Categories
History and Heritage

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.

Categories
SLAVERY, RACISM & APARTHEID

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