Echoes of Slavery

By:  Prof Siona O’Connell, Critical African Studies Project, UP

        Dr Nadia Kamies, Post-Doc Dept Historical & Heritage Studies, UP

The forced removal of over 12 million Africans to the Americas was one part of the trade in human bodies. Another aspect, is the people who were shipped to the Cape in the Indian Ocean slave trade. From its inception, the Cape was a slave society, violently established on the backs of men and women who were stripped of their names, cultures and religions, and forced to work in the kitchens and vineyards of their enslavers. In 1652, as colonial administrator of the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), Jan Van Riebeeck dropped anchor at the Cape to establish a refreshment station with 100 men and eight women. A year later, the first known slave, Abraham van Batavia, a stowaway on board the Malacca, arrived

The Dutch were active participants in both the Atlantic and Indian Ocean slave trades. For brief spells during the 17th century they dominated the Atlantic slave trade and were at the centre of the most expansive slave trade in the history of Southeast Asia. The VOC, formed in 1602, was a sovereign body which acted independently of the Dutch government although its headquarters were in the Netherlands. They were granted a monopoly over trade in the East Indies, where they enslaved over half of the population of Batavia (now Jakarta) and protected their monopoly with brute force, while painting slavery as a “work of compassion”. Racial slavery was an economic, legal, political and cultural exercise based on the refusal to see ‘blacks’ as human and amply justified by the Bible.

In late August of 1791, the uprising in Santo Domingo (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) played a crucial role in the abolition of slavery, the slave trade and the weakening of colonialism. The British declared the slave trade illegal in 1807 and abolished the practice in all their colonies in 1834. Slaves at the Cape, however, were forced to serve an “apprenticeship” until 1838. On their emancipation they had nowhere to go and had few possessions, if any. This created a dependency that served to tie many of the previously enslaved to their masters and the refuge the mission stations offered is thought to have ensured a close and steady supply of compliable workers to the surrounding farms. The Masters and Servants Ordinance of 1841 outlined how to accommodate ex-slaves and former “free blacks”, allowing employers to use certain disciplinary measures to control their behaviour. In fact, many of the Apartheid laws introduced in 1948 such as the pass laws and Group Areas Act reflected the restrictions used to control the movement of the enslaved.

Slavery was a central element of the Dutch colonial conquest and part of the emergence of Afrikaner political and social ideas. There can be no question that slavery fundamentally shaped South Africa from its earliest days and continued to do so along the continuum of colonialism and apartheid. As author and academic, Gabeba Baderoon (2014) observes “slavery generated foundational notions of race and sex in South Africa” that have largely been forgotten thanks to the propaganda that portrayed slavery as mild. The legacy of slavery continues to influence our perspectives today and is present in the prevailing attitudes towards labour provided by those who are ‘black’, evidenced in the mining, wine and domestic labour industries.

It is even present in the very names given to the enslaved. Whether from the mythological or the Biblical or after the places from which slaves came or after months of the year, these names echo the hope and tenacity of those trying to reimagine a future without chains. The months of December, January and February, for instance, hint at imagined possibilities, evident in recipes, ways of courtship, and the music we sing and dance to as we bask in the sun. In March, April and May, we see the quiet fortitude of autumn, apparent in the clothing workers of the Cape Flats who support up to nine people on their wages. In the blistery cold of June, July and August, we see what it means to achieve against immeasurable odds, of men and women raising their children and urging them to succeed; and in the quiet bloom of September, October and November, we see the promise of youth, who know where they come from, and what they and their forbearers are capable of achieving.

Note: 23 August commemorates the UN International Day of the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. 

Featured image: A memorial wall with the names of the enslaved who lived and worked at the Solms-Delta Wine Estate in Franschoek. The naming shows how slaves were stripped of their identity and given names that indicated where they were born, as in “Van de Kaap” or “Van Mosambique”. 

This piece was published in the Cape Times, Pretoria News and The Mercury 25 August 2020 and is also online here

 

Disturbing the Stereotypes

Art goes beyond mere entertainment – it is an ancient way of expressing who we are and what we stand for that goes back to the first time that humans left their marks on the walls of caves or fashioned forms out of the earth. Art captures and expresses different ways of living and being, both challenging and negating attempts to fix certain stereotypes.

That people labelled ‘coloured’ through apartheid social engineering have been excelling in art, sports, music, academics (in fact, in every arena possible) throughout our history, is nothing new. What is of note is that almost three decades after the first democratic elections, we have yet to rid ourselves of the negative stereotypes associated with this labelling.

