Paper presented to the 28th Annual Conference of the South African Sociological Association 1 – 4 July held at the University of the Western Cape on the theme Navigating Uncertainty – Patric Tariq Mellet – 4 July 2018
Metaphorically we talk about being between a rock and a hard place. And this is kind of where we are at, in South Africa, at this point in time where socially, politically and economically all the roads have led to a very hard place and when you are at the bottom of the woodpile its extremely tough. We are challenged to dare to hope under these circumstances. Hope is at rock bottom level for most, particularly the MANY on the underside of life, while the FEW continue on the vulgar path of self-indulgence; and where the Political Estate is seen to have betrayed the trust of the poor. The question is begged – Is there sweet honey in the rock? (to use an old biblical phrase)
In these times, the question of identity and ethno-nationalism and the politics of tribe, is something that many are turning to because of the political failure – ‘the dream deferred’ – of those that were promised transformation of lives in the after world of the liberation struggle…. and all the sacrifice that went with it. The poet Langston Hughes warns us that when dreams are differed, they explode!
Who am I, where do I belong, where am I going to? What do I believe in? I am being battered by all sorts of ill winds. I want shelter from the storm. What can I hold onto? This is what many are asking.
So now we have people looking for Messiah’s, for Chiefs, for Kings, for Fuehrers, for the Uber-leader and the Uber-truth, and for some form of direction and home and leadership. People feel that through this they may have control over their lives and that their world can be more manageable and understandable. In this quest authenticity is of no consequence. People need to belong, believe and to be in control of their destinies. People have turned their search to the primal self; to a perceived past which speaks to them of being “FIRST” – “Number One” – and with no external influences, and of simplicity and belonging in every sense of the word. IDENTITY POLITICS has thus taken centre-stage in South Africa as a SAVIOUR from a Political Estate and system perceived not to have delivered on the dream; the dream deferred.
Without anyone calling it out – what we see in fact is that people have been lured back towards Dr Verwoerd’s separate-nations vision of Apartheid. And a lot of the pseudo-historical and pseudo-heritage teachings of the colonial and Apartheid era are being used to back up dodgy claims about IDENTITY. The ghost of Hendrik Verwoerd is chuckling at the predicament we have caused ourselves by our politician having poured “New Wine into old Wineskins”.
IDENTITY is an important cornerstone in a wholesome life and in navigating the paths of life. Its pitfall is where it becomes a narrow race – ethnic and religious badge. To me there is a big difference between these kinds of badges and the life enhancement that IDENTITY can offer and inversely how lack of IDENTITY can be a hugely destructive force. To understand and to know where one is going we need to know where we come from.
South Africans have been assaulted over the years by ideologically manipulated history and academia has unfortunately contributed to this because of the many colonial-perspective overlays that drown people’s ability to see their story therein. What Gustavo Guttierez, the Liberation Theologian called “the power of the poor in history” is blotted out. Recently from some quarters there has been an attack on bringing “history” as a subject back into schools where the “humanities” has had to give way to the “sciences”. I have no doubt that there will be great value in bringing history back into the classroom. What we should be asking is – “whose history”?
Much of our social ills here among Cape Flats communities can be tracked back and understood through an appreciation of what happened in the past. Crime and substance abuse that is endemic, does have a genesis. We can go back to 1658 and work forward to the “Dop system” on farms for instance as tools of pacification to track alcohol foetal-syndrome and the dominance of alcohol problems and “tik” problems today. In 1658 two ships brought 402 West African slaves from Guinea and Angola to Table Bay. They were mainly kids. They were captured as cargo at sea during a Dutch vs Portuguese ship battle. These kids, among our ancestors, had been traumatised in capture, traumatised by a sea journey cram packed in vessels, traumatised by a sea battle, traumatised when half their number had sank with the Portuguese ships – and so they arrived in Cape Town. What did Jan van Riebeeck do when confronted with these 402 sickly and traumatised kids, outnumbering the Europeans more than four to one. He used daily tots of alcohol and rations of tobacco to pacify them. Half of their number was sent on by sea to far off Batavia and the death rate of those that remained was more than three to one. The “Dop system” carried on as a means of pacification along with violence against slaves and against Khoi apprentices, right up until our lifetimes. Understanding our history is vital to how we view our problem-solving today.
