Using the ‘Seven Steps of District Six’ symbolically to explain the Seven tributaries to Cape Identity

To anyone who has had an association with old District Six, the very mention of the ‘Seven Steps’ immortalized in Taliep Petersen’s musical ‘District Six’, stirs up deep emotions. The Seven Steps of stone, worn by the thousands who used these over the years, to work, to home, to school, to play, to ‘bok’, to church, to mosque, to shop, to celebrate and to mourn, were part of the great big soul of the district. Today, so many years after its destruction, the Seven Steps stands out as the premier symbol of District Six. The District Six museum, for instance, has the ‘Seven Steps’ as an integral part of its brand and logo. And who can forget how the ‘Seven Steps’ feature in Taliep Petersen and David Kramer’s ‘District Six – The Musical’.



District Six became Cape Town’s own Harlem on the edge of the city and had its roots as one of the first settlements of freed urban slaves after emancipation. Further back, its community are the manifestation of the Camissa footprint – The Khoena Goringhaicona community who opened their arms to embrace the uprooted slaves when these fled their captors.

The seven stone steps standing in the heart of District Six became one of those enduring symbols of District Six that still lives in the hearts of all who lived, loved, played and worked in the ‘District’. The Seven Steps became a powerful representation of popular memory and the continuation of the Camissa footprint.

The physical District Six is lost somewhere on the patch of earth and grass that has remained like a gash on the body of our city. The District Six Museum is custodian of some of the old blocks of stone – the steps, and some of the pictures, paintings, street signs, writings and artefacts that exist, but the greatest legacy symbolised by the Seven Steps is etched in our hearts and is in fact part of who we are. The spirit and identity of District Six lives on in its people.

Those seven stone steps in the heart of old District Six holds a special meaning and it is a powerful symbol of the heritage of Cape Town. The Seven Steps speaks of the ‘Seven Roots that inform identity’ in the Cape.

Historical and DNA studies show that a fair number of people of the Cape from all population groups share two or three of seven tributaries to Cape identities, while most have four or more of these roots. Some may even have all of these roots. There is at least one of these roots in everyone in Cape Town and even the most recent to join us in this city and province has a place within the framework of the symbolic seven roots that draws on the imagery of the ’Seven Steps’ of stone.

Everyone had a place in old District Six and the Seven Steps stands out as a powerful symbol of diversity and inclusivity in the Cape. The Seven Steps symbolically illustrate the seven tributaries of our collective or community heritage. In applying the symbolism of the Seven Steps to our heritage, each STEP represents a root tributary to Cape identity as follows:

The first step represents the tributary of the INDIGENES. The people of the Cape have strong African roots. The San, Khoena and amaXhosa of the Cape and the baSotho and baTswana in western and northern reaches of the old demarcated Cape Colony are the first tributary of Cape identity.

The people of the Cape, including those labelled ‘Coloured’, who are sometimes referred to erroneously by some – as being non-African, have deep indigenous African roots with a number of traditional indigene African communities, sharing ancestors and many elements of cultural heritage. A very strong tributary in ‘Coloured’ ancestry are the Khoena and San who are the root peoples of Southern, South Western and Eastern Africa. Despite the devastating smallpox epidemics of the 1700s and the genocide massacres of San, both of which drastically reduced these populations, small communities remain to this day and are proud of their lineage. Like many in communities labelled ‘Coloured’, the baSotho, baTswana and amaZulu also share a part Khoena and San heritage, as do the amaXhosa. The Griqua, Nama, Korana, Cape Khoena and the San however represent the surviving direct indigene heritage.

History shows us that communities such as those referred to as amaXhosa today, share San, Khoena, Asian and even European ancestors with ‘Coloured’ communities. There is a strong cousin-connection across ethno-social boundaries in the Cape. The southern Xhosa groups are in fact mixed Khoena-Nguni people and even way up in the north of the Eastern Cape it is well proven that particularly in royal lineages of the amaXhosa groups, San, Khoena and amaXhosa intermarriage was common-place. A number of amaXhosa groups and clans also intermarried with castaway Europeans and Asians, shipwrecked from the early 1500s through to the early 1800s. Later during the time of Scots, German and English settlement in the Eastern Cape further intermarriages and relationships occurred too. In the 1700s and 1800s escaped slaves, non-conformist Boers and other whites took refuge amongst the Xhosa and assimilated into amaXhosa society. The most famous of these was the Boer Coenrad de Buys who had as his wife amongst his many others, Chief Gaika’s mother. One amaXhosa clan that emerged from a mid-1800s relationship between a Xhosa woman and Scotsman were the Skotjes. The abeLungu and amaMolo amongst other clans have similar roots involving European and Asian shipwreck survivours.