Apartheid policy has its roots in racial slavery, the violent process of othering, that ultimately led to the dehumanisation of people based on the colour of their skin. During apartheid the oppressive regime attempted to silence people, and art became a weapon for political expression, reflecting the injustices and repressive nature of the times. In spite of museums and galleries actively preventing participation by people of colour, they were able to communicate and express the injustices of the day, telling the stories that the world needed to hear. Their work so disrupted and threatened the apartheid hegemony that many were arrested, banned, or forced into exile.

British-Jamaican sociologist and cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, urged ordinary people to regain control of an image-dominated world and to challenge the stereotypes that are propagated by introducing new ideas, new knowledge and new dimensions of meaning, thus exposing and destroying stereotypes.

This is exactly what the artists involved with the KWAAI exhibition are doing – reshaping and reimagining an identity, and reconnecting with a culture in ways that aren’t necessarily the same as their parents experienced. Perhaps most indicative of the times we now find ourselves in, I met some of the artists via an online meeting platform. It was inevitable that the discussion would touch on how their creative processes were being affected by the national lockdown as a result of COVID-19. The enforced social distancing has encouraged deep self-reflection and the limited access to materials has led them to discover different ways of expressing themselves.  It seems serendipitous, this process of examining, reshaping and reimagining, not only their output, but the very essence of what they want to portray to the outside world.

While some of the artists have lived through apartheid, others grew up in a post-apartheid society. However, all of them have been shaped socially, personally and culturally by the experiences of their own generation and the one that came before them. They bear the collective trauma through stories, images and the behaviour of the people they grew up with and those who raised them. They carry the responsibility, the sense of loss and the desire to make sure that their own narratives may be heard to prevent the past from continuing to make an indelible mark on the present and the future.

All these artists are taking charge of the narrative, each in their own unique way, of how they want to be viewed, drawing on the experiences of the generation that came before them.

Jabu Newman, explores the issues of coloured identity through her photographs, drawing on a personal family history, that speaks to the apartheid legacy of forced removals, racial classification and group areas, that continues to inform the present.

Jared Leite uses printmaking and sculpture to deconstruct issues of representation and belonging, and the ambiguity that surrounds a community that continues to dwell on the periphery of a post-apartheid space.

Urban Khoi engages with ancient practices such as cave drawings coupled with contemporary dance and graffiti to examine human consciousness and collective wisdom.

The KWAAI exhibition provides the platform to support the re-presentation of their individual stories. It invites conversation and engagement with these new narratives while challenging us to make up our own minds. These artists very clearly assert who they are and where they come from. They defy and resist the memories of apartheid and speak to what it means to be human.

This piece appears in the latest edition of SA Art Times and the exhibition may be viewed online on the gallery website. Thank you to Christina Fortune for inviting me to be a small part of this project. Featured image courtesy of KWAAI Vol 3/eclectica contemporary.

Read a review of the show here 

Mind Your Language

In spite of dramatic constitutional changes, South Africans remain stuck in the apartheid ways of thinking and relating to each other, living in a society fragmented by racial discourse, and continuing to talk about four distinct ‘races’. Perhaps, this is predictable given a past when artificial concepts of race governed where people lived, went to school, who they loved, what careers they chose and where they would be buried when they died.

Emancipation Day, commemorating the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834, was observed on 1 December in South Africa, although many South Africans are ignorant of the impact of slavery on our history. Almost from the start the Cape was a slave society and, as elsewhere, mixing between Europeans, indigenous and the enslaved occurred, giving rise to a group of creolised people, who would later become known as ‘coloured’ under the apartheid government’s Population Registration Act. This heterogenous group of people resisted classification into ‘white’/European or ‘black’/Bantu and the category ‘coloured’ became a residual one, a hold-all for the “leftovers”.

After their defeat in the Anglo-Boer War, the Afrikaners’ desire for a distinct national identity demanded that they distance themselves from the ‘coloured’ people with whom they shared blood, language and religion. Legislation, justified by sociological, ecclesial and political views, was adopted in order to maintain racial distinctions and prevent further mixing, the presumption being that mixing had been minimal in the past. ‘Coloured’ people were thus stripped of a shared history in order to banish all evidence of past ‘indiscretions’.

In 1973 Andre Brink’s novel, Kennis van die Aand, the first Afrikaans book to be banned by the apartheid government, was criticised for its vilification of the Afrikaner, inhuman portrayal of the police, and for mocking religion. More importantly, says Vernon February, Brink supplies his protagonist, the ‘coloured’ Josef Malan, with “a neatly constructed genealogical tree … that forcibly accounted for … the no-past, no-myth, heritage of the Cape Coloured”. In 1985 Hans Heese’s book drawing attention to the mixed heritage of major Afrikaner families and listing marriages between Europeans and slaves, was similarly banned. Like Brink, Heese was an Afrikaner, writing in Afrikaans, and I believe that their work coming from within the kraal carried more weight.

