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.

The Making of Martha

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Katrina was on her knees scrubbing the kitchen floor when she felt the faintest kick, almost like a flutter in her belly. She sat back on her heels and cupped her wet hands over the spot. There it was again, like butterflies in her stomach…like the butterflies in Namaqualand…in spring…when the flowers were out. That’s the one time of the year a person could say the place was beautiful. After the rains they’d be rewarded with carpets of yellow or purple, for all the months of emptiness. A person could almost ignore the holes gouged out of the earth by men digging for diamonds or copper, as the broken landscape burst into life. She smiled at the memory of running barefoot through fields of flowers, making a daisy chain to crown her baby sister and holding her breath as a butterfly balanced on her shoulder.

Ag, there she went again, wasting time on daydreams, her madam would say. She shook her head as if to get rid of the images and sighed as she picked up the scrubbing brush again. She’d left the vygies and daisies, the aloes and the orchids, behind a long time ago. She couldn’t remember when last she’d spoken to her brothers and sisters. If it wasn’t for the black and white photograph stuck into the mirror in her room, she wondered if she would even remember what they looked like. Bitterfontein. The name said it all, she thought to herself as she got up with another sigh. The bitterness had even seeped into the water. At least here she had a job; there was one less mouth for her father to feed. It didn’t help to worry about things a person could do nothing about.

“Katrina, I’m leaving now,” Mrs Laing shouted down the passage. “Don’t forget to bring in the washing before you go off. It looks like rain. And make sure the gate is locked properly this time.”

“Yes, Madam,” Katrina replied, poking her head round the kitchen door. “See you tomorrow, Madam.”

Katrina had been working for Mrs. Laing, a white lady, in Roeland Street for a year now. Her madam worked her hard but she was grateful to have a job where she could live in. It also paid better than her previous job and she was off on Saturday afternoons. “But no men and no drink allowed,” Mrs. Laing had warned when she started.

Katrina finished up, washed and changed into a pink floral dress, gathered under the bodice with a generous skirt which skimmed over her hips and stomach. She wanted to go see Hajji quickly this afternoon and maybe there would still be time to watch the new James Dean film playing at the Gem. She walked down Drury Lane towards District Six, to Combrinck Street where the dressmaker lived. The rows of semi-detached houses looked a little shabby but most people had made an effort with their front stoeps – they were painted red or green and polished every week, there was a potted delicious monster plant or two, and perhaps a bench to sit on in the evenings when the day’s work was done and a person had a chance to catch up with a neighbour.

Katrina went around the back of the house through the open kitchen door. There was no one there, but smells of onions braising with cardamom and cloves greeted her. She noticed the chopped cabbage, potatoes and mutton knuckles waiting to be added to the pot. Hajji must be making a bredie. She could hear the sound of the sewing machine coming from the back and called out, “It’s me, Katrina,” as she went in. Hajji was sitting behind the Singer which stood in the corner of her sons’ bedroom. Her head, covered with a scarf, was bowed in concentration as she guided the fabric through the threader and pumped the pedal of the black enamel machine. Four identical dresses in powder-blue satin hung on the front of the wardrobe. As a dressmaker Hajji’s beadwork was very popular with Malay and Christian brides, even the Jewish people came to her. The small room did double duty as her workroom by day. Her sons often complained that they had to watch out for pins in the bedspread or that they stepped onto beads on the floor with their bare feet. Hajji, practical as always, had told them to put on shoes and given them a magnet to pick up the pins.

Hajji had four children, and one from her husband’s first marriage, who was working at a butcher in Salt River. All three boys would soon leave school, one by one, to learn a trade. Hajji’s daughter, Fatima, was already apprenticed to a dressmaker in Walmer Estate.

“Salaam Hajji,” Katrina greeted, respectful of Hajji’s religion, even though she herself was Christian. “I see supper is cooking already. Hajji must be going out this evening.”

“Alaykum Salaam, Katrina,” said Hajji, taking the pins out of her mouth. “Yes, I’m very busy. I have to finish this dress tonight. That Van der Ross girl is getting married tomorrow. She lost weight again. I have to take the dress in. Poor child is already so thin.”