It is also important to note that the San were not simply a people associated with the Western Cape as is often erroneously projected. Evidence of San habitat shows that the San existed in communities all the way up to Tanzania, right through Zimbabwe and Zambia, and right through Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Lesotho and Swaziland. While just a few San communities exist under difficult conditions in some of these countries today, San ancestry exists also within many other population groups of all of these territories and this heritage ought to be celebrated.

Khoena history and heritage is fairly well-recorded, yet few South Africans are familiar with this history and its inspiring historical characters. In the Cape we are challenged to draw away the curtain that has been imposed on our Khoena heritage and embrace its richness. There are many descendants of the Khoena who today are locked into ‘Coloured’, ‘Black’ and ‘White’ race silos which do not celebrate this heritage.

However today there are also many people who are once more expressing their pride in their Khoena, San and other indigene African heritage. Our national coat of arms declares for the world to know, in old Khoena-San script that we pride ourselves in being united in our diversity.

The second step represents the tributary of the SLAVES. We are the descendants of Slaves from other parts of Africa and Madagascar, from India and from the Indonesian Islands, and China. Over the period 1653 – 1808, according to calculations done by Dr Shell, over 63 000 slaves were brought to the Cape from these areas and from 1808 – 1856 around another 12 000 African slaves arrived as Royal Navy ‘prize slaves’ also known as ‘Liberated Africans’..

Over most of the 1700s the slave population recorded in successive census in the colony showed that slaves and Free Blacks, imported and locally born, made up a majority in the Western Cape population. After the smallpox epidemics the Khoena population numbers in the Western Cape dropped drastically.

The breakdown of origins of slaves shows that over the entire slavery period, first generation slaves numbering plus-minus over 45 000 came from Africa, Madagascar, Zanzibar, Mauritius and the Mascarenes; then around 17 000 slaves came from India, and around 13 000 from the Indonesian islands and elsewhere. The locally born children and successive grandchildren of these slaves were all to lead lives of slavery until emancipation in 1834. (* Note that in this rough aggregation with the first numeric the prize captives brought in between 1808 – 1856 are added to the 1808 total of African, Malagasy and island slaves.)

Emancipation announced in 1834 practically took place only in 1838 as a result of a compulsory apprenticeship imposed on slaves for four years. But for many ‘Prize Slaves’ emancipation only came in dribs and drabs right through to 1870 as a result of a compulsory 14 year indentureship that had to be completed before full freedom was attained. The very last slaves, the Oromo from Abysinnia, arrived in the Cape via Yemen, as late as 1890. They were settled at Lovedale mission as they were mainly children. On graduating most of the survivors integrated amongst amaXhosa and Coloured communities while some took advantage of offers to be repatriated to their homeland. These facts should cause people to think carefully before labelling others as ‘Makwerekwere’ as it is highly likely that the people who think they are a ‘pure’ local creation may be of migrant roots themselves.

Slavery accounts for a very large part of Cape ancestral roots. It is primarily a major part of the heritage of those who were labelled ‘Coloured’, but slavery also is a significant part of the family heritage of indigene Africans, Indian South Africans and even of some of European descent.. The historical experience of slavery and struggles within this arena is a major part of what defines the heritage of people who were labelled ‘Coloured’. The historical experience is also a feature of many others. There are many ties that bind us as South Africans within the parameters of this approach to our heritage.