In order to maintain the myth of racial purity, it became necessary to perpetuate stereotypes about groups of people that continue to inform the present. In Afrikaner mythology, says February, ‘coloureds’ would only perform a functional role within certain “syndromes”, such as the drunken clown. I found that the theme of alcohol is a recurring one from the first time Jan van Riebeek gave the enslaved a glass of brandy to help them learn the Christian prayers, to the tot system that ensured the labourers’ dependency on the farmers post-emancipation. Mohammed Adhikari similarly refers to the so-called inherent characteristics of ‘coloured’ people – such as dishonesty and recklessness, and supposed tendencies towards gangsterism, drug and alcohol abuse that have often been blamed on the idea that ‘colouredness’ was the product of miscegenation.

The prevalence of these stereotypes and their entrenchment in the psyche of the majority of South Africans is illustrated by Trevor Noah’s descriptions of ‘coloureds’ in his 2016 memoir, a New York Times bestseller soon to be made into a movie. Noah is the son of a Xhosa mother and a Swiss (‘white’) father. He distances himself from the apartheid classification (describing himself as “mixed but not coloured – coloured by complexion but not by culture”) and shares his experiences of not fitting into his ‘coloured’ neighbourhood because of the “two types of coloured people” he encountered – those who hated him for being ‘black’ and having curly hair, and those who resented his ‘whiteness’ and “perfect English” and for not speaking “Afrikaans, the language that coloured people were supposed to speak”. Ironically, Noah describes very accurately the space of ambiguity which mirrors the ‘coloured’ experience of occupying the interstitial zone of being neither ‘white’ nor ‘black’, and which was often described to me in my research.

While his story resonates on many levels with ordinary people in South Africa, and offers a lens into what it was like for his family to live and navigate apartheid legislation, his description of the origin of ‘coloureds’ is peppered with stereotypes and inaccuracies, starting with the presumption that ‘coloured’ people speak Afrikaans.  He disseminates a popular myth that ‘coloured’ people originated largely from ‘black-white’ sexual unions outside of wedlock; as a result of prostitution and casual sex between colonists, the enslaved and Khoisan.

The apartheid constructs are deeply embedded in our psyche and we continue to live in a society fragmented by racial discourse. The evidence of how successfully this was accomplished by the apartheidists is illustrated by the way Noah describes ‘coloured’ people as “an entirely new race”. I find this alarming coming from such a high-profile South African who recently received two awards from the NAACP. I believe that the concept of ‘colouredness’ is neither a biological nor an ethnic identity, but a direct result of slavery and creolisation and, later, apartheid social engineering.

In spite of attempts by the apartheid government to ‘fix’ ‘colouredness’, it remained an ambiguous and fluid identity, heterogeneous in skin colour, language, religion, and culture, as illustrated by the two photographs of my grandmothers, one classified ‘Cape Coloured’ and the other ‘Cape Malay’,  two of the seven subgroups of ‘Coloured’. There is no homogenous ‘coloured’ identity and therefore no essence of ‘coloured’ identity, negative or positive.

More needs to be done than simply remove the laws that entrenched apartheid racial hierarchy – we need to find a new language to talk about the past so that we may address the sense of inferiority and shame associated with racial superiority and the negative stereotyping of colonists and slave masters.

Versions of this article were published in the Cape Argus Thursday 19 December 2019 under the title, Defined by racist labels, and in the Pretoria News on Wednesday 15 January 2020 under the title Misguided notions about ‘coloureds’ and ‘colouredness’, as well as online https://www.iol.co.za/news/opinion/misguided-notions-about-coloureds-and-colouredness-40619261

 

A Vision for Zonnebloem

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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
  • Expansion of cultural extramurals such as a choir

The Otto Foundation would value support from local businesses and alumni and may be contacted via the following emails:  zephne@chrisottofoundation.com or karen@chrisottofoundation.com

This article was published in The Cape Argus 25 October 2018.

My Grandmother’s Dream Catchers I

Every now and then I am moved to pen a few lines of poetry. I certainly don’t view myself as a poet, but there have been distinct moments when I feel the urge come over me! This happened a few months ago, while deeply immersed in the doctoral process. My parents have both been supportive of my process of trying to make sense of our roots. On this occasion my mother had been eagerly awaiting my visit so that she could give me two doilies that my paternal grandmother had crocheted for her many years ago (my grandmother died more than twenty years ago). My grandmother had crocheted to supplement her income and had skillfully produced not only doilies but bedspreads with an impossibly thin crochet hook and fine cotton thread.

I remember my mother having different sets of doilies for different occasions; they would be starched and ironed so that they stiffly maintained their shapes. There was something very poignant about the plastic bag she handed to me and the way the unstarched doilies softly fell out into my lap. This is my tribute to my grandmother.

