‘Lib­er­a­tion Day’ a re­minder to us all

Com­mem­o­rat­ing the abo­li­tion of slav­ery hon­ours those who suf­fered, writes Michael Weeder

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES - PIC­TURE: EN­RICO JA­COBS ● Weeder is rec­tor-in-plu­ral­ity of St Phillip’s, District Six and St Bartholomew, Walmer Es­tate.

IT WAS Fe­bru­ary 1952 and the Union of South Africa Par­lia­ment was in ses­sion. Hold­ing forth in the de­bate on the Pub­lic Hol­i­days Bill was Sam Khan of the South African Com­mu­nist Party.

He had been elected to Par­lia­ment in 1948 as the rep­re­sen­ta­tive for West­ern Cape Africans.

The name of Jan van Riebeeck was des­ig­nated for a pub­lic hol­i­day, but Khan ar­gued against this. He rea­soned the House “should not be car­ried away by the pas­sions of sen­ti­ment” when seek­ing to hon­our peo­ple who had con­trib­uted to the de­vel­op­ment of South Africa.

Con­sid­er­a­tion should be given to “their back­ground and their his­tory in or­der to de­ter­mine whether they have at­tained such a state of im­por­tance as to jus­tify hav­ing a spe­cial hol­i­day named af­ter them”.

Khan pro­ceeded to pro­vide mea­sured rea­sons why Van Riebeeck did not qual­ify to be hon­oured in this man­ner.

Th­ese in­cluded the fact that while in the em­ploy of the Dutch East In­dia Com­pany in China “his ser­vices were ter­mi­nated for il­licit deal­ing in the as­sets of the Com­pany, which is a very eu­phemistic phrase to de­scribe an act of theft of the Com­pany’s as­sets”.

“In th­ese cir­cum­stances,” con­cluded Khan, “I would be like to move an amend­ment to re­move the words ‘ Van Riebeeck Day, 6th of April’ and to sub­sti­tute it with ‘Lib­er­a­tion Day, 1st day of De­cem­ber’, the day the slaves were lib­er­ated.

“That will be the day to which the Non-Euro­pean pop­u­la­tion would at­tach im­por­tance in this strug­gle they must still wage against the semi-slav­ery and serf­dom they still un­dergo in this coun­try.”

Khan’s was an al­most quixotic, but none­the­less brave, stand at the coal­face of un­bri­dled racism.

Sam Khan was the last sit­ting MP voted in by black vot­ers. Trade union­ist Ray Alexan­der had been elected af­ter he had been banned, but she too was the re­cip­i­ent of the same or­der and was not al­lowed to take up her seat.

T he fate of th­ese two Com­mu­nist Party stal­warts reg­is­tered the end of the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ist ap­proach that had char­ac­terised at­tempts at chang­ing the con­di­tions of op­pressed peo­ple in the re­gion. No­table of th­ese was the abol­ish­ment of slav­ery at the Cape in 1834-38.

An­other had been Or­di­nance 50 of 1828 which re­pealed the pass laws that coloured peo­ple had been sub­jected to since 1809. Th­ese and mea­sures such as the grant­ing of rep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ment in 1853, fol­lowed by home rule in 1872, when the Cape was blessed with its own Par­lia­ment, sug­gested the law was colour blind.

In prac­tice it was the guardian of a qual­i­fied fran­chise which al­lowed coloureds and Africans to vote on con­di­tion they owned prop­erty to the value of £25 or had an an­nual in­come of £50.

The year Khan called for the en­act­ment of Lib­er­a­tion Day marked the tri-cen­ten­nial cel­e­bra­tion of the ar­rival of Jan van Riebeeck at the Cape. As part of its cri­tique of the fes­tiv­i­ties, The Guardian pub­lished a se­ries of ar­ti­cles “on the ori­gin and his­tory of the peo­ples of Africa”.

In the first of th­ese, Ed­ward Roux ob­served South Africa was de­void of a com­mon cit­i­zen­ship and its “com­mu­nity of peo­ple” were “graded ac­cord­ing to skin colour and so­called racial ori­gins into first-, sec­ond-, third-and fourth-class cit­i­zens, known re­spec­tively as Euro­peans, Coloureds, In­di­ans and Na­tives”.

The of­fi­cial cel­e­bra­tions were si­lent on the con­tri­bu­tion of, and events as­so­ci­ated with, the black com­mu­ni­ties, “such as the free­ing of slaves, the work of Chris­tian mis­sions, the com­ing of the In­di­ans and the growth of African or­gan­i­sa­tions”.

Eman­ci­pated slave men and women re­sponded in dif­fer­ent ways to the change in their cir­cum­stances. Some im­me­di­ately put as much dis­tance be­tween them­selves and any­thing and every­one as­so­ci­ated with their slave ex­is­tence, and left the ru­ral ar­eas in great num­bers. Oth­ers chose to re­main on the farms that had been their homes all their lives, and per­haps could not imag­ine any other re­al­ity.