When we look at how violent and aggressive our society is, we need to understand something very important. As much as we have Alcohol Foetal Syndrome, and large doses of Stockholm-Syndrome we also have something called Generationally Transmitted Trauma. We had 15 wars of Resistance in the early Cape Colony over 176 years and this meshed with 100 years and 9 wars of resistance in the Eastern Cape, which then also spread over the rest of South Africa.
Only recently the War of Southern Africa which included conventional war, guerrilla war and civil uprising and repression, which we simply call “the Struggle” has come to an end only just two decades ago. If I go back to the ethnic-cleansing wars of the Cape and just look at one type of aberration during the waves of genocide used against the /Xam people, some of the Khoi and the Gqunukhwebe people, I can illustrate why our society is so brutal, and especially so to women and children.
The Commandos meting out genocide were European led and comprised 40% Europeans and 60% Pacified Khoi. They would go out in one swoop with intent and kill 300 adults, 90 adults, 500 adults and so on – ultimately decimating a previous 30 000 strong set of /Xam communities. A few young women would be “spared” to be raped, and to serve as concubines, and a few children taken to be apprentices on farms. The commandos in their orgy of violence, was witnessed by the surviving kids and young women identified to be abducted. Commandos used gratuitous violence such as cutting off the breasts of the older women so that these could be dried and cured and made into tobacco pouches. This is the trauma that has travelled generationally to our present. Similar things happened during the war in Angola by the SADF when pickled fingers and ears were brought home by soldiers to show that they “got a terrorist”, as opponents in the war were called.
Let me be more personal to illustrate the power of heritage as a positive. I was born into a dysfunctional family environment, partly influenced by the fact that our family was rent asunder by race classification into “Coloured”, “other Coloured”, Asian and “White”, and we were homeless, poor, and my mother was a single working mum earning a pittance. At the age of 13 she started work at 75 cents per 7 day week in the garment industry and laundry cleaning industry. When she finally pensioned off she was earning 14 Rands per 6 day week. As a result of this I was in 4 foster home situations before the age of 9, then into a cruel Dickensian Children’s Home where labour and daily beatings were the norm. Then I went into an Industrial Trades School and out to work when I was ending my 15th year, to work for 10 Rands for a 6 day week. You can only imagine the havoc this had on my life. Many of my peers died young, got into drugs and crime and landed up in prison. I didn’t. I became a Freedom Fighter and by my 40s through part-time studies I achieved an MSc with distinction for my dissertation and became the first ever in my family to get a good education. What made the difference?
I was lucky in that my part time mum encouraged me to read. I was lucky that one of my carers when I was 9 introduced me to my heritage rooted in slavery. Understanding of slavery became my magnificent obsession. I was lucky that a teacher one day in history class threw the text book in the bin and told us the difference between propaganda and history. There are many such lucks that I encountered in a very bleak childhood and early teens whereby I was introduced to heritage and the building blocks of identity. I also learnt that we as human beings collect identities (plural) from the day we are born until we die. We also discard identities too. But without identities and without knowing where we come from, we cannot navigate our present nor know where we want to go. I learnt that much of what we are taught about history and heritage is a version designed to control us. I also learnt that our hidden history is fascinating and offers us so much including confidence in tackling life. We were lied to by ideologues telling us that their forebears brought civilisation to Africa.
The early formation of societies 2000 years ago in South Africa when hunters, herders and farmers came together and formed new societies and how these fashioned themselves over time, was replaced by a nonsense story of a huge black alien invasion 500 years ago, and this has caused much division in our society. We were told that slavery was a minor thing and very humane in comparison to other parts of the world and that slaves came from Malaysia.
