Racial slavery was about the degradation of the human being and simply being emancipated was not enough to know what it meant to be free, how to recreate ourselves and become independent. Apartheid tried to force us into being the same – we lived in the same areas, went to the same schools, married the same people. We carried our sameness around like a security blanket and retreated within it, afraid of the other; we developed our own stereotypes based on our ignorance of what was beyond those walls. More than simply the dismantling of apartheid legislation needs to be done in order that we may construct ways of life in which we acknowledge our human-ness rather than other-ness.
But, to remember slavery is also to remember the vibrant and diverse cultures, new language, food, music and beliefs that arose, and to honour the spirit of survival and resistance that was engendered. Somehow people managed to find ways to survive and hold onto that which made them human. These practices of freedom – music, art and storytelling – defy and resist the memories of slavery and apartheid and attest to a will to survive. Even the humble family photograph, in spite of it often showing little skill, and found stuffed into boxes or envelopes, has the power to destabilise the dominant narrative that would have us believe that we were less-than. They speak to the resistance of the human to being objectified and it is at this ordinary archive that we need to look if we want to understand what it means to be human.
By connecting the lines between all of our stories, whether they are auditory, visual or written, we may recognise our common humanity; we break down the walls that were constructed around us, to separate us from the other. When we reach out to each other we move beyond the process of othering, and towards freedom and equality so that we may think about how we may live. Only then may we learn how to be human.
A few weeks ago I was meant to be on a road trip, doing research with colleagues from the University of Pretoria, and the USA and Denmark, around the theme of Food as Heritage & Archive. Due to COVID-19 our trip has been postponed indefinitely.
Preparations for the trip stirred up many memories, though, since food is so intimately wrapped up in my sense of community – memories of celebrations and funerals where everyone would rally together in support of their neighbour, bringing a plate of something or offering to cook a pot of food. After the gathering everyone would leave with a barakat, or blessing, in the form of a plate of leftovers. Traditions such as these hark back to a time when the enslaved would come together, bringing what little they had to share with one another. Later, during apartheid, celebrations with laden tables were also a way of demonstrating respectability in a society where people had little control over anything outside the domestic sphere.
One of our aims with this project is to look at the food practices that transcend lines of language, religion and economic status. This immediately got me thinking about a dish that seems to embody the history and heritage of the Cape – a uniquely South African dish – the pickled fish, or ingelegde vis, that my grandmothers, one Muslim and the other Christian, would make every Easter. Explanations for the origin of the dish abound, but it seems to have originated in the Cape during colonial times.
Pickling as a way of preserving the fish, possibly came from the Dutch tradition of pickling herring, and would have been enhanced by liberal additions of spices by the enslaved cooks at the Cape. My grandmothers would start the process the week before Good Friday. There would be no fishing boats going out over the Easter weekend so the fish would have had to be bought in advance, either directly off the boats in Kalk Bay harbour or from the fish market on the corner of Hanover and Clifton Street. I remember the merchant, with horse and cart, who hawked his wares through the neighbourhood, blowing his horn to alert our mothers and grandmothers.
The best fish to use was geelbek, kabeljou or yellow tail. Making the dish in advance meant that the fish was able to absorb the turmeric, cloves, chilli and all spice. Enough fish was pickled to last all weekend. This freed up time for my maternal grandmother to spend three hours in church on Good Friday, since she didn’t have to cook. Muslim families would take advantage of the time off to go on picnics, to visit kramats, with an ample supply of padkos (road food) since there would be nowhere to stop and eat along the way since restaurants would have been limited to those catering for “whites only”.
The rituals around food preparation and the coming together to share it, are examples of the everyday practices of what it means to be human, in spite of living through oppression. In the absence of recorded history, they offer alternative ways of remembering how people survived, in the same way that photographs, storytelling and music does.
This year, Easter falls at the beginning of the third week of a national lock down in South Africa, but I do know that mom (whose pickled fish is the featured image) and my friend, Jen (who sent me the three photographs above) have both been making pickled fish, using the recipes that their mothers and grandmothers handed down. I’m sure many others across the country have managed to do the same and, while I might be missing out on actually eating it, I feel part of the virtual community who is sharing in the tradition.
