Slave Routes, Slave Roots

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.

As we commemorate Emancipation Day this weekend, consider visiting the Iziko Slave Lodge to explore the history of slavery through its many exhibitions. Entry is free on 1 December – Emancipation Day and World Aids Day.  Or join the annual Emancipation Day “Walk in the Night” organised by the District Six Museum.

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*From a panel in the Iziko Slave Lodge

**Featured image shows slave routes to the Cape – from an installation at the Iziko Slave Lodge

An Evening in District Six

koeksisters_Cape_Malay_Cooking_with_Fatima_Sydo.original

This area, on the outskirts of what was once District Six, is familiar to me. The Sacks Futeran building next door which now houses the Fugard Theatre and the District Six Homecoming Centre, used to be a general wholesaler where seamstresses and tailors could buy textiles, and we rode the ancient lift to buy clothing, crockery and cutlery. I remember trips to the Grand Parade on a Saturday morning, clutching my grandmother’s hand as she went from stall to stall. And, of course, across the road, is the Caledon Police Station where I, along with many others, experienced the hospitality of the apartheid state in the 1980s.

One hundred years ago there was a vibrant community here of Indians, ‘coloureds’, Portuguese, Greeks and Jews. Freed slaves, merchants, immigrants, artisans and labourers all worked and lived peacefully side by side. They were an eclectic mix of cultures, religions and ethnicities in a melting pot typical of a port city like Cape Town … apparently a threat to the apartheid government which declared it a “whites only” area in 1966. It would take about 15 years to move the 60 000 people out, to the Cape Flats, to areas like Manenberg, Hanover Park and Mitchell’s Plain.

District Six is now unrecognisable from what it was before its destruction but I have fond memories of the area where my grandparents lived and my father was born. Hanover Street was the main artery which ran all the way up from the city centre, into Walmer Estate where I grew up. My life revolved around Hanover Street though: my uncle’s tailor shop, was a hive of activity; the doctor who delivered me in my grandparents’ home, had his surgery there, and Majiet’s barbershop was filled with people not necessarily having their hair cut, but playing dominoes and catching up on the news. A trip into town would inevitably involve a stop for roti and curry from the Crescent Café. My father says that you could buy anything in Hanover Street except petrol.

Tied up with my memories is the music which was played in the streets by minstrels, Malay choirs and Christmas bands. Some of this has been captured by Taliep Petersen and David Kramer in their musicals, District Six and Kat and the Kings. And then there was food with names like bredie, bobotie, denningvleis, frikkadels and oumens onder die kombers. One dish that, for me, represents the Cape with Malay, Dutch and Christian influences blended together with fragrant spices, was pickled fish. I remember my maternal grandmother making it in the last week of Lent, to eat on Good Friday. She would make it well in advance to give the spices a chance to penetrate the fish, and also to free up her Friday when she would spend many hours in church. The fish would have been bought either from the fish market on the corner of Hanover and Clifton Streets, opposite the Star bioscope, or from the fish cart which did the rounds in the neighbourhood. The hawker would sound his horn to alert housewives that he had arrived with the catch of the day and they would come out to the street to haggle.

Weddings and funerals were community affairs. When I was about six or seven I was a flower girl twice in the same year, once for my aunt, a Christian wedding and then for a Muslim neighbour, a dressmaker who sewed all the dresses for the wedding herself. The whole street turned out to see the bride when the wedding cars hooted to announce her arrival, and the neighbours followed behind to the reception in the Princess Street Hall. Funerals were another occasion when everyone would just turn up to pay their respects and support the family in any way they could. Christian men would borrow fezzes and take turns to carry the bier of their Muslim neighbour.

As the bulldozers moved in and the walls came tumbling around her, my paternal grandmother was banished to Mitchells Plain, far from the city centre where she had lived her whole life. She had been a fiercely independent woman, who had to earn a living after her husband died and left her to raise four children on her own. She made koeksisters and konfyt to sell door-to-door on Sunday mornings in District Six, and sewed and crocheted. She used public transport or walked wherever she had to go.  What I remember most was her loss of independence. Suddenly she found herself in a foreign place without any infrastructure and no public transport to fetch her pension from the General Post Office in Cape Town. For the first time she had to ask for help.

Central to my motivation for going back to university, was to equip myself with skills to tell the stories of growing up, not only my stories but the stories of those who cannot tell their own. We’re a deeply divided society, still trying to recover from a brutal past. We cannot sweep it under the carpet, sooner or later the bump will trip us up.

I urge you to visit the District Six Museum. However painful the memories of apartheid may be, the exhibition there humanises the experiences while celebrating the rich diversity of people who once lived here. For me, it’s like settling into an old armchair and turning the pages of a well-worn family photo album. When I see the barber’s corner, the display case with the games we once played in the road, the photographs of the Peninsula Maternity Home where my sister was born or the wall-hanging with the name of the rugby club my father played for, I feel that our lives mattered. And when I walk up the stairs to the wall that bears the names of families who lived here, and I scroll down to find mine, I feel that our experiences have been validated and dignified.

This is an extract from a talk I gave prior to a performance of the musical, Orpheus in Africa, as part of an educational programme.

PICTURE: Cape Malay Cooking with Fatima Sydow