My Grandmother’s Dream Catchers

Mama made these doilies for me, my mother says,
as green and blue tightly crocheted
works of art fall softly
out of the plastic packet she’s kept them in.
I see my grandmother sitting
in her chair, grey hair escaping
from under a white cotton scarf
wrapped around her head;
her fingers hold the thin steel hook
wrapping cotton thread in elaborate patterns,
making poor man’s lace,
creating circles in the air to catch bad dreams.
Her hands are never idle, weaving and spinning
a livelihood to keep her family together,
her work good enough
for even white people, my father says,
the patterns out of a secret book in her head
dipped in starch and ironed to attention.
Round and round she goes
weaving circles of where she came from,
each stitch a link to the past,
a chain from Arab trade routes to Africa,
interlocking loops of yarn,
tiny stitches helping to feed her family.
I wish I had followed that thread
of journeys across oceans,
wish that I had asked her to teach me
how to catch dreams.

This poem was published on the AVBOB 2017 Poetry competition website and also appears in a special edition of Stanzas Number 13. Sept. 2018. 

Nazism, Racial Science and Apartheid

 

In 2013 a human skull was discovered during renovations of the anthropology department at Stellenbosch University.  The skull (thought to be that of a woman of mixed ancestry) was found along with two hair and eye colour charts which were used to measure and classify humans in order to justify racism during the 1930s and 1940s. The case of the hair colour chart bears the name of Dr Eugen Fischer, a leading Nazi eugenicist. An identical silver case was found by the university’s Professor Steven Robins at the Max Planck Society Archives in Berlin in the course of his research.

Dr Eugen Fischer, who published his findings in 1921, was one of many German scientists intensely interested in the ‘mixed-race’ people in South-West Africa, the Rehoboth Basters or ‘The Bastards’ as he referred to them. After examining 310 children of Nama women and ‘white’ men, he concluded that they were racially superior to pure Negroes but inferior to pure ‘whites’, but racial mixing was to be avoided. His findings contributed to the prohibition of inter-racial marriage in all German colonies.

Fischer later headed the Kaiser William Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics, in Berlin and served as one of the scientists on the Gestapo’s Special Commission Number Three which performed forced sterilisation on the ‘Rhineland Bastards’, children born of the union between German women and Senegalese soldiers stationed in the Rhineland after WWI. According to historian, Niall Ferguson, this was the notorious ‘Black Shame’ that produced fresh evidence of the conspiracy to pollute the blood of the Aryan race.

Stellenbosch’s students of cultural anthropology not only used Fischer’s tools of racial classification from 1926 to the mid-1990s, but used a textbook written by Fischer up until the 1960s. The discovery points to the close links between apartheid and Nazism and raises questions as to the history of the use of classification tools at the university. Stellenbosch University (considered the intellectual heart of Afrikanerdom during the apartheid era), is the alma mater of both Hendrik Verwoerd, who as prime minister introduced the first apartheid laws in 1950, and his secretary of state for Native Affairs, Max Eiselen, a cultural anthropology student.

Pseudo-scientific racism has provided the basic justification for slavery since the late 18th century.  This pseudo-science asserted that mankind was not a single more or less homogeneous species but was subdivided and ranked from an Aryan ‘master race’ down to a ‘black’ race unworthy of the designation Homo sapiens. Francis Galton’s observations of the Herero and Nama people in South West Africa (Namibia) in the mid-19th century would later inform his thinking about human evolution. His anthropometric work on human heredity laid the foundation for the discipline he christened eugenics. Galton’s theories that Africans were biologically inferior were enthusiastically embraced and justified the claim to Africa by more advanced ‘white’ Europeans. These theories were to have a devastating influence on the people of Germany’s newly-acquired African colony, South-West Africa (Namibia), who would provide the test subjects for this racial science.

In Andre Brink’s post-apartheid novel, The Other Side of Silence, he examines the violence of life in colonial societies such as South West Africa through the eyes of a young German woman. The horror of the violence described in this novel is not only an indictment on colonialism and masculine attitudes in German South West Africa but also for South African society.Not only were the Herero and Nama peoples exterminated in great numbers but the Germans conducted further trials on their bodies in the name of ‘race hygiene’. Autopsies were performed for racial-biological research; sample skulls were scraped clean by female prisoners to be sent to Germany, chillingly described in Brink’s book.

The discovery at Stellenbosch University indicates how the past continues to inform the present in South Africa and how intricately linked colonialism, racism and apartheid are. It provides us with an opportunity to examine our history and a vehicle to understanding how our society may be transformed.