I hear the key in the door first, then the jangle of coins in his pocket. I race down the passage, trying to get there before my two brothers so that I can lay claim to one of his feet. We scramble to hop on, wrapping our arms around his trunk-like legs. Slowly he hobbles into the house weighed down by two children, with the unlucky third dancing around in front of him.
Ma yells at us, “Stop bothering your grandfather! He is tired!” We know that he leaves home in the dark to deliver bread for the bakery. By the time his shift ends we are back from school. We jump off his giant feet and allow him to enter his bedroom but follow closely on his heels, eager for the treat that he usually has in one of his pockets.
He sits down on the bed and then he opens his dark cupboard door, releasing smells of another era. Carefully pressed suits thick with the scent of mothballs hang, ready for service, alongside stiffly starched white shirts. Two pairs of shoes, one black, one brown, gleaming with polish, sit side by side at the bottom of the cupboard. Underwear and handkerchiefs are stacked in piles on the shelves. Black and white pictures which recall happier days are tucked into the mirror at angles.
In the second drawer from the top is a yellow money box. “UBS” it says in blue letters. From the pockets of his khaki coat he takes out the coins which announced his arrival earlier. He allows me to put them into the money box. “For your education,” he reminds me.
In the photograph of me in my paternal grandfather’s arms in the mid-1960s, I imagine that he is envisioning the different life that I would have because of the education he was determined to provide for me. As far back as I can remember, my grandfather had been telling me that my brothers would be able to take care of themselves but that I would have to study further so that I could be independent. In retrospect this was quite revolutionary on his part, considering not only that no one in the family had completed matric or attended university, but also that I was a girl. He had passed standard six (grade 8) and worked as a driver of a delivery van for Duens Bakery, leaving for work while we were still asleep and coming home soon after we returned from school in the afternoon. From the pockets of the khaki coat he wore, he would take out any loose change and hand them to me to deposit into the yellow money box which said “UBS”(United Building Society) in blue letters that he kept in his cupboard. Every deposit was accompanied by the reminder that this was for my education. By the time I had finished school he had saved enough to pay for my first year of university.
My pride at being the first person in my family to complete matric and make it to university was tempered by the humiliation of having to apply to the Department of Coloured Affairs for permission to attend the University of Cape Town which was for ‘whites-only’. I was granted permission on the basis that the ‘coloured’ University of the Western Cape did not offer the Occupational Therapy degree I wished to pursue.
Entering university was such a cultural onslaught that I might as well have gone to study in a different country. There were social, academic and financial challenges. My grandfather had managed to save enough to cover the fees for the first year and I had to find a bursary or take out a bank loan if I was to continue. As ‘black’ students we were constantly reminded of our inferior status on campus. In our anatomy practical sessions, even the cadavers we worked on had to be ‘black’. During clinical practice in our third and fourth years of study, we were not allowed to treat ‘white’ patients, which limited the placements and experience we could be exposed to. Restricting access to education was one of the ways in which those in power could control the lives of ‘black’ people. By placing limitations on the kind of education and the level of education ‘blacks’ could attain, the government ensured that they would remain less educated than ‘whites’, therefore less qualified and unable to rise above the station in life which the government deemed fit.
My grandfather died of cancer soon after I completed my first year of study and so was not alive to see me graduate, but the learning path he set me on changed the course of my life.
Poet, book illustrator and artist, Peter Clarke, described his work as a reflection on humanity, on a commonality that surpasses all boundaries. Clarke, who died in 2014, was a former resident of Simon’s Town. His family was forcibly removed to the ‘coloured’ township of Ocean View due to the passing of the Group Areas Act, which assigned people to different residential areas based on their ‘race’.
Having spent some time looking at museums and working on proposals and exhibitions over the last year and a half, perhaps my expectations have dropped. Many of the little dorpies I have visited, have inadequate records of the history and events that affected the majority of their residents and little acknowledgement of the catastrophic apartheid-era events that forever changed the social and cultural landscape of their communities. Thus, I was gratified to see the efforts of the local historical/heritage society and the residents of Simon’s Town on a recent visit.
