Seeing the Other as Human

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.

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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.

This piece prefaces the virtual exhibition, KWAAI Vol. 3 by Cape Town gallery, eclectica contemporary. 

Read a review of the exhibition here

An Archive of Food

 

A few weeks ago I was meant to be on a road trip, doing research with colleagues from the University of Pretoria, and the USA and Denmark, around the theme of Food as Heritage & Archive. Due to COVID-19 our trip has been postponed indefinitely.

Preparations for the trip stirred up many memories, though, since food is so intimately wrapped up in my sense of community – memories of celebrations and funerals where everyone would rally together in support of their neighbour, bringing a plate of something or offering to cook a pot of food. After the gathering everyone would leave with a barakat, or blessing, in the form of a plate of leftovers. Traditions such as these hark back to a time when the enslaved would come together, bringing what little they had to share with one another. Later, during apartheid, celebrations with laden tables were also a way of demonstrating respectability in a society where people had little control over anything outside the domestic sphere.

One of our aims with this project is to look at the food practices that transcend lines of language, religion and economic status. This immediately got me thinking about a dish that seems to embody the history and heritage of the Cape – a uniquely South African dish – the pickled fish, or ingelegde vis, that my grandmothers, one Muslim and the other Christian, would make every Easter. Explanations for the origin of the dish abound, but it seems to have originated in the Cape during colonial times.

Pickling as a way of preserving the fish, possibly came from the Dutch tradition of pickling herring, and would have been enhanced by liberal additions of spices by the enslaved cooks at the Cape. My grandmothers would start the process the week before Good Friday. There would be no fishing boats going out over the Easter weekend so the fish would have had to be bought in advance, either directly off the boats in Kalk Bay harbour or from the fish market on the corner of Hanover and Clifton Street. I remember the merchant, with horse and cart, who hawked his wares through the neighbourhood, blowing his horn to alert our mothers and grandmothers.

The best fish to use was geelbek, kabeljou or yellow tail. Making the dish in advance meant that the fish was able to absorb the turmeric, cloves, chilli and all spice. Enough fish was pickled to last all weekend. This freed up time for my maternal grandmother to spend three hours in church on Good Friday, since she didn’t have to cook. Muslim families would take advantage of the time off to go on picnics, to visit kramats, with an ample supply of padkos (road food) since there would be nowhere to stop and eat along the way since restaurants would have been limited to those catering for “whites only”.

The rituals around food preparation and the coming together to share it, are examples of the everyday practices of what it means to be human, in spite of living through oppression. In the absence of recorded history, they offer alternative ways of remembering how people survived, in the same way that photographs, storytelling and music does.

This year, Easter falls at the beginning of the third week of a national lock down in South Africa, but I do know that mom (whose pickled fish is the featured image) and my friend, Jen (who sent me the three photographs above) have both been making pickled fish, using the recipes that their mothers and grandmothers handed down. I’m sure many others across the country have managed to do the same and, while I might be missing out on actually eating it, I feel part of the virtual community who is sharing in the tradition.

PHOTOGRAPHS: Reza Kamies and Jennifer Hardisty

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.

Read more in this blog

*From a panel in the Iziko Slave Lodge

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

A Heritage of Common Humanity

Poet, book illustrator and artist, Peter Clarke, described his work as a reflection on humanity, on a commonality that surpasses all boundaries. Clarke, who died in 2014, was a former resident of Simon’s Town. His family was forcibly removed to the ‘coloured’ township of Ocean View due to the passing of the Group Areas Act, which assigned people to different residential areas based on their ‘race’.

Having spent some time looking at museums and working on proposals and exhibitions over the last year and a half, perhaps my expectations have dropped. Many of the little dorpies I have visited, have inadequate records of the history and events that affected the majority of their residents and little acknowledgement of the catastrophic apartheid-era events that forever changed the social  and cultural landscape of their communities. Thus, I was gratified to see the efforts of the local historical/heritage society and the residents of Simon’s Town on a recent visit.