This is an extract from my article published in the African Independent March-April 2018

Let’s Ensure Slaves are more than Footnotes to History

Museums play a profound role both in preserving culture and educating the public. Ideally they should bring to life the stories of distant times and convey the humanity of the individuals who lived in those times. They should foster pride in our cultural diversities and correct stereotypes in their representation of those cultures. Especially in South Africa, our museums have a vital role to play in correcting the misrepresentations of the past and encouraging discussion on the way forward.

Sandwiched between the Daddy Longlegs Hotel and a hardware store on Long Street, is the SA Sendinggestig Museum, also known as the Slave Church. It is the oldest existing mission building in South Africa and the third oldest church in the country. The gabled cream and white façade with Corinthian pilasters, cornices and mouldings, mimics that of the Slave Lodge at the top of Adderley Street.

The property was acquired by the South African Society for the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom in 1801 and the building was probably constructed by slaves and free blacks for general religious activities. It initially prepared converts for membership of established churches but became a separate congregation of the SA Missionary Society in 1819 and part of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1937. It was in use as a church until 1971 when dwindling numbers as a result of forced removals led to its closure. In 1975 a special memorial service was held during which the congregation bid farewell to the church building. A new church in Belhar, a ‘coloured’ area in the northern suburbs, was inaugurated in 1978. The museum was established in 1979 with the intention of preserving the building and the legacy of Christian evangelism amongst the slaves and indigenous people.

The double front entrance door to the church, made of Burmese teak, leads into a yellowwood and American pine lobby, which was known as the “wind lobby” – doors could be open or shut depending on the direction of the wind to prevent dust blowing in or disheveling those inside. The Robben Island slate stone at the front door is the only remnant of the original floor. Teak columns support the main gallery and the two side galleries are supported by yellowwood columns painted to produce a marbled effect. The 750mm thick walls rest on a window-height base of broken stone (Malmesbury shale) from the quarry on the slopes of Signal Hill and soar up more than 10 metres to meet the curved ceiling of American pine.

It’s a handsome building but, sadly, all this was lost on us as we entered the church to be confronted by a market being set up. The furniture and exhibits had been pushed to the sides or front of the church behind the pulpit and we tried to navigate our way around screens, boxes and goods for sale. There was a sense of chaos and disrespect for the space as a place of worship. While I can understand that renting out the space brings in revenue, it seems like desecration of a spiritual space to use it for retail purposes. Moreover, I cannot understand why this is done on a day when the museum is open to the public. I cringed every time I saw a tourist enter the building, stare around bewilderedly and then turn and walk out. I was there with a group of university students hoping to learn a bit more about our slave history.

I had expected to enter the space with a sense of reverence, to hear the gentle creak of the floorboards whisper the names of the first four slaves baptised here – Domingo…Job…Arend…Durenda. I wanted to sit quietly on one of the oak pews, and trace my finger along the carved wood pattern and think about Rosina…Dina…Spasie Helena…Frederik Johan Hendrik, the second group of candidates to become members of the community. I wanted to imagine their voices lifted up in songs of worship as a gust of southeaster blew in among the congregation and ruffled their hair or upset a hat. I wanted to hear the mutterings of a congregation broken up by forced removals, saying goodbye to their spiritual home. I wanted to pause and reflect on where we it was we have come from.

At the very least, one should leave a museum with a sense of what happened, to whom it happened and what that meant then and now. I walked out without any sense of the congregants of the mission church, without any sense of the significance of a period in our history which has fundamentally shaped who we are. Slavery was a central element of the Dutch colonial conquest and part of the emergence of Afrikaner political and social ideas. While it was glossed over in our history books and presented as benign and minor, it is up to us to make sure that the lives of slaves are more than footnotes in history, that they were more than just possessions. It is up to us to present the counter-narrative of individuals and to create spaces that allow a glimpse of their humanity. Chinua Achebe, the prominent Nigerian novelist and essayist, in a 1994 interview said that storytelling “is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail—the bravery, even, of the lions.”

This article was published in the Cape Times  6 March 2018

The Making of Martha

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Katrina was on her knees scrubbing the kitchen floor when she felt the faintest kick, almost like a flutter in her belly. She sat back on her heels and cupped her wet hands over the spot. There it was again, like butterflies in her stomach…like the butterflies in Namaqualand…in spring…when the flowers were out. That’s the one time of the year a person could say the place was beautiful. After the rains they’d be rewarded with carpets of yellow or purple, for all the months of emptiness. A person could almost ignore the holes gouged out of the earth by men digging for diamonds or copper, as the broken landscape burst into life. She smiled at the memory of running barefoot through fields of flowers, making a daisy chain to crown her baby sister and holding her breath as a butterfly balanced on her shoulder.