Apart from the “Wall of Memory”, a display project begun in 2014 by residents past and present, and organisations, there are markers that acknowledge various places of historical interest, such as Hospital Lane (that ran along the Royal Naval Hospital built in 1813) and Drostdy Steps (where the mayor (or landdrost), Christian Michiel Lind, lived in 1828).
Elsewhere, plaques record the place where a stream ran, from which the crewmen of ships filled their freshwater casks, and a building erected in 1772 by the Dutch East India Company for the governor’s visits to Simon’s Town. But the most poignant marker, for me, is the one dedicated
To the memory of generations of our fellow citizens
who dwelt here in peace and harmony
until removed by edict of 1967.
Erected by their fellow citizens
In the many conversations and interviews I have had over the last few years while doing my doctorate, I have been struck by two responses. Firstly, the lack of bitterness or need for revenge – yes, sometimes anger and often heartache, and secondly, a deep appreciation of the opportunity to be heard, to be given the platform to recount their experience and of having their suffering acknowledged. Often, people were disparaging about the value of their stories, almost brushing aside their experience with the observations that their suffering was not as bad as that of others. But always, there was a pride that their story mattered enough for me to write it down, that it could be included in my thesis, or in the exhibition at the museum.
The success of colonial expansion, slavery and later apartheid, lay in the ability of the oppressors to objectify those they wished to subjugate, to portray them as less than human. Clarke’s efforts to reflect the daily lives of people, their emotions and activities, speaks to a resistance of this objectification. He reflects their humanity. In the same way, the markers in the streets of Simon’s Town and exhibitions in its museum give a human face to the people who suffered under apartheid.
Ironically, under apartheid, the arts – music, dance, painting, story-telling and so on – the very practices of what makes us human, flourished. Many artists were forced to give up on their dreams or forced into exile in order to pursue them. Many ordinary people who may have gone on to greater achievements if not for the colour of their skin, the texture of their hair or the shapes of their noses… Former Simon’s Town residents like:
Dr Peter Clarke (2 June 1929 – 13 April 2014): Poet, book illustrator and visual artist whose work was showcased at exhibitions in England, Germany and the USA in the 1960s and who was invited to study printmaking in Holland and then etching in Norway.
Vincent Hantam: ballet dancer and teacher was principal dancer with the Scottish Ballet from 1975-1991. In September 2012, he became the first Artist-in-Residence at the University of Edinburgh.
Christoper Kindo (12 September 1955 – April 2015): ballet dancer, teacher and choreographer who studied at UCT Ballet School and was the only ‘coloured’ person in his class; in spite of being awarded best dancer in his class he was not hired by CAPAB after completing his training. He started Jazzart when he returned from a stint with the Boston Ballet company in the 1980s, before he became the first ‘coloured’ person to be principal dancer with CAPAB and ended his career at Dance for All.
Gladys Thomas (1944 -): poet, short-story writer, playwright and author of several children’s stories. Her debut anthology, Cry Rage, co-authored with another anti-apartheid South African poet, James Matthews, was published in 1971. This publication holds the distinction of being the first book of poetry to be banned in South Africa.
Our lives have meaning when we have been seen, listened to and acknowledged as human beings. I am reminded of the traditional Indian greeting, Namasté, a salutation of respect, acknowledging our essence of oneness. We are more the same than we are different. Namasté.
Footnote: On 22 September 2016 the Frank Joubert Art Centre where Clarke served as Artist-in-Residence, was renamed the Peter Clarke Art Centre. The following quote is from their website:
“My art is about people and the presence of people. The humanistic image is what interests me. I enjoy reflecting on people and their activities, their emotions, what could be events in their daily lives. But beyond that I speak via my symbols of activities on a larger, wider scale that transcends all boundaries…. I speak about a heritage of a common humanity.” – Peter Clarke, 1983
In the featured picture, two elderly men walk along the Wall of Memory in Main Road, Simon’s Town.
About a year ago, my daughter treated me to a mother-daughter clay workshop that has since become a regular feature in my calendar. Working with clay has been the perfect antidote to being immersed in writing up my thesis. A serendipitous connection between the two, though, has been my “doilie collection”. This is a series of projects that I have been working on to imprint my grandmother’s designs into clay. I have felt a deep connection to the creative heritage that she initiated with her “poor man’s lace”, the craft work that she used to supplement the family income, while creating my own interpretation of her work.