It should be noted that many San children captured after the genocide raids by Cape settler and Khoena commandos were also made de facto slaves on farms. After Adam Tas and Henning Huising’s infamous petition for segregation and control measures to be imposed on the Khoena, thousands of Khoena were forced into becoming apprentices on farms and led lives not too different from that of slaves. As early as 1708, pass laws were introduced to control the freedom of movement of slaves and Khoena and these were tightened up in 1753. The Khoena also integrated into relationships with slaves of which new generations of children with dual roots were born. Evidence also exists of other indigene South African groups, including the amaZulu, being enslaved and brought to the Cape. Our discourse on slavery in the Cape and in South Africa in general has to some extent been straight-jacketed by academic protocols that were deeply influenced by the colonial narrative and are yet to be shaken off. Frontier slavery is generally still disaggregated from the slavery narrative in South Africa. The numbers of slaves that we used in discourse is highly influenced by this disaggregation. Slavery narratives also tend to suggest that slavery was simply a Western Cape practice which is also not true. Slavery existed in the Eastern and Northern Cape and also outside of the Cape Colony in the emerging Boer states. South Africans also, although in modest numbers, ended up as slaves and banished individuals abroad.

The heritage of the slave era is not just that of enslavement, but that of the many cultural tributaries that entered the Cape through slavery. It is also about resistance by slaves to slavery and about the emergence of Creole communities and what I call the Camissa footprint that occurred at the Cape. It is in the words of author, Alan Mountain – An ‘Unsung Heritage’. I would say that it is also often a misunderstood heritage amongst the people of the Cape. It is often a heritage distorted by colonial romanticism and the constructed identity of ‘Malayisation’ to reflect only one small part of the cultural roots of slaves.

Step three represents the tributary of the FREE BLACKS. We are descendants of the Free Blacks of the Cape – a category of people that once were poised to be a socio-economic group to be reckoned with in early Cape development, but later for a number of reasons became powerless. Early Mardijker soldiers from Ambonya in the employ of the VOC, Free Black travellers, soldiers and sailors, the manumitted slaves, and freed black convicts all became part of those referred to as Free Blacks.

Many Khoena people outside of the apprentice system, and particularly those born of relationships with slaves and Europeans were also seen as Free Blacks. The terms ‘Free Black’, ‘Afrikaners’, ‘Hotnot Afrikaners’ and ‘Orlams Afrikaners’ were the first terms used as labels or self-labels for people who the British later labelled as ‘Coloured’. The term ‘Afrikaner’ only much later was adopted by the Dutch Boers when they constructed a coherent social and political identity. Today words like ‘Afrikaner’ and ‘Black’ have a totally different application.

Free Blacks were an important part of the story of the first establishment of the VOC station at the Cape. The van Riebeeck story over time had its own distortions, particularly that of not mentioning the black component of his first settler group. The regiment of soldiers that backed Jan van Riebeeck’s settlement were largely from the island of Ambonya or Ambon in the Indonesian archipelago. Ambonya was an important colonial station in the East Indies and had been first conquered and Catholicised by the Portuguese. Then when the Dutch overthrew the Portuguese, Catholic influence was dissuaded and the Dutch Reformed Church became the church of conversion. Small elements of Islam and larger elements of Shamanism also existed alongside Christian influences. Eastern Shamanism – that of Dukun (later referred to as Doekum) includes elements of Hinduism and of Animism. It was here amongst the Mardijkers that Jan van Riebeeck recruited his trained soldiers loyal to the VOC. A number of Mardijkers were even sent to the Netherlands for education, particularly in Protestant theology.

The Free Black or Vrye Zwarte population in the Cape grew as other free people of colour arrived on ships, including company employees, and banished convicts who were later freed, and economic migrants particularly ‘Passenger Indians’ from the Indian sub-continent. As the practice of manumission of slaves grew, particularly for Christianised slaves, many Free Blacks became pioneering burghers who established some of the famous farms that still exist today. Many intermarried with European settlers. Before the great smallpox epidemic of 1713 some of the wealthiest people at the Cape were Free Blacks. Zwarte Maria Evert, the daughter of two West African slaves was the first title deed owner of land in CampsBay and died a very wealthy woman in that fateful year.

This still poorly studied tributary of our Cape ancestral heritage, which crosses all present day ethnic boundaries, is an important part of the ties that bind us as South Africans. The story of the Free Blacks also paints a very different picture of the first fifty years of the Cape Colony which was a highly integrated society where colour and notions of race played an insignificant role. A strong mixed society characterised the first settlement. It begs the question – what occurred to change this?

Step four represents the tributary of the EUROPEANS. We are descendants of a range of Europeans. These European settlers in the early years of settlement often formally intermarried with, or had children with Indigenes, Slaves and Free Blacks. Many owed no strong allegiance to the VOC nor their countries of origin, nor the Church and were rebels and non-conformists.