Ag, there she went again, wasting time on daydreams, her madam would say. She shook her head as if to get rid of the images and sighed as she picked up the scrubbing brush again. She’d left the vygies and daisies, the aloes and the orchids, behind a long time ago. She couldn’t remember when last she’d spoken to her brothers and sisters. If it wasn’t for the black and white photograph stuck into the mirror in her room, she wondered if she would even remember what they looked like. Bitterfontein. The name said it all, she thought to herself as she got up with another sigh. The bitterness had even seeped into the water. At least here she had a job; there was one less mouth for her father to feed. It didn’t help to worry about things a person could do nothing about.

“Katrina, I’m leaving now,” Mrs Laing shouted down the passage. “Don’t forget to bring in the washing before you go off. It looks like rain. And make sure the gate is locked properly this time.”

“Yes, Madam,” Katrina replied, poking her head round the kitchen door. “See you tomorrow, Madam.”

Katrina had been working for Mrs. Laing, a white lady, in Roeland Street for a year now. Her madam worked her hard but she was grateful to have a job where she could live in. It also paid better than her previous job and she was off on Saturday afternoons. “But no men and no drink allowed,” Mrs. Laing had warned when she started.

Katrina finished up, washed and changed into a pink floral dress, gathered under the bodice with a generous skirt which skimmed over her hips and stomach. She wanted to go see Hajji quickly this afternoon and maybe there would still be time to watch the new James Dean film playing at the Gem. She walked down Drury Lane towards District Six, to Combrinck Street where the dressmaker lived. The rows of semi-detached houses looked a little shabby but most people had made an effort with their front stoeps – they were painted red or green and polished every week, there was a potted delicious monster plant or two, and perhaps a bench to sit on in the evenings when the day’s work was done and a person had a chance to catch up with a neighbour.

Katrina went around the back of the house through the open kitchen door. There was no one there, but smells of onions braising with cardamom and cloves greeted her. She noticed the chopped cabbage, potatoes and mutton knuckles waiting to be added to the pot. Hajji must be making a bredie. She could hear the sound of the sewing machine coming from the back and called out, “It’s me, Katrina,” as she went in. Hajji was sitting behind the Singer which stood in the corner of her sons’ bedroom. Her head, covered with a scarf, was bowed in concentration as she guided the fabric through the threader and pumped the pedal of the black enamel machine. Four identical dresses in powder-blue satin hung on the front of the wardrobe. As a dressmaker Hajji’s beadwork was very popular with Malay and Christian brides, even the Jewish people came to her. The small room did double duty as her workroom by day. Her sons often complained that they had to watch out for pins in the bedspread or that they stepped onto beads on the floor with their bare feet. Hajji, practical as always, had told them to put on shoes and given them a magnet to pick up the pins.

Hajji had four children, and one from her husband’s first marriage, who was working at a butcher in Salt River. All three boys would soon leave school, one by one, to learn a trade. Hajji’s daughter, Fatima, was already apprenticed to a dressmaker in Walmer Estate.

“Salaam Hajji,” Katrina greeted, respectful of Hajji’s religion, even though she herself was Christian. “I see supper is cooking already. Hajji must be going out this evening.”

“Alaykum Salaam, Katrina,” said Hajji, taking the pins out of her mouth. “Yes, I’m very busy. I have to finish this dress tonight. That Van der Ross girl is getting married tomorrow. She lost weight again. I have to take the dress in. Poor child is already so thin.”

Hajji always did the final fitting the day before the wedding. She said it was bad luck to finish the dress too long before the time. So she made sure to put in the last stitches late at night, her fingers flying over the silk and satin. She delivered the beaded creation herself on the morning of the wedding. Hajji also dressed the bride in petticoats, underskirts of stiff netting, and finally the gown. She was skilled at shaping the gilded medora into a headdress. Sometimes she would be asked to prepare the bruidskamer for the Muslim brides as well, making drapes, cushions and quilted bedspreads with satin and lace.

When Hajji wasn’t busy with a wedding she made outfits for Eid or other special occasions and simple frocks with fabric she bought on the Grand Parade. Katrina and her friends bought these dresses on lay-bye, paying off a small amount every month. Hajji recognized the dress Katrina was wearing today as one she’d made last year.

“Can I make Hajji some tea?”

Ag, Katrina, I don’t have time for tea now. Is there something you wanted?”

Ja, Hajji, I have to talk to you about a problem. Hajji can mos see what’s going on with me.”

Katrina turned to the side in front of the mirror, and, placing one hand under her breasts, she smoothed the dress over her stomach with the other. There was no mistaking the curve of her belly when you looked at her profile. Her breasts were also fuller and Hajji realized she was glowing. She recalled that Katrina had mentioned the last dress she made for her was too tight but she hadn’t brought it to be altered yet.

Ag man, Katrina, you’re pregnant aren’t you? I warned you.” Hajji clicked her tongue. “It’s that Ginger, isn’t it? And where’s he now? You let a white man take advantage of you. I told you, they don’t marry you. The man can pull up his pants and walk away. And then you sit with the problem.”

