Featured Illustration: Brian Stauffer Within a few days of Nelson Mandela’s birthday this year (18 July), Andrew Mlangeni, the last surviving member of the Rivonia trial (the trial that led to the imprisonment of Mandela and his eight co-accused in 1963-64), died here in South Africa (21 July). 758 more words
Featured Artwork: Feroze Alam In the same week that George Floyd was so callously killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, I attended a webinar celebrating Africa Month and what it meant to be African. 635 more words
When I turned 50, I decided that it was time to equip myself with the tools necessary to write the stories of where we come from. I was convinced that providing a platform to share and acknowledge our painful past was fundamental to reconciliation in our country. Certainly, after 25 years of democracy we seemed to be no nearer to recognising each other as simply human. Being the mother of two young adults bestowed on me a sense of urgency. However, gaining a Masters in Creative Writing (from the same university that in the 1980s required me to apply for a government permit to attend because of the colour of my skin), opened up the path to a deeply personal journey, one that would lead to a PhD in History and Heritage Studies.
Early on in this journey it became clear that I needed to retrace our history way back to the arrival of the Dutch at the Cape, an event that occurred within the global context of slavery and colonialism in which they were major players. The impact of slavery and colonisation on South African society has receded far behind the more dominant history of apartheid and yet, the racial hierarchy that accompanied it not only laid the foundation for apartheid, but shaped attitudes to race and sex that continue to inform the present.
The benign version of slavery presented to us at school was reinforced by charming paintings of colonial Cape Town, the colourful houses of the Bo-Kaap and images of benevolent masters who wanted only to ‘civilise’ and take care of the black bodies under their care. This narrative concealed the brutality and dehumanisation of the people who were brought here as a source of labour, a commodity, to be sold and traded. After emancipation, other ways to maintain control over workers were introduced, such as the notorious dop system that has left its legacy of foetal alcohol syndrome and high infant mortality rates in the Western Cape.
Racial slavery was about the degradation of the human being and simply being emancipated was not enough to know what it meant to be free, how to recreate ourselves and become independent. Apartheid tried to force us into being the same – we lived in the same areas, went to the same schools, married the same people. We carried our sameness around like a security blanket and retreated within it, afraid of the other; we developed our own stereotypes based on our ignorance of what was beyond those walls. More than simply the dismantling of apartheid legislation needs to be done in order that we may construct ways of life in which we acknowledge our human-ness rather than other-ness.
But, to remember slavery is also to remember the vibrant and diverse cultures, new language, food, music and beliefs that arose, and to honour the spirit of survival and resistance that was engendered. Somehow people managed to find ways to survive and hold onto that which made them human. These practices of freedom – music, art and storytelling – defy and resist the memories of slavery and apartheid and attest to a will to survive. Even the humble family photograph, in spite of it often showing little skill, and found stuffed into boxes or envelopes, has the power to destabilise the dominant narrative that would have us believe that we were less-than. They speak to the resistance of the human to being objectified and it is at this ordinary archive that we need to look if we want to understand what it means to be human.
By connecting the lines between all of our stories, whether they are auditory, visual or written, we may recognise our common humanity; we break down the walls that were constructed around us, to separate us from the other. When we reach out to each other we move beyond the process of othering, and towards freedom and equality so that we may think about how we may live. Only then may we learn how to be human.
Images from my family album.
Read a review of the exhibition here.
I hear the key in the door first, then the jangle of coins in his pocket. I race down the passage, trying to get there before my two brothers so that I can lay claim to one of his feet. We scramble to hop on, wrapping our arms around his trunk-like legs. Slowly he hobbles into the house weighed down by two children, with the unlucky third dancing around in front of him.
Ma yells at us, “Stop bothering your grandfather! He is tired!” We know that he leaves home in the dark to deliver bread for the bakery. By the time his shift ends we are back from school. We jump off his giant feet and allow him to enter his bedroom but follow closely on his heels, eager for the treat that he usually has in one of his pockets.
He sits down on the bed and then he opens his dark cupboard door, releasing smells of another era. Carefully pressed suits thick with the scent of mothballs hang, ready for service, alongside stiffly starched white shirts. Two pairs of shoes, one black, one brown, gleaming with polish, sit side by side at the bottom of the cupboard. Underwear and handkerchiefs are stacked in piles on the shelves. Black and white pictures which recall happier days are tucked into the mirror at angles.
In the second drawer from the top is a yellow money box. “UBS” it says in blue letters. From the pockets of his khaki coat he takes out the coins which announced his arrival earlier. He allows me to put them into the money box. “For your education,” he reminds me.
In the photograph of me in my paternal grandfather’s arms in the mid-1960s, I imagine that he is envisioning the different life that I would have because of the education he was determined to provide for me. As far back as I can remember, my grandfather had been telling me that my brothers would be able to take care of themselves but that I would have to study further so that I could be independent. In retrospect this was quite revolutionary on his part, considering not only that no one in the family had completed matric or attended university, but also that I was a girl. He had passed standard six (grade 8) and worked as a driver of a delivery van for Duens Bakery, leaving for work while we were still asleep and coming home soon after we returned from school in the afternoon. From the pockets of the khaki coat he wore, he would take out any loose change and hand them to me to deposit into the yellow money box which said “UBS”(United Building Society) in blue letters that he kept in his cupboard. Every deposit was accompanied by the reminder that this was for my education. By the time I had finished school he had saved enough to pay for my first year of university.
My pride at being the first person in my family to complete matric and make it to university was tempered by the humiliation of having to apply to the Department of Coloured Affairs for permission to attend the University of Cape Town which was for ‘whites-only’. I was granted permission on the basis that the ‘coloured’ University of the Western Cape did not offer the Occupational Therapy degree I wished to pursue.
Entering university was such a cultural onslaught that I might as well have gone to study in a different country. There were social, academic and financial challenges. My grandfather had managed to save enough to cover the fees for the first year and I had to find a bursary or take out a bank loan if I was to continue. As ‘black’ students we were constantly reminded of our inferior status on campus. In our anatomy practical sessions, even the cadavers we worked on had to be ‘black’. During clinical practice in our third and fourth years of study, we were not allowed to treat ‘white’ patients, which limited the placements and experience we could be exposed to. Restricting access to education was one of the ways in which those in power could control the lives of ‘black’ people. By placing limitations on the kind of education and the level of education ‘blacks’ could attain, the government ensured that they would remain less educated than ‘whites’, therefore less qualified and unable to rise above the station in life which the government deemed fit.
My grandfather died of cancer soon after I completed my first year of study and so was not alive to see me graduate, but the learning path he set me on changed the course of my life.