The first European settlement did not occur in 1652 as is popularly portrayed, but occurred in 1614 when the British landed a group of Newgate convicts at the Cape and left them to set up a settlement. It was short-lived, but significantly there were no women in Captain Crosse’s group. This settler group soon came into conflict with the Khoena. In fact there was over 180 years of European interaction with the Khoena before the 1652 settlement of the Dutch. These interactions cannot be discounted in evaluating our roots as children would have been born through the interactions particularly during the early 1600s when the maroon Khoena group, the Goringhaicona established the foundations of a trading station at Camissa. This was the true foundation period of the City of Cape Town.

In the early founding years of the CapeSettlement, the mainly German, Dutch, Swiss, Portuguese, French and Scandinavian travelers and settlers were largely male and took partners from amongst people of colour. The early VOC ‘Dutch’ settlement was much less Dutch than what popular historical narratives portray. The VOC was the first multi-national capitalist company in both its make-up and its reach. The Germans stand out from the other Europeans as those who most often intermarried with slaves and indigenes. Many Europeans were also transient and never settled in the colony but left children behind. The earliest European settlers, unlike the stories often projected, were not refined religious gentry but rather were a coarse mercenary rag-tag bunch of people. The strong feature of formal marriages across colour lines in the official records shows that ‘rape and abuse’ of indigenes and slaves cannot be the only yardstick used in evaluating early human relations in the colony. Though van Riebeeck is recorded for a while as promoting an unofficial policy of ‘fructification’ of slaves, according to historian Upham Mansell.

There were always non-conformist Europeans in the colony, across the centuries that had children with black partners and this carried on when the English, Irish, Scots and new generations of Germans arrived in large numbers in the Eastern Cape of South Africa in the 1800s. Missionaries in particular were noted for intermarriages with freed slaves and Khoena. Intermarriages and relationships are often reduced to have occurred only between Khoena indigenes, slaves and Europeans as a result of denialism of Nguni-Sotho roots amongst people categorised as ‘Coloured’. But many children were also born of Europeans and those referred to as ‘Bantu’ peoples.

The Europeans settled and made their homes in Africa as a distinct settler community, but their bloodlines can also be found amongst indigene groups and ‘Coloured’ or communities, as much as indigene and ‘Coloured’ bloodlines can be found in the descendent European communities. This factor has not always been celebrated and was in fact suppressed as something shameful under Apartheid. But with the advent of the new democratic South Africa, post-Apartheid, many who previously denied this heritage are rejecting the race-based paradigm of the crude ‘white’ identity definition and are exploring these other roots. These people find the label ‘White’ to be objectionable as they embrace their African identity with pride. Many are now exploring the history of non-conformist Euro-Africans as their own heritage reference point.

The colonial history script and narrative is a dominating one. But even in the history and heritage of European settlers there is an alternative story of non-conformists. These stories have always had to play second fiddle to that of the dominant classes. European involvement in our history and heritage precedes the settlement of Jan van Riebeeck by 180 years, yet the 1652 date continuously screams out at us. Generations of youth never hear about the settlers who defied the successive colonial administrations and lived their whole lives in indigene controlled areas, intermarried and had children. There are many amazing stories in this muted narrative that are waiting to be brought out into mainstream discourse.

There are also later migrations of Portuguese, Madeirans, Eastern European Jews, and seamen from a host of countries who migrated to the Cape or jumped ship. Many of these were non-conformists who integrated across the colour lines. A number of the so-called ‘Dutch’ from Batavia (Jakarta) were also the product of mixed relationships in that highly integrated society too.

Step five represents the tributary of the MAROONS or DROSTERS. We are descendants of runaway slaves, Free Black rebels, so-called ‘Baster’ descendants of relationships between indigenes and slaves, non-conformist Europeans, escaped convicts, and eccentric missionaries. The local name for Maroons was Drosters, meaning drifters or runaways.

This array of people became the first freedom-trekkers who moved as far away as possible from the reaches of the colonial government, long before the Boer Great Trek. They moved to the long wild territory along the Gariep River in the north-west, and stretching to the lands of the amaXhosa in the east.