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Apart from the “Wall of Memory”, a display project begun in 2014 by residents past and present, and organisations, there are markers that acknowledge various places of historical interest, such as Hospital Lane (that ran along the Royal Naval Hospital built in 1813) and Drostdy Steps (where the mayor (or landdrost), Christian Michiel Lind, lived in 1828).

Elsewhere, plaques record the place where a stream ran, from which the crewmen of ships filled their freshwater casks, and a building erected in 1772 by the Dutch East India Company for the governor’s visits to Simon’s Town. But the most poignant marker, for me, is the one dedicated

To the memory of generations of our fellow citizens

who dwelt here in peace and harmony

until removed by edict of 1967.

Erected by their fellow citizens

In the many conversations and interviews I have had over the last few years while doing my doctorate, I have been struck by two responses. Firstly, the lack of bitterness or need for revenge – yes, sometimes anger and often heartache, and secondly, a deep appreciation of the opportunity to be heard, to be given the platform to recount their experience and of having their suffering acknowledged. Often, people were disparaging about the value of their stories, almost brushing aside their experience with the observations that their suffering was not as bad as that of others. But always, there was a pride that their story mattered enough for me to write it down, that it could be included in my thesis, or in the exhibition at the museum.

The success of colonial expansion, slavery and later apartheid, lay in the ability of the oppressors to objectify those they wished to subjugate, to portray them as less than human. Clarke’s efforts to reflect the daily lives of people, their emotions and activities, speaks to a resistance of this objectification. He reflects their humanity.  In the same way, the markers in the streets of Simon’s Town and exhibitions in its museum give a human face to the people who suffered under apartheid.

Ironically, under apartheid, the arts – music, dance, painting, story-telling and so on – the very practices of what makes us human, flourished. Many artists were forced to give up on their dreams or forced into exile in order to pursue them. Many ordinary people who may have gone on to greater achievements if not for the colour of their skin, the texture of their hair or the shapes of their noses… Former Simon’s Town residents like:

Dr Peter Clarke (2 June 1929 – 13 April 2014): Poet, book illustrator and visual artist whose work was showcased at exhibitions in England, Germany and the USA in the 1960s and who was invited to study printmaking in Holland and then etching in Norway.

Vincent Hantam: ballet dancer and teacher was principal dancer with the Scottish Ballet from 1975-1991. In September 2012, he became the first Artist-in-Residence at the University of Edinburgh.

Christoper Kindo (12 September 1955 – April 2015): ballet dancer, teacher and choreographer who studied at UCT Ballet School and was the only ‘coloured’ person in his class; in spite of being awarded best dancer in his class he was not hired by CAPAB after completing his training. He started Jazzart when he returned from a stint with the Boston Ballet company in the 1980s, before he became the first ‘coloured’ person to be principal dancer with CAPAB and ended his career at Dance for All.

Gladys Thomas (1944 -): poet, short-story writer, playwright and author of several children’s stories. Her debut anthology, Cry Rage, co-authored with another anti-apartheid South African poet, James Matthews, was published in 1971. This publication holds the distinction of being the first book of poetry to be banned in South Africa.

Our lives have meaning when we have been seen, listened to and acknowledged as human beings. I am reminded of the traditional Indian greeting, Namasté, a salutation of respect, acknowledging our essence of oneness. We are more the same than we are different. Namasté.

Footnote: On 22 September 2016 the Frank Joubert Art Centre where Clarke served as Artist-in-Residence, was renamed the Peter Clarke Art Centre. The following quote is from their website:

“My art is about people and the presence of people. The humanistic image is what interests me. I enjoy reflecting on people and their activities, their emotions, what could be events in their daily lives. But beyond that I speak via my symbols of activities on a larger, wider scale that transcends all boundaries…. I speak about a heritage of a common humanity.” – Peter Clarke, 1983

In the featured picture, two elderly men walk along the Wall of Memory in Main Road, Simon’s Town.