I have been surrounded by memories of her while I kneaded and shaped, respectfully joining her work and mine, layering it with oxides and glazes, patiently waiting for them to be fired in the kiln between the different processes. I have created something new by building on the past, but this heritage has flowed like a river finding its away around stones, as I was pleased to discover when I found the certificate that my father had earned for his artwork in 1954. He had won third prize for a print he had made of one of my grandmother’s designs. The certificate is the link between her work and mine, and those crocheted threads now span three generations.
These simple objects build on the archive of the ordinary that tells the stories of where we come from, what Anthony Bogues describes as the ordinary practices of every day freedoms that the oppressed engaged in to hold on to their humanity. They disrupt the dominant narratives of apartheid that would see us as less than, as a people without history.
Last night I saw the play, At Her Feet, for the third time, since its opening in 2002. This is the 13th run of the play which was written and directed by Capetonian Nadia Davids and performed by another Capetonian, Quanita Adams, for whom she originally wrote the play.
Essentially the play is about the stories of four Muslim women in Cape Town a year after the bombing of the Twin Towers in New York and, as such, it brilliantly brings to life the stories of ordinary women in Cape Town and the effect of the global incident and its repercussions for Muslims everywhere.
The play starts, though, with the honour killing of a Jordanian girl, plunging us straight into questions of race, religion, culture and gender, which run throughout, coming full circle to end with the lamentations of the dead girl’s mother. This theme also provides the background for Auntie Kariema’s poignant realisation of her own link to the dead girl through her experiences as a young child who had lost her mother.
The portrayal of four very different characters – the young Muslim narrator, the slam-dunk poet, the middle-aged ‘Malay’ auntie and the newly-married Indian-Muslim woman – is so real that I could recognise each one of them.
Each time I have seen the play, it has resonated anew with me, but last night’s performance echoed so many of the themes in my research and, ultimately, is representative of Cape Town, and South Africa, as a whole because of its reflection of the legacy of slavery. This 200-year old heritage was intimately connected to Islam and had a fundamental impact not only on the city but on the country. As such it speaks to a much larger audience and its central themes raise questions of complicity of racism and bias while at the same time offering an empathetic window into a way of life and invites us to find our commonalities rather than our differences.
Last night was special, too, because it was a fundraiser for The Sunflower Centre at Zonnebloem School and Davids, as an alumnus, had donated the performance of the play for that purpose. I was invited by Zephne Ladbrooke of The Otto Family Foundation, who I had met in the car park at a shopping mall earlier this year. I had approached her because of the poster advertising the centre on her car, which led me back to my old school. Accompanying me was Trudy Rushin who I had met when we were pupils at Zonnebloem School for Girls and with whom I had lost contact until recently. So, it was extra special because of connections on so many levels that had not been made when I last saw the play. Life seems to move in circles…
The play, a one-woman, one-act performance, employs music, poetry and dance to bring its characters inside your head until you want to weep and laugh with each character (the small Golden Arrow studio at The Baxter Theatre serves to take you almost right onto the stage with Adams) grappling with the very complicated relationships and questions which they conjure up.
[The play takes its name from the hadith, Paradise lies at the feet of thy mother. A hadith, or saying, is a teaching which guides the behaviour of Muslims. Apart from honouring the role of all mothers it also emphasises the importance of women in society.]
The play is on at The Baxter Studio until 8 December. Do go and see it.
I drive past the wasteland of what used to be District Six, on a regular basis, the few houses, places of worship and the CPUT buildings emphasise the starkness, highlighting what is no longer there. But recently, that emptiness struck me anew. Perhaps it was the viewpoint I had from the school which I had attended so many years ago. As I stood in the car park in front of the chapel on the Zonnebloem Estate, looking down the hill towards the ocean, I was overcome by a sense of loss. Through the gap above the wall where there used to be a gate, was only open field. I remembered the rows of houses that had stood there, the women who had made toffee apples, koeksisters and tameletjies, and the children who ran to buy these offerings through the fence, at break time.