Here in South Africa’s ‘Wild West’ these Drosters or Maroons mixed with Khoena, San, Nama, Xhosa and other indigenes and formed new proto national groups such as the Korana, Orlams Afrikaners, the Witboois, the Bergenaar Basters, the Springboks, and the Griquas of the Kok dynasty, Barends dynasty and that of the Waterboer family. Others joined the amaXhosa armies and joined the resistance toward both the Boers and later the British. One Droster, the Boer, Coenrad de Buys, took wives from almost every community from the Cape to the northern reaches of South Africa and built a huge diverse African clan. His grandchildren numbered in the thousands.

Maroon communities were the first forerunner roots of the modern South African nation formation that took place, making up the ‘Unity in Diversity’ theme. The South African history that we learnt at school is preoccupied with the South and East while ignoring the Wild West which has a fascinating history of peoples creating new proto-national groups.

Within this heritage framework the Griquas, Koranas and the Witbooi Namas have fascinating histories which continued up to current times. The Orlams Afrikaners over 150 years also have an amazing history that had impacts in South Africa and Namibia. These heritages simply got dumped under the umbrella label of ‘Coloured’ under Apartheid.

Step six represents the tributary of the EXILES & REFUGEES. We are the descendants of outspoken rebel fighters and political leaders who challenged the Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish in various territories in Indonesia and Polynesia.

Indonesian Muslim resistance leaders were tried and banished into exile at the Cape; Peranakan Chinese, the Creole Chinese of Batavia were banished to the Cape after the Chinese resistance followed the massacres of 5000 Chinese by the Dutch in Batavia; and Philippine refugees from the Philippine Revolution – locally known as the Manillas, landed up at different times in the Cape and integrated into what was later labelled the ‘Coloured’ population. In later years, to this day, new exile and refugee groups would continue to trickle into the Cape, make this place their home and integrate with other communities.

Exiles and refugees made a huge impact on our society as they often were an intelligentsia class of people embracing the cutting-edge ideas of their time.

Those exiles of the Muslim resistance in Indonesia, through their missionary work amongst slaves in the Cape, were the fathers of the Islamic faith which thrives in South Africa today. Most slaves were originally not Muslim and embraced a range of belief systems including Animism, Shamanist Dukun, Hinduism, Bhuddism, Catholicism and syncretic belief systems combining these. The latter is generally known as Vodoun or Santeria in the Caribbean and is found in all slave societies around the world. The Christianising of slaves was unpopular amongst slave owners as it meant that slaves had a right to be free after 20 years, and thus until the advent of emancipation, Christian missionary work amongst slaves was largely dormant. Around 1825 a sudden rush to Christianise slaves occurred and in 1834 there was a mad rush of missionary activity resulting in many mass baptism ceremonies. Although Islam was formally suppressed until 1804, the clandestine missionary work amongst slaves, first initiated by the exiles, bore much fruit, as it offered slaves a sense of identity, dignity and cohesion. Dukun shamanism continued as a subculture and remained small and largely underground hidden amongst Muslims and Christians.

The Chinese presence in the Cape goes way back to the 1600s. The large Creole Chinese population in Batavia resulted in Chinese Free Blacks, Batavia convicts and Chinese slaves trickling into the Cape. In the mid-1700s after the massacre of Peranakan Chinese in Batavia some of these were exiled to the Cape where they left us a record of their lives. The history of Chinese South Africans is often overlooked and Chinese South Africans are presented as aliens – yet are no more alien than others. Much of these early Chinese migrants integrated into the population labelled as ‘Coloured’. There are at least a dozen old Chinese names which were transformed to Dutch or Anglicized versions over time.

Many families can trace back to refugee groups like the Manillas yet this heritage has been erased from our local history. Largely as a result of the string of mini revolts against the Spanish in the Philippines ultimately leading to a full blown revolution, a migration of Filipinos arrived in the Cape from the Filipino refugee diaspora and settled in KalkBay. A man by the name of Felix Florez was the leader of this community who arrived in 1863. Other names some of which exist to this day include Torrez, de Marcio, de la Varcia, de la Cruz, Hermeningildo, Gella, Citto, Granz, Manuel, Santiago, Fernandez, Eripe, Menor, Quimpo, Padua, Croza, Teyarda, Almano, Pasqual, Franco and Almote. Some of these names became Anglicized and Hollandized over time.

Unfortunately anything that was not European just was not allowed to feature in public memory as anything of significance. Thus many rich features of our diverse heritage were blotted out.