My Grandmother’s Dream Catchers II

About a year ago, my daughter treated me to a mother-daughter clay workshop that has since become a regular feature in my calendar. Working with clay has been the perfect antidote to being immersed in writing up my thesis. A serendipitous connection between the two, though, has been my “doilie collection”. This is a series of projects that I have been working on to imprint my grandmother’s designs into clay. I have felt a deep connection to the creative heritage that she initiated with her “poor man’s lace”, the craft work that she used to supplement the family income, while creating my own interpretation of her work.

I have been surrounded by memories of her while I kneaded and shaped, respectfully joining her work and mine, layering it with oxides and glazes, patiently waiting for them to be fired in the kiln between the different processes. I have created something new by building on the past, but this heritage has flowed like a river finding its away around stones, as I was pleased to discover when I found the certificate that my father had earned for his artwork in 1954. He had won third prize for a print he had made of one of my grandmother’s designs. The certificate is the link between her work and mine, and those crocheted threads now span three generations.

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These simple objects build on the archive of the ordinary that tells the stories of where we come from, what Anthony Bogues describes as the ordinary practices of every day freedoms that the oppressed engaged in to hold on to their humanity. They disrupt the dominant narratives of apartheid that would see us as less than, as a people without history.

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.

In my genes

My two grandmothers

A while back I met an Englishman who lives in South Africa and, detecting a trace of another accent, I asked him where he was originally from. He said that he liked to think of himself as a fine European blend of British, French and Italian roots. I wondered about that – what made him different to someone who might be a “fine blend” of African, Dutch, British and Indonesian roots? Why should the former be claimed with pride and the latter spoken about in whispers, viewed as sinful and criminal?

Of course, it all comes down to politics – the politics of slavery, colonialism and apartheid – and the pursuit of gold, god and glory, which I won’t go into now. In spite of scientific evidence that proves that all humans are 99% identical, the myths of polygenesis and racial superiority persist and everyday people use terms such as “mixed race” and “bi-racial”, or talk about different “races”. Issues of race and prejudice continue to shape our relations with each other and leave indelible scars on our psyche.

Yesterday I attended a talk by journalist, Sara-Jayne King, whose memoir, Killing Karoline, explores her life as the result of an affair between a ‘white’ British woman and her ‘black’ South African colleague. Born in the 1980s, at the height of apartheid, she is taken out of the country and put up for adoption in Britain, her mother returning to SA with the news that her baby had died (hence the title). In her book, King plots her path of self-destruction through addiction and eating disorders, and explores the feelings of insecurity and poor self-worth related to her identity.  Adoption on its own must come with attendant issues of rejection and belonging, but in King’s case it is underscored with the apartheid crime and sin of immorality. I believe that her attempts to destroy herself were in part a sub-conscious drive to punish herself for an inherent sense of shame related to not belonging. It’s this feeling of having done something wrong that is part and parcel of the legacy of slavery, colonialism and apartheid. Confronting it  needs to start with rejecting the concept of race which is based on the superficial distinction of skin colour,  hair, bone and facial features, in order to perpetuate power and control by one group over another. 

A few months ago, while on a visit to the USA, I did what I have been wanting to do for ages – ordered a DNA testing kit.  My friend, Mary, and I bonded over collecting samples of sputum and posted them off. I was not sure what to expect since my ancestors have variously been classified as ‘coloured’, ‘white’ or Cape Malay. In the context of South Africa this takes on layers of meaning and is imbued with a gamut of emotions, many of which are negative, like shame and worthlessness. Since I was immersed in my doctoral thesis about representation and identity related to growing up in South Africa during apartheid, I thought that knowing more about my ancestral make up might add some value to my research.

Consistent with what I know of my grandparents, my DNA results confirmed that I was a fine blend of South East Asian and European populations with a liberal sprinkling of sub-Saharan African. I found it quite affirming to have a written record – scientific proof – of a history that the apartheidists sought to erase in their attempts to subjugate and dehumanise us through fixing cosmetic differences and forcing us into prescribed boxes. The time for transcending race and regarding each other as human is long overdue.

King, S. 2018. Killing Karoline: A Memoir. Published by MF Books Joburg.

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. 

