I was recently the guest author at the Woman Zone Book Club and I am enjoying the conversations that Off-Centre and Out of Focus is generating around identity, race and belonging. Most of all, I am simply enjoying the conversation!
The seemingly small hurts and humiliations that many of us suffered every day during apartheid, have not been spoken about. We are urged to get over apartheid and embrace the “rainbow nation”. Ignoring our experiences minimises the trauma that we lived through. Until we examine the past and make peace with it, we cannot move forward and learn to live together in a post-apartheid society as simply human. And we cannot afford to forgo the opportunity to do so while those who lived through that period are still alive to share their memories and experiences with us.
The words of American writer, musician and academic, Julius Lester (1939-2018), express so profoundly the importance of acknowledging the lived experiences of growing up in a marginalised and oppressed community. He says,
History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make another’s pain in the heart our own.
My book was always intended to be about starting conversations, about saying, “this is how it was for me, how was it for you?”
When we engage with each other in a sincere attempt to understand the other, it is possible that it will lead to a place beyond the stories of different cultures, beyond stereotypes and prejudices, to acknowledge and embrace our multiple stories. By connecting the lines between all of our stories, we may recognise our common humanity, we may break down the walls that were constructed around us to keep us separate. Perhaps it will lead to a fusion of ideas that may result in a new way of expression, a new story, and the acceptance of diverse points of view. Only then may we learn to be free. Off-Centre and Out of Focus.
Off-Centre and Out of Focus: Growing up ‘coloured’ in South Africa was launched with friends and family at the District Six Homecoming Centre on 13 May. It was wonderful to be able to celebrate with people who have been on the journey with me and who contributed to this book in some way – sharing their stories with me, cheering me on, and offering advice.
I was particularly pleased about being able to celebrate the birth of my book in the District Six Homecoming Centre in what used to be the Sacks Futeran building. For generations the Futeran family traded in clothing and textiles here, and the store was frequented by generations of seamstresses and tailors from District Six. I remember being dwarfed by bolts of fabric and riding the rickety lift with my parents to the second floor to buy anything from crockery to clothing. My father’s memories of District Six are at the heart of this book. Sadly, he died of COVID in 2020, but I know that he would have appreciated the choice of venue.
Dr Bonita Bennett, who was the director of the District Six Museum for more than ten years, gracefully facilitated a discussion around ‘colouredness’, the fluidity of race and belonging, issues of respectability, and the archiving of ordinary objects. This book has always been about starting a conversation about the complexities of growing up labelled ‘coloured’ in South Africa, before, during and post- apartheid. I wanted the knowledge that I gained during my PhD to be more widely accessible rather than being confined to the university library shelf.
The family photographs that gave rise to my thesis and now this book, represent the hopes and aspirations of our parents and grandparents. They generate stories of a way of being and living that challenge the dominant narratives of inferiority and shame that were assigned to a group of people designated neither-white-nor-black. They quietly disrupt the apartheid archive that sought to fix difference in terms of race, gender and culture. I hope that this will open up discussion around the pain and trauma that we lived through so that we may look forward to a future where we may see each other as simply human.
The American writer and activist, Audre Lorde, speaks about the importance of oppressed people being able to speak out of their own experience and to see it as valid, to deal with our definition of self. She cautions that if we don’t identify ourselves, someone else will, and probably to our detriment. Through sharing my experience, I sincerely hope that more people will be motivated to share theirs, and I look forward to more conversations and sharing.
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.
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.
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.
In the later 1800s the demand for cheap labour by the mining industry entrenched segregation and promoted a low wage economy which greatly benefitted ‘white’ South Africans.*
On 1 December 1834, slavery was abolished in the Cape Colony, a year after the Slavery Abolition Bill had been passed in Great Britain. The slaves at the Cape, however, were to spend a further four years as “apprentices”, ostensibly so that they could learn skills to become independent, but it was in effect a way of ensuring a further period of unpaid labour to the slave-owners. When the slaves were eventually freed, it was largely without any means to support themselves, with few possessions or a place to live. This dependency served to tie many of them to their masters and to the refuge offered by the mission stations.
In the rural areas of the Western Cape dominated by wine and wheat farms, families continued to live in slave-like conditions, on the farms for generations, controlled through low wages, tied housing, corporal punishment and the dop system (whereby workers were part-paid with cheap alcohol). There was neither incentive nor opportunity to break the cycle of dependency that workers were caught up in.