“Hajji, please don’t be cross with me,” Katrina said sitting down on the edge of one of the beds. “I’m so scared my madam is going to send me away when she finds out that I’m pregnant. What am I going to do? I can’t go home. My Pa will beat me. What about my Ma? She’ll be so ashamed that her daughter is pregnant. What will the people say at church? In any case, what will we live on? There’s no job, not enough food. I think Pa was only too happy when I said I was coming to Cape Town. How can I go home with another mouth to feed?”

“I suppose Mrs. Laing hasn’t noticed what you are hiding behind that big overall and apron she makes you wear. Mind you, it won’t be too long before she does. What if she throws you out? Then what are you going to do? Ooh, Katrina, where are you going to find another good job like this one?”

Hajji had a soft spot for Katrina. Before Hajji and her husband had gone to Mecca the year before, Katrina had come to help with all the visitors even though it was her afternoon off. She’d set the table with plates of biscuits and tarts (all made by Hajji), bowls of dried fruit and nuts bought from Wellington Fruit Growers in Darling Street, and Hajji’s best tea set with the gold teaspoons. Katrina was honest and worked hard, she deserved a chance. She was just attracted to the wrong men, always thinking this would be the one to take her away from it all.

Hajji had known that this Ginger would be trouble. From what she heard from Amiena, whose husband had the corner café, he was charming but unreliable. He didn’t seem to have a fixed job but always had money. Katrina was flattered that he took an interest in her, loved the status of having a white boyfriend. The other girls looked up to her when they saw the two of them together at the bioscope on a Saturday afternoon. They thought she was one of the lucky ones, maybe she could even “pass”, or maybe she and Ginger could go to Botswana or Swaziland to get married.

“Katrina, look, I don’t mind,” Hajji said, “I can look after the baby for a bit, to help you out. But only for a little bit, ok? Maybe your madam needs time to get used to the idea and then she’ll let you keep the baby there. Your madam thinks we’re stupid but everybody knows her daughter’s baby came six months after the wedding. She must think we don’t know how long a baby takes. Premature, my foot.”

Hajji had been sewing for Mrs. Laing for years; that’s how she and Katrina had met. She’d made the wedding dress for Mrs. Laing’s daughter, Sarah, and had pleated the layers of chiffon to drape over the beginnings of a bump, although no one had said a word.

An extract from a story published in The New Contrast 178 Vol 45 Winter 2017

Remembering Slavery in South Africa

pexels-photo-147635.jpegThe history of slavery and colonisation in South Africa has largely been ignored (except in academic circles) in favour of the more dominant narrative of apartheid. However, given that the Cape was colonised two centuries before the rest of South Africa, the importance of this legacy and its impact on social and economic conditions is fundamental to the understanding of contemporary South Africa.

Slavery was a subject glossed over in the history classes we were taught in apartheid-era schools. Presented as a more benign version of slavery elsewhere, slave-owners in South Africa were portrayed as paternal figures caring for their child-like slaves while attempting to ‘civilise’ them. As a child I was vaguely aware that the Coon Carnival my parents took us to watch in District Six each New Year or the liederen sung at ‘Malay’ weddings had a connection to slavery. The absence of published slave narratives confirmed that slaves were nothing more than possessions, their histories undocumented apart from lists of slave-owners’ possessions, estate transfer documents and court cases. It is only in the last thirty years that studies on slavery at the Cape have presented a counter-narrative.

In 1652 the VOC established a refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope. Six years later the first slaves from the coast of Guinea and Angola arrived to meet the increased labour needs of the colony, but by 1700 about 50% of slaves came from the coast of India. By 1660 the Cape was a busy port where a multitude of languages were spoken and women from all backgrounds bolstered the population. The VOC turned a blind eye to the fact that the slave lodge served as a brothel for garrison soldiers and passing sailors, since it increased the slave population and within two decades liaisons between Europeans, slaves and the Khoisan had given rise to a population of mixed origin.

Slavery was a central element of the Dutch colonial conquest and part of the emergence of Afrikaner political and social ideas, although both the British and the Dutch occupied the Cape during this time and were responsible for the continuation of slavery until it was abolished in 1834. As happened elsewhere, discrimination arose against non-Europeans and people of half-European descent. Racial prejudice and ethnic division laid the foundation for apartheid in South Africa and a climate of violence and the devaluation of the labour of domestic workers and farm labourers.

Author and academic Gabeba Baderoon (2014) observes that “slavery generated foundational notions of race and sex in South Africa” that has largely been forgotten through the sustained system of propaganda that portrayed slavery as mild. However, the legacy of slavery is not only present in our ideas about race and sex, but in the high levels of violence that South Africa continues to experience today.