Step seven represents the tributary of the INDENTURES & MIGRANTS. We are descendants of a range of people who were brought to the Cape as indentured labourers or who were economic migrants. After slavery was formally ended at the Cape, there was a crisis in the economy and new sources of cheap labour had to be found quickly.

As a stop-gap measure, slaves captured off slaver ships as bounty became the first solution to the labour problem. These first ‘Prize Boys’ and ‘Prize Girls’ or ‘Liberated Africans’ were forced to accept indentureship as labourers for up to 14 years before they would actually have their freedom. For them emancipation and ‘1 December’ had little meaning. Many were just children. White farmers would continue to call them ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ way into their adulthood for the rest of their lives.

Farmers followed up by importing indentured labour from the Congo, Malawi, Botswana and Mozambique. Most of these ‘Indentures’ were settled in the Drakenstein and integrated with both the ‘Coloured’ communities and the amaXhosa who were working in the district since the early 1700s. The Indentures together with the African slaves, account for the high sub-Sahara African or Bantu DNA amongst ‘Coloured’ people today. Many of these migrants were in fact trafficked people who served out there lives as exploited labour to replace formal slavery. This kind of trafficking continues to this day and labour brokers replace slave traders. Amongst this category are women trafficked into sex-slavery.

Already many of the freed slaves in the Drakenstein were those from Southern East Africa known locally as the Mazbiekers. The Mazbieker pool grew as indentureship of further labour imported from Mozambique was continually extended over the 19th century. Slaves of Zambian, Congo, Malawian, Zimbabwean, Tanzanian and Mozambique origin were all part of those labelled Mazbiekers. These nationalities are a major part of ‘Coloured’ and ‘amaXhosa’ family trees today.

From the 1840s and increasing in the 1870s right through to 1910 and beyond, large groups of people were brought in as indentured servants from St Helena. The ‘Saints’ as they were known were also descendants of slaves, Chinese and British settlers on the island of St Helena which had previously been uninhabited. The Cape and Natal became an attractive new home when the St Helena economy was under strain. Some of the ‘Saints’ integrated into ‘white’ society, but most merged into the population labelled as ‘Coloured’, and were so classified under Apartheid. Immigrant Saints numbered between 8 000 to 10 000 over a long period.

While distorted South African history tends to project that the first Indians to arrive were the indentured labourers and passenger Indians of Natal in the 1860s, these were the 4th and 5th waves of Indian immigrants. The first Indians were those brought to the Cape as slaves from the 17th century. This was followed by the 18th century Free Black Indians who came to the Cape of their own accord, and then followed by the early 19th century Passenger Indians who came to the Cape as economic migrants before the Natal Colony was even formed. Indian Lascars were also shipwrecked on the Eastern Cape Coast and integrated into the amaXhosa.

In 1890 the Oromo North African slaves (Abyssinia)) seized from a slaver ship were taken to the Royal Navy depot at Yemen and then brought to the Cape. These were 64 children who also integrated into ‘Coloured’ and amaXhosa communities when they graduated from Lovedale mission.

Also amongst the migrants were West Africans of the Kru tribe who had been employed by the Royal Navy in Simonstown for almost a century (1830 – 1930). These Kroomen as they were locally known also integrated into the Coloured community. Their grave markers can still be seen in Simonstown today. In the late 1800s the Royal Navy began recruiting Zanzibari Siddis and other Siddis from displaced African communities scattered along the African and Indian coasts. The Siddis like the Kru also integrated into Cape society. Some settled in District Six after they arrived to supplement the labour crisis of 1884 and were housed in the municipal stables.

Jewish economic migrants and refugees from the East European pogroms also came to Cape Town in large numbers and many settled in and around District Six, making a huge impact. Some intermarried with local ‘Coloured’ partners – a fact suppressed in today’s Jewish Community and also unacknowledged in ‘Coloured’ communities.

Migrants and other infusions into the Cape society carry on to this day. Through our sea ports, relationships between South African women with first Japanese and then Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian and other seaman of many nations have produced children who are part of our population. Economic migrants and refugees from other African countries still arrive daily and take their place among us as they always have. Migrants arrive continuously from China, Thailand, Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere to this day. Each of these groups have a story to tell that one day a South African child will want to know when exploring their roots. (I am presently compiling the story of the Thai infusion for future generations). Today the world is divided into sending and receiving countries in terms of migration. Sending countries receive remittances from their nationals abroad and whole countries are often sustained from these remittances. Their nationals are often temporary sojourners in receiving countries such as ours – but most often relationships develop and children are born. It’s natural that this happens and in this manner our genetic enrichment continues.