Slavery was fundamental to the establishment of the colony at the Cape and laid the ground for later segregation and apartheid. It has shaped our society socially and economically, while influencing attitudes to race and sex that continue into the present. Regulations to control slaves such as restricting their movement with the carrying of passes and the limitation on the size of their gathering, later resurfaced as apartheid laws. It was ‘black’ bodies that were to provide the labour in the mining and agricultural industries, as well as domestic labour, and continues to shape the position of ‘black’ people in South Africa, post-liberation.
Ordinary South Africans are largely ignorant of the history of slavery in our country. The disconnect between this history and the apartheid era makes it “easy” for the lasting impact of apartheid to be minimised, as in the often-heard refrain – “apartheid is over, move on”. While it may be possible to move on from a generation of apartheid, the move from the global legacy of colonialism and slavery and the racism and segregation that resulted, is going to take a little longer. And do the work, we must.
My recent trip to the South of the USA allowed me to reflect on this legacy. I was moved to tears on more than one occasion, as we visited slave plantations, museums and memorials and bore witness to the pain and cruelty inflicted by humans against their fellow-beings. The exhibition, From Slavery to Mass Incarceration, at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, charts the progression from slavery, through lynching, to mass incarceration. The nearby National Memorial for Peace and Justice commemorates the 4 400 African Americans lynched by white mobs between 1880 and 1950 and was a sobering place of reflection after witnessing some of the atrocities committed on black bodies. Its a legacy that continues to dog present-day USA because it has not been properly acknowledged and accounted for.
“Two months ago I had a nice apartment in Chicago. I had a son. When something happened to Negroes in the South, I said, “that’s their business not mine”. Now I know how wrong I was. The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all.” Mamie Till
It was Saturday mid-morning in Sumner, Tallahatchie County Mississippi when we pulled up in front of the courthouse. For a moment I wondered whether we had driven onto a Hollywood movie set. Not a soul was in the street. I half-expected tumbleweed to blow down the street. It was unnerving. On one side of the courthouse a sign informed us that we were at the place where, in a five-day murder trial held in the courthouse in 1955, two white men were acquitted of the murder of 14-year old Emmett Till. Incongruously, on the opposite side of the courthouse, stands a statue erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy* to honour their heroes.
As we waited for our guide we wandered around the street, peeking through the windows of closed shops, wondering why no one was out shopping, banking, doing Saturday morning kind of things. That eerie feeling followed me into the courthouse as we took our seats, the majority of our group on the left of the courtroom where the all-white, all-male jury would have sat, to listen to our guide, Ben Saulsberry.
Till was a fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago who, in the summer of 1955, begged his mother to allow him to travel with his cousin to visit relatives in Mississippi. Mamie Till let her son go with misgivings, worried that he wouldn’t know the ways of the South (i.e. how a black person should behave). She didn’t know that the next time she saw him it would be as a barely recognisable corpse in a wooden box. He had been abducted, beaten, shot in the head, tied with barbed wire to a large metal fan and his body dumped in the Tallahatchie River. His crime – whistling at a young white woman.
In spite of overwhelming evidence, and positive identification by Till’s uncle, the jury acquitted Till’s killers, Bryant and Milam. A few months later they would sell their story to a magazine, confessing to the crime, knowing that they could not be retried for a crime they had already been acquitted of.
What ultimately took Emmett’s life was racism, Saulsberry told us. His message was one of hope, saying that the pain needed to be processed through telling the truth to enable us to move forward. In 2007 the courthouse was restored and is now preserved as a memorial, a community centre and a space to share Till’s story as a way of working towards “racial reconciliation”. Progress is slow but Saulsberry optimistically points out that 20 years ago there was no conversation at all. However, he cautioned that we are not off the hook for doing the work to create a new narrative.
In a powerful exercise, Saulsberry invited us to read a resolution that had been presented to Till’s family in 2007, outside the courthouse. The resolution starts,
We the citizens of Tallahatchie County believe that racial reconciliation begins with telling the truth. We call on the state of Mississippi, all of its citizens in every county, to begin an honest investigation into our history.
Each one of us read a sentence in turn, going around the room until we had come to the last sentence, which we read as a group,
Working together we have the power now to fulfil the promise of “liberty and justice for all”
Striking a chord deep inside me were my two sentences,
While it will be painful, it is necessary to nurture reconciliation and to ensure justice for all.
We need to understand the system that encouraged these events and others like them to occur so that we can ensure that it never happens again.
Later in the trip, I would see photographs of the funeral, a mother bent over double with grief at the graveside of her only child. Her pain from losing her son so violently, is palpable. I wondered if she had blamed herself for not being firmer about preventing him from going South, to a place she knew was not like Chicago. Till’s mother bravely insisted that her son not only be buried in Chicago but that the casket should be open so that “the world could see what had been done to her baby”. Tens of thousands of people viewed his badly beaten body at the funeral, photographs were taken and published in the media … creating awareness and perhaps, ensuring that her son’s death was not in vain, his funeral a protest demonstration of its own.