But to remember slavery is also to remember the spirit of resistance which brought into being a vibrant and diverse culture of music and dance, food, language, in spite of repression. When we commemorate the anniversary of the emancipation of slaves in South Africa, we should remember with pride the contributions to our society by the ordinary people who found ways to survive the harshness and cruelty while holding onto that which made them human.

This is an extract from my article REMEMBERING SLAVERY IN SOUTH AFRICA published in the African Independent magazine, Issue 1 Dec/Jan 2017/18.

Ms Markle, The Prince and the Question of Race

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So Ms Markle has found her prince and all of the modern world has seen photographs of the happy couple and the ring and shared her unconventional background on social media – she’s an American, an actress, a divorcee, older than the prince, her mother is a social worker and yoga teacher – all pretty quirky for the Royal family. But there’s more – her mother is ‘black’, descended from slaves and wears dreadlocks and a nose ring, and her father is ‘white’ of Dutch and Irish stock and works in the film industry.

Of course, the Mother Grundies have not missed the opportunity to pass judgement which is not only racist but also classist, so much so that the Prince had to step in to appeal to the media to refrain from abuse and harassment.

I love unconventional, I love quirky, I love things that don’t fit neatly into the box … but why, oh why, Ms Markle do you, and so many others, persist in “identifying as bi-racial” and “mixed-race”, as if your parents are from two different species and you are the creation of some intergalactic union? When are we going to stop referring to bio-geographical differences as races? There’s no note of Papa Markle being of mixed “race” even though his ancestry is a mixture of different cultures, languages, and backgrounds.

It’s almost 160 years since Charles Darwin arrived at the radical conclusion that we were all one species in his book, Origin of the Species (1859). Radical, that is, for his time (1809-1882) when the prevailing views were of the innate inferiority of the Negro, and people in the New World associated slavery with dark skin colour. Once black and slave became synonymous, anti-black racism increased in intensity and later became institutionalised in the American South as segregation and in South Africa as apartheid.

Historian, Niall Ferguson, says that Europe’s monarchies were prepared to cross oceans and conquer continents in pursuit of ‘God, Gold and Glory’, but without the African slaves who worked the land, Western Europe would have remained underdeveloped and dependent on the East for input regarding technology, culture and wealth. Both science and religion[1] were being used to justify the enslavement and exploitation of millions of Africans and Asians. A common belief was that black people were not far from apes in origin, so Darwin’s proposal that all people shared a common origin (monogenesis) was indeed a dangerous one.

Although the idea that God had created two men, one white and one black, went against the Christian teachings of the unity of mankind, it led to the anatomical and scientific examination of black bodies and skin, and the Royal Society went so far as to suppress research which found skin colour to be a superficial distinction among humans. The theory of polygenesis was used by British colonialists to justify the perpetual slavery of Africans as well as the subjugation of Native Americans.

Darwin was an abolitionist (both his grandfathers were active in the English anti-slavery movement) and he was reportedly deeply affected by his experiences of slavery during his voyage on the scientific research ship, the Beagle. However, while he believed in the monogenic origin of humanity, he still divided humans into different races based on superficial differences in skin, eyes and hair and believed that Europeans (or ‘whites’) were evolutionary more advanced than darker skinned people, according to Steven Rose, professor of biology and neurobiology at the Open University. Likewise, Darwin’s views concerning differences between males and females reflected the bias of his time, that males were biologically stronger.

When Nobel Prize winners, Watson and Crick, discovered the molecular structure of DNA in 1953, the idea that “the blood” (or the genes) is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities was disproved once and for all. All humans are 99% genetically identical; there is only one human race. To use terminology such as “bi-racial” or “mixed-race” is to imply that there is more than one human race and perpetuates the myth of racial superiority. Yes, different populations of people may display differences in biological make-up, but these are due to what Professor Rose calls bio-geographical ancestry. So people living in the northern or southern hemisphere, hot or cold climates or in isolated areas versus densely populated ones, may appear differently to others.

The reactions to Ms Markle’s rise from slavery to royalty, as it has been called by one publication, is evidence of the pervasive racism that infects our society and it is unfair to place the burden of these perceptions on one person’s shoulders and expect change. But, maybe, if all this issue does is raise awareness and gets people talking, it will be worth the media hype … but let’s get the terminology correct. Words are powerful.

[1] The so-called ‘Curse of Ham’ was the most important biblical justification for slavery; in the Book of Genesis, Noah curses Ham, the son of Canaan, to be the ‘servant of servants’.

This article was published in The Cape Times on 14 December 2017 under the heading: Why, Meghan, do you, persist in identifying as ‘bi-racial’ and ‘mixed-race’?