It was a blatant lie in that 48 000 of the original slaves came from Africa and Madagascar including other parts of South Africa; 17 200 came from India and 13 500 came from an array of countries including Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Borneo, Formosa and other islands of Southeast Asia. We were also never told that more migrants of colour came to the Cape Colony than European overlords for 200 years. At a less important level we were never told that Governor Simon van Stel and the second Governor his son Willem were not Europeans but people of colour. The image of Jan van Riebeeck used on stamps, coins, banknotes and so on wasn’t him at all. It was Mr Vermuyden; and Jan’s wife was portrayed by Vermuyden’s mistress Ms Kettering. So our colonial history was skewed in many ways. Importantly when you go and look at history more carefully, you find lots of false divisions based on race and ethnic theories. The Xhosa and the Khoi and so-called “Coloured” identities are totally intertwined. We are actually cousins. Even the founding of this city of Cape Town has a very different history to that of the Jan van Riebeeck story. It was a thriving port over the 50 years before the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck. The story of the Khoi people too is totally distorted yet now we have many imitating aspects of that flawed colonial history and making bizarre claims based on falsehoods. I cannot go down every avenue here but simply wish to illustrate that at the heart of many of our social problems are false social constructs and the hiding of aberration.
The Lebanese-French, Christian-Arab writer, Amin Maalouf from his brilliant book – “On Identity” says….
“What makes me myself rather than anyone else is the very fact that I am poised between two countries, two or three languages and several cultural traditions. It is precisely this that defines my identity. Would I exist more authentically if I cut off part of myself?”
Maalouf talks about people being pressed and ordered to take sides or be defined by a given identity and then comments:
“…pressed and ordered by whom? Not just by fanatics and xenophobes of all kinds, but also by you and me, by each and all of us. And we do so precisely because of habits of thought and expression deeply rooted in us all; because of a narrow, exclusive, bigoted, simplistic attitude that reduces identity in all its many aspects to one single affiliation, and one that is proclaimed in anger…. I feel like shouting aloud that this is how murders are made – it’s a recipe for massacres.”
Many of us grew up under the obnoxious and murderous system of Apartheid which killed people and it killed souls. What concerns me is that Apartheid ideas are becoming vogue again in the form of the elevation of tribalism, ethno-nationalism, and skewed notions of singular identities.
There is a challenge for sociologists to wrestle with this new threat to our social cohesion in the 21st century. Also if we are to seriously come to grips with social ills in our society we have to join the dots for people on the wonderful Kaleidoscope of the “Peopling of South Africa” and the history not just from 1652, but from 2000 and more years ago. Indeed the 1652 date tells a much distorted history. What is wiped out is the true Camissa story of the founding of the Port of Cape Town, servicing over 1071 ships during the 52 years before Jan van Riebeeck’s arrival. The challenge is for sociologists to connect the dots between substance abuse and violence today to what really occurred yesterday. It’s to connect the dots of Land dispossession, Livestock dispossession, Livelihood dispossession, Leadership dispossession and the break-up of social cohesion of the past needs to be connected as a continuum with homelessness and community ills and erosion of social cohesion today.
Landlessness, homelessness, ghettoization void of social facilities, unemployment and generally a system of alienation of most from coherent expressions of identity and stakeholdership in our society is a recipe for conflict and war. And once we enter that vortex it is going to be extremely difficult to pull out of it. There is little time left to change course and, in changing course, the transformation that is required has to be radical to be credible. Transformation is the only remedy that speaks to RESTORATION. There is sweet honey in the rock!
When we look back at our past, at our history and our heritage it is also not just about being between a rock and a hard place. There is so much to learn about overcoming adversity. You cannot have come through the worst evils known by humankind – slavery, ethnocide, genocide and Apartheid – forced to be down at heal and to have your very life and gene snuff out, without visiting the spirit and resistance of our forebears and their innovation in swimming against this tide of oppression and repression. Those caged birds did sing. We do sing! When people ask me who I am…. I know why I say – I am an African, I am a Southern African, I am Camissa and I am born of a people who rose above adversity generation after generation…. and I too took the resistance road and claimed a liberated life.
Yes there is sweet honey in the rock!