A People with History

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Years ago I attended a women’s workshop and, as an icebreaker, we were asked to say out loud the names of the chain of strong women in our genealogies. I remember an American woman in the group who could trace her maternal line back to someone who had crossed on the Mayflower, the ship which had transported the Pilgrims from England to the New World in 1620. That was more than 300 years of history right there. It was with a vague sense of shame that I could only name my mother and her mother. I seemed lightweight, of little consequence, without any history.

I pressed my mother for more details afterwards, unable to comprehend that she hadn’t done the same to her mother. There were things you didn’t talk about, she replied to me, whispers of mixtures that were either shameful or illegal. Her mother had arrived in Cape Town, from Malmesbury, aged 14 with three younger siblings in tow, after their parents had died. They were sent to family who lived in District Six. Soon after, my grandmother went out to work at the Cavalla Cork cigarette factory to contribute to their upkeep. She hardly ever spoke about her parents, and my mother cannot recall her ever going back to Malmesbury.

As I have delved deeper into my history and that of South Africa, I have been taken on a journey that goes back hundreds of years, through apartheid, and all the way back to slavery and colonialism. Each step of the way has been a revelation, since I knew little more of our history beyond the strictly-controlled narrative presented in our apartheid-era schools. Slavery had been a subject glossed over, presented as a more benign version of slavery elsewhere, it had receded far behind the more dominant narrative of apartheid. And yet, 200 years of slavery has fundamentally shaped who we are as people and as a country.

There have been moments of depression while exploring physical, mental and psychological trauma inflicted on our people and despair over how we will ever heal and move forward as a country with such a brutal and dehumanising history. But I have also been buoyed by the spirit of resistance which brought into being a vibrant and diverse culture of music and dance, food, and language, in spite of repression.

Along the way there have been many signposts, guiding and encouraging me – Jacob Lawrence’s exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, documenting the migration of six million black southerners in the early 20th century; Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns, dealing with the same subject matter; the opportunity to present at a conference on Racism and Social Justice in Charleston, South Carolina, the entry point of the majority of the 12 million slaves from Africa to America, and the keynote address by Dr Lonny Bunch, the director of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History in the Mother Emmanuel Church on the second anniversary of a racially-motivated shooting.

Another one of those moments occurred about a month ago when I visited the South African Sendinggestig Museum, also known as the Slave Church, in Long Street, Cape Town. It is the oldest existing mission building in South Africa and the third oldest church in the country. It’s a handsome building, with Burmese teak doors, American pine ceiling and stone from quarries on Signal Hill and Robben Island, and oak pews on which the first slaves to be baptised had sat. This led me to the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK), or Dutch Reformed Church, archives in Stellenbosch, which in turn led to an interview with Reverend David Botha, the 93 year old former curator of the Slave Church Museum. The role of the church is as fundamental to our history as slavery. A few days ago I followed that path to Genadendal, the oldest mission station in South Africa, but that’s a story for another time.

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What does this have to do with my grandmother and the women’s workshop? On a wildly optimistic whim I asked Karen Minnaar, the archivist at the NGK archives, if there might be any information on my grandmother who my mother believed had belonged to the NGK in Malmesbury, before coming to Cape Town. My grandmother had switched to the Anglican Church when she married my grandfather and became a staunch supporter of the church and its women’s fellowship. I wondered if my mother was correct about the NGK. Besides, my grandmother’s surname was Adams and I had very little hope of any success with such a common surname. Hopefully, I emailed Karen her name and date of birth (the day turned out to be incorrect). Later that day, Karen emailed photographs of the baptism entry with the names of her parents and those of her godparents, along with an official document on the NGK letterhead.

I am Nadia,

daughter of Hope Lorraine,

daughter of Ethel Jeanet Silvia,

daughter of Annie.

I somehow feel validated, more solid. And proud. So was my mother when I showed her the proof of her mother’s baptism and the names of her grandparents. That’s what having a history gives you. I feel vindicated on this journey to tell our stories.

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Images of my grandmother with me and my mother with me.

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