District Six was a key centre that became a microcosm manifestation of the coming together of all of these tributaries and the creolisation of cultures that gave us the rich and diverse locally born Cape African Creole heritage – the Camissa footprint crudely labelled ‘Coloured’ – that we celebrate today. The Seven Steps is thus a most appropriate symbol for explaining our Cape heritage as it captures symbolically these seven broad tributaries. It is a great pity that many people labelled as ‘Coloured’ are ashamed and in denial about their diverse roots. People are also particularly in denial of their indigenous African root culture – that of the Khoena and the San who were inclusive and embracing as a people (even although it was largely their vulnerability which was exploited).

The Cape Flats and other areas continue to offer a home for new arrivals in our society. This openness is an integral part of our Cape Camissa tradition. Other South Africans from across the length and breadth of the country have also migrated to make their homes in the Western and other areas of the Cape, even as people from the Western Cape have travelled all over South Africa to make their homes elsewhere. Furthermore the people of the Cape have travelled and settled in Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Tanzania, Ghana and further afield – taking the Camissa footprint with them. This diaspora is the nature of modern life which was dramatically kick-started by the slave trade.

The Seven Steps explained here celebrates the ‘ties that bind us’ as South Africans and it highlights the complex Creolisation that took place at the Cape to produce a community identity rooted in the indigenous Khoena and the slaves – uprooted from their original homes – that the Khoena took to their bosoms. Instead of us perpetuating the race terminology of ‘Coloured’ we are offered through an understanding of these different threads that make up our collective heritage, a different way of seeing ourselves, no matter which sub-community you affiliate with today. For those labelled ‘Coloured’ we do not have to perpetuate this race term as our identity. We are a locally born African people – a local creation born of the wonderful Camissa footprint in history.

We should be proudly the Camissa. A celebration of this collective heritage goes way beyond understanding the roots of people labelled ‘Coloured’. It shows us how linked we are as South Africans across so-called race and ethnic boundaries. I have used the ‘Seven Steps’ tool successfully in many workshops with young people in Cape Town to promote an understanding of our diversity and the ties that bind us as South Africans. The symbolism of the Seven Steps of District six offers future generations a clear reference point for explaining our community roots.

“En wie is djulle?” “Os is die mense vannie trappe. Os is die Camissa mense.”

3 thoughts on “Using the ‘Seven Steps of District Six’ symbolically to explain the Seven tributaries to Cape Identity

  1. Hi Patric, you write with such clarity and expertise and deep research. Such an education to read this, so valuable. and this made me remember my mum’s stories about her mum, my Bobba whose parents fled the pogroms in russia and came to south africa on the ‘poor ships’, they settled in district six and my Bobba (granny) was known as “Annie penny drink”, so it was interesting to read about that in your description of the seventh step.

    • I owe much of my own education to such figures as Jack Simons, Ray Alexander, Wolfie Kodesh and Mannie Brown (I served with MB in the same party cell) who all invested in teaching me at a time when I was just a young man with very little formal education. They believed in my ability and this inspired me to finally get a formal education and my MSc when I was in my mid 40s…having only previously had a standard 8 certificate from a trades school and forced to go out to work aged 15. These magnificent jewish figures associated with District Six loomed large in my life as did Adv Snitcher and old Mrs Margolis who use to come and rest her weary legs in the laundry shop where my mum worked after Mrs M had walked all of the way up Hanover Street. There were still Jewish people in the district when I was little and most of these who I encountered were of socialist persuasion and had no time for Zionism and the ilk attached to the SAJBDs. There are many Coloured people with names such as Liknaitsky, Levy, Ludski, etc who have little knowledge of the waves of poor jewish immigrants who sttled in District Six. O was very disappointed in the recent exhibition in CT on the Jews of District Six because it steered clear of the subject of intermarriage and other personal inter-relationships between many jewish immigrants and persons of colour. It was otherwise a really great exhibition but clearly treated cross relationships as taboo. One of the most famous of these relationships in latter times(although there was no offspring) was that of Cissie Gool and Sam Kahn.

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