His murder and the ensuing trial would lead to civil rights activist, Rosa Parks, refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus. I thought about Emmett Till and I could not go to the back, she said. Ultimately it would set in motion the Montgomery bus boycotts, laying the foundation of the civil rights movement of the 60s. It was during the Montgomery boycott that a young Martin Luther King Jnr would emerge as a leader.
Many times on our “freedom riders” trip I was confronted by this story, at museums in Jackson, Montgomery and Washington DC (where his casket is on display), and I wanted to believe so fervently that his death and the deaths and suffering of many others, in his country and mine, were not in vain. Many times I wept as I witnessed the cruelty and hatred borne out of racism and traced the path of a past that won’t go away. Many times I wondered how we are meant to move forward to reconciliation when we don’t learn from the past. Perhaps this bearing witness, confronting our history and talking about the pain, is a way that I can contribute.
“This is precisely when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language that. That is how civilisations heal.” Toni Morrison
“In every human breast,God has implanted a principle, which we call Love of Freedom;
It is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance.”
Thus, wrote Phillis Wheatley, a slave and the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry (1773). Her words could as easily have been referencing the American Revolution as it did slavery.
History is literally embedded in the streets of Boston … a red brick line runs down the centre of the pavements, through the Common and across the roads providing the guide to the Freedom Trail – revolution and resistance in every brick. The trail includes the Old South Meeting House (OSMH), a place where the Puritan congregation gathered for both secular and religious reasons, from the 17th century onward. Boston was founded in 1630 by English Puritans who fled religious persecution and the new settlement was named after the place in England from where many of them had come. The immigrants were led by John Winthrop and their goal was to build a purely Puritan society (sadly, this meant an intolerance of other religions and when the Quakers arrived in Massachusetts, they were persecuted and several were executed in the 1650s-1660s by the same Puritans).
The simple red-bricked façade of the meeting house belies the fact that one of the gatherings held here on 16 December 1773 to protest a tax, was to start a revolution. The meeting of 5 000 angry colonists resulted in what has become known as The Boston Tea Party, a protest against not only the tax on tea, but the perceived monopoly of the British East India Company. The British Parliament retaliated with a series of punitive laws, especially against the state of Massachusetts, which served only to unite the colonies and hasten the war.
Phillis Wheatley worshipped at OSMH, she was baptised there and became a full member in 1771, aged about 17. Old South’s congregation included slave-owners and slaves until 1781 when slavery was outlawed in Massachusetts. Also, in the congregation were descendants of the first Puritans, some of the town’s wealthiest families who worshiped in rented pews on the main floor and first gallery, while apprentices, slaves and servants sat on free benches in the top gallery.
Born in Gambia, West Africa, Wheatley was sold into slavery at the age of 7 or 8 and transported to North America where she was sold to the family, who gave her her last name. Her first name was derived from the name of the ship that brought her to America. In one of her poems she ponders plaintively,
… what pangs excruciating must molest; what sorrows labour in my parents’ breast!
Those few words capturing the pain and hurt inflicted by slavery, not only on the enslaved but on the family they left behind. Wheatley’s book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was signed by John Hancock and other Boston notables – 17 men asserted that she had indeed written it. She was emancipated shortly afterwards.
In about a week, I embark on a tour of the South with four graduate students from the University of Pretoria. Our journey, which we have dubbed UP Freedom Riders’ Trip, will start in New Orleans and then we meet up with a contingent from Indiana University. The following week is hectic – Memphis, Jackson, Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham and Atlanta, ending in Washington, DC from where the students will fly back home.
My few days in Boston are personal and not officially part of this trip but the experience has made me consider how waves of immigrants have come to America, often forced by circumstances beyond their control and how they have been persecuted by those who preceded them, often in much worse scenarios.
In 1829, another Bostonian, African American writer and abolitionist, David Walker, published a pamphlet entitled Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America. In it, Walker argued for the immediate abolition of slavery rather than the gradual phasing out of the institution and also for the right of every African American to become a full and equal citizen of the United States, rather than the return of freed slaves to America. His ideas would influence the abolition movement long after his death a year later. But it is his poignant question which continues to echo in my head.
Was your suffering under Great Britain one hundredth part as cruel and tyrannical as you have rendered ours under you?
*The Golden Rule – the principle of treating others as you would like to be treated; it is common to many religions and cultures.
Photograph of Wheatley etching taken at the exhibition at the Old South Meeting House in Boston
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
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
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.