Walking around the school gave me a curious sense of déja vu, of having lived in this space which is not quite the same. The buildings stand where they have stood for decades, but are rundown and in desperate need of TLC, the cobbled stones in the avenue we walked up to the chapel, have been covered by tar, and the school seemed smaller than I remembered. Memories came creeping back like the cobbles emerging from under the tar in places, refusing to be forgotten. Assemblies on the tarmac, Wednesday morning chapel, going home with smudges of ash on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, uniform inspections and sitting at our desks eating our lunch before we could go out to play, because “young ladies did not eat outside”, and walking to the new Art Centre, where Mr Hopley taught.
I think of Zonnebloem as the “family school” – an aunt taught at the boys’ school, my brothers and cousins attended the school and various family members, my father included, had trained at the teachers’ college which is now the high school. Zonnebloem was started in 1858 by Bishop Gray who had started Bishops and St Cyprian’s, both for ‘white’ children, while Zonnebloem initially targeted the sons of African chiefs, “to remove them from heathen and barbarous influences and expose them to the full force of civilisation”. Later girls were brought to the Cape to study so that the boys would have Christian wives rather than “heathen girls”. In the early 1920s, the school concentrated on the training of ‘coloured’ teachers, to promote decency and respectability as the path to civilisation.
Zonnebloem was one of the good ‘coloured’ schools, relatively speaking. When I recently interviewed a past-teacher, she recalled with fondness the ethos of the school, the dedication of her colleagues. She said that the teachers did the best they could to instil pride and a positive sense of belonging. With dedicated teachers, limited resources but a determination to educate children who the apartheid government deemed lesser than, Zonnebloem produced fine graduates, who returned to teach or to give back to the community in other ways. One of these alumni was Jeremiah Moshoeshoe, the son of King Moshoeshoe, who studied there in 1859 and showed such promise that he was sent to study further at St Augustine Missionary College in Canterbury. Another was Harold Cressy who came to Zonnebloem in 1897 from Natal when he was 8 years old. He graduated in 1905 as a teacher at the age of 16 years and completed matric through studying on his own. Rejected by Rhodes University because of the colour of his skin, he was eventually accepted by the University of Cape Town where he became the first ‘coloured’ person to attain a bachelor’s degree. Cressy left a significant mark on education, so much so that the Harold Cressy High School was named after him in 1953.
Bishops and St Cyprian’s continue to flourish as among the top private (mainly white) schools in the province and country, while Zonnebloem’s buildings and facilities slowly but steadily decline … an indictment perhaps, on our post-apartheid society in which little has changed economically, and the most vulnerable continue to suffer. Ironically, Zonnebloem, because of its prime location, has been designated a quintile 5 school, which serves the wealthiest communities and therefore receives the least government funding. It is a state school on private property in buildings leased from the Anglican church. The pupils, however, are from the most socio-economically vulnerable communities and are largely Xhosa-speaking. Children come on buses and taxis rather than walking like I did with my two brothers.
I had not been back to the school since I left in the mi-1970s but was invited to the Sunflower festival, held at the school earlier this year, by Zephne Ladbrook of the Otto Foundation. Ladbrook and her foundation have over the last two years injected pockets of hope into these potentially dreary surroundings – opening a library that doubles up as an aftercare space, renovating two classrooms and erecting a pre-fab building for two more, engaging in various other projects to improve the experience of learners at the school. She dreams of sports fields which would serve not only the schools on the Zonnebloem Estate, but those in the surrounding area, none of which have access to sport facilities. The school is adjacent to land which would be ideal for this purpose but for a number of bureaucratic reasons, is unavailable for development as such.
I find it inconceivable that we still have to motivate for sports to be part of an inclusive programme to develop children and youth. Apart from the obvious health and fitness benefits, participation in sport has been proven to enhance academic and psychosocial development. Children learn so much more than how to play the game when they participate in sport – perseverance, patience, teamwork and building self-esteem are just some of the skills that enhance development into healthy, well-rounded and mature adults. Sport can also play a major role in reducing criminal activity and substance abuse. I would argue that sport should be on an equal footing with language, maths and science, in developing our children.