Hajji always did the final fitting the day before the wedding. She said it was bad luck to finish the dress too long before the time. So she made sure to put in the last stitches late at night, her fingers flying over the silk and satin. She delivered the beaded creation herself on the morning of the wedding. Hajji also dressed the bride in petticoats, underskirts of stiff netting, and finally the gown. She was skilled at shaping the gilded medora into a headdress. Sometimes she would be asked to prepare the bruidskamer for the Muslim brides as well, making drapes, cushions and quilted bedspreads with satin and lace.

When Hajji wasn’t busy with a wedding she made outfits for Eid or other special occasions and simple frocks with fabric she bought on the Grand Parade. Katrina and her friends bought these dresses on lay-bye, paying off a small amount every month. Hajji recognized the dress Katrina was wearing today as one she’d made last year.

“Can I make Hajji some tea?”

Ag, Katrina, I don’t have time for tea now. Is there something you wanted?”

Ja, Hajji, I have to talk to you about a problem. Hajji can mos see what’s going on with me.”

Katrina turned to the side in front of the mirror, and, placing one hand under her breasts, she smoothed the dress over her stomach with the other. There was no mistaking the curve of her belly when you looked at her profile. Her breasts were also fuller and Hajji realized she was glowing. She recalled that Katrina had mentioned the last dress she made for her was too tight but she hadn’t brought it to be altered yet.

Ag man, Katrina, you’re pregnant aren’t you? I warned you.” Hajji clicked her tongue. “It’s that Ginger, isn’t it? And where’s he now? You let a white man take advantage of you. I told you, they don’t marry you. The man can pull up his pants and walk away. And then you sit with the problem.”

“Hajji, please don’t be cross with me,” Katrina said sitting down on the edge of one of the beds. “I’m so scared my madam is going to send me away when she finds out that I’m pregnant. What am I going to do? I can’t go home. My Pa will beat me. What about my Ma? She’ll be so ashamed that her daughter is pregnant. What will the people say at church? In any case, what will we live on? There’s no job, not enough food. I think Pa was only too happy when I said I was coming to Cape Town. How can I go home with another mouth to feed?”

“I suppose Mrs. Laing hasn’t noticed what you are hiding behind that big overall and apron she makes you wear. Mind you, it won’t be too long before she does. What if she throws you out? Then what are you going to do? Ooh, Katrina, where are you going to find another good job like this one?”

Hajji had a soft spot for Katrina. Before Hajji and her husband had gone to Mecca the year before, Katrina had come to help with all the visitors even though it was her afternoon off. She’d set the table with plates of biscuits and tarts (all made by Hajji), bowls of dried fruit and nuts bought from Wellington Fruit Growers in Darling Street, and Hajji’s best tea set with the gold teaspoons. Katrina was honest and worked hard, she deserved a chance. She was just attracted to the wrong men, always thinking this would be the one to take her away from it all.

Hajji had known that this Ginger would be trouble. From what she heard from Amiena, whose husband had the corner café, he was charming but unreliable. He didn’t seem to have a fixed job but always had money. Katrina was flattered that he took an interest in her, loved the status of having a white boyfriend. The other girls looked up to her when they saw the two of them together at the bioscope on a Saturday afternoon. They thought she was one of the lucky ones, maybe she could even “pass”, or maybe she and Ginger could go to Botswana or Swaziland to get married.

“Katrina, look, I don’t mind,” Hajji said, “I can look after the baby for a bit, to help you out. But only for a little bit, ok? Maybe your madam needs time to get used to the idea and then she’ll let you keep the baby there. Your madam thinks we’re stupid but everybody knows her daughter’s baby came six months after the wedding. She must think we don’t know how long a baby takes. Premature, my foot.”

Hajji had been sewing for Mrs. Laing for years; that’s how she and Katrina had met. She’d made the wedding dress for Mrs. Laing’s daughter, Sarah, and had pleated the layers of chiffon to drape over the beginnings of a bump, although no one had said a word.

An extract from a story published in The New Contrast 178 Vol 45 Winter 2017

An Evening in District Six

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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