Among this group was Rosina who chose to in­flict an an­nual act of ”fright­ful re­tribu­tive jus­tice” on a cer­tain Klein, her for­mer mas­ter, and fa­ther of two of her chil­dren. Lady Duff Gor­don, a vis­i­tor to the Cape in 1862, learnt about Rosina on the oc­ca­sion of ex­tend­ing her trav­els to the Ge­naden­dal district.

Klein had be­friended the English vis­i­tor. He would of­ten talk to her of the “sev­eral in­stances of the kind­ness and grat­i­tude of for­mer slaves” in con­trast to “the mis­ery he had un­der­gone from the ‘in­grat­i­tude’ of a cer­tain Rosina, a slave-girl of his. She was in her youth hand­some, clever, the best horse­breaker, bul­lock-trainer and driver, and hard­est worker in the district... But she was of a re­bel­lious spirit, and took to drink.”

The ex­act na­ture of Rosina’s of­fence was she chose De­cem­ber 1 as the oc­ca­sion to re­mind Klein of the qual­i­fied dif­fer­ence in their re­la­tion­ship. On the an­niver­sary of eman­ci­pa­tion, she would stand in front of Klein’s win­dow, at a time when the lat­ter was most likely still asleep, “and read the statute in a loud voice”.

She would also re-en­act scenes from her en­forced as­so­ci­a­tion with her for­mer mas­ter, but now on her terms: “She per­ti­na­ciously (when­ever she was a lit­tle drunk) kissed him by main force ev­ery time she met him in the street, ex­claim­ing, ‘Aha! when I young and pretty slave­girl you make kiss me then; now I ugly, drunk, dirty old devil and free woman, I kiss you!’ “

Rosina’s pro­found aware­ness of her slave past and the dis­tinct man­ner in which she chose to cel­e­brate her post-eman­ci­pa­tion hu­man­ity did not end with her pass­ing.

In this sea­son of post-apartheid South Africa, Eman­ci­pa­tion Day has been ex­tracted from the cal­en­dar of the past and, es­pe­cially since 2006, com­mem­o­rated in the form of a night march through the city of Cape Town.

It is an as­ser­tion of a hard and sac­ri­fi­cially won right to walk the streets in the way en­slaved peo­ple had been re­stricted from do­ing, un­less car­ry­ing the req­ui­site pass and a lantern to an­nounce their pres­ence.

There is some­thing of the spirit of Rosina in the marchers’ recog­ni­tion that Eman­ci­pa­tion Day has a mean­ing for them and should so be recog­nised by the city and the na­tion.

The first night march was or­gan­ised by a small coali­tion con­sti­tuted by rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the District Six Mu­seum, the Prest­wich Place Project Com­mit­tee, Iziko Mu­se­ums and Peace Jam.

As it met for its fi­nal plan­ning meet­ing on Novem­ber 30, an hour be­fore the des­ig­nated start­ing time of 10pm, the com­mit­tee learnt it lacked the re­quired per­mis­sion to march. With some anx­i­ety it de­cided to pro­ceed, as a small group of about 20 to 30 peo­ple had al­ready gath­ered around the statue of An­drew Mur­ray on Church Square.

The an­tic­i­pated street bands were not there. The loud­hailer could not be found and, when lo­cated, worked in a desul­tory man­ner.

Af­ter a brief ad­dress by one of the or­gan­is­ers – con­tex­tu­al­is­ing the night march in re­la­tion to the un­der- stated story of slav­ery, of­fi­cial­dom’s awk­ward dis­as­so­ci­a­tion from that his­tory and crim­i­nals’ re­stricted rights of as­so­ci­a­tion and move­ment – the small group of marchers hes­i­tantly moved into Par­lia­ment Street.

The preva­lent mood of anx­i­ety was re­placed by a cau­tious op­ti­mism as the street bands emerged from the side streets, led by Melvin Matthews, strid­ing like a com­man­der mar­shalling the troops be­fore a bat­tle. Now more than 100 peo­ple strong, the pro­ces­sion turned right as the mar­shals hur­ried to move peo­ple on to the pave­ment and away from on­com­ing traf­fic. Po­lice sirens blared as po­lice blocked off a por­tion of Short­mar­ket Street, al­low­ing marchers free use of Ad­der­ley Street and, to the sound of

One Love, the pro­ces­sion lurched on to Green­mar­ket Square.

T here the poets in the crowd per­formed a few po­ems, a song was sung and a short ad­dress given by the late Stan Abra­hams on the sig­nif­i­cance of the square in slave his­tory.

On again to the rhythm of a goema song into Wale Street, where strug­gle vet­eran Reg Septem­ber and his wife, Melissa, joined in along with scores of Long Street rev­ellers, paus­ing for a catch­ing-of-the-breath stop at the en­trance to the Bo-Kaap.

Then along Rose Street, and in Strand Street