Above all that, participating in sport provides opportunity to integrate within, and with other, communities, and here is where I see the overwhelming benefits of promoting sport at Zonnebloem that includes the surrounding schools. Ladbrook has swept me up in her vision of communities coming together to play on the Zonnebloem fields. District Six has become symbolic of the forced removals and destruction of communities that occurred during apartheid. How wonderfully appropriate then it would be if the estate were to become a hub of integration in the area, at once addressing the wrongs of the past, celebrating the legacy of the Zonnebloem alumni and shaping a generation of well-rounded individuals for a democratic South Africa. Perhaps this integration and redress will even include St Cyprian’s in the City Bowl and Bishops in the southern suburbs, drawing increasingly larger circles of inclusion and hope.
Potential projects which the Otto Foundation are hoping to complete are:
A new cricket field in partnership with WP Cricket.
A feeding scheme/vegetable garden in partnership with Ladles of Love and Rise Against Hunger.
Fix up bathrooms spaces and provide ‘dignity packs’ for girls in order to restore dignity.
Water storage and maintenance in partnership with SOS NGO; and an upgrade of security
A while back I met an Englishman who lives in South Africa and, detecting a trace of another accent, I asked him where he was originally from. He said that he liked to think of himself as a fine European blend of British, French and Italian roots. I wondered about that – what made him different to someone who might be a “fine blend” of African, Dutch, British and Indonesian roots? Why should the former be claimed with pride and the latter spoken about in whispers, viewed as sinful and criminal?
Of course, it all comes down to politics – the politics of slavery, colonialism and apartheid – and the pursuit of gold, god and glory, which I won’t go into now. In spite of scientific evidence that proves that all humans are 99% identical, the myths of polygenesis and racial superiority persist and everyday people use terms such as “mixed race” and “bi-racial”, or talk about different “races”. Issues of race and prejudice continue to shape our relations with each other and leave indelible scars on our psyche.
Yesterday I attended a talk by journalist, Sara-Jayne King, whose memoir, Killing Karoline, explores her life as the result of an affair between a ‘white’ British woman and her ‘black’ South African colleague. Born in the 1980s, at the height of apartheid, she is taken out of the country and put up for adoption in Britain, her mother returning to SA with the news that her baby had died (hence the title). In her book, King plots her path of self-destruction through addiction and eating disorders, and explores the feelings of insecurity and poor self-worth related to her identity. Adoption on its own must come with attendant issues of rejection and belonging, but in King’s case it is underscored with the apartheid crime and sin of immorality. I believe that her attempts to destroy herself were in part a sub-conscious drive to punish herself for an inherent sense of shame related to not belonging. It’s this feeling of having done something wrong that is part and parcel of the legacy of slavery, colonialism and apartheid. Confronting it needs to start with rejecting the concept of race which is based on the superficial distinction of skin colour, hair, bone and facial features, in order to perpetuate power and control by one group over another.
A few months ago, while on a visit to the USA, I did what I have been wanting to do for ages – ordered a DNA testing kit. My friend, Mary, and I bonded over collecting samples of sputum and posted them off. I was not sure what to expect since my ancestors have variously been classified as ‘coloured’, ‘white’ or Cape Malay. In the context of South Africa this takes on layers of meaning and is imbued with a gamut of emotions, many of which are negative, like shame and worthlessness. Since I was immersed in my doctoral thesis about representation and identity related to growing up in South Africa during apartheid, I thought that knowing more about my ancestral make up might add some value to my research.
Consistent with what I know of my grandparents, my DNA results confirmed that I was a fine blend of South East Asian and European populations with a liberal sprinkling of sub-Saharan African. I found it quite affirming to have a written record – scientific proof – of a history that the apartheidists sought to erase in their attempts to subjugate and dehumanise us through fixing cosmetic differences and forcing us into prescribed boxes. The time for transcending race and regarding each other as human is long overdue.
King, S. 2018. Killing Karoline: A Memoir. Published by MF Books Joburg.
Nadia Kamies was born and raised in Cape Town. She holds a BSc Occupational Therapy and an MA Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town, and a PhD History from the University of Pretoria. Her writing focuses on the afterlives of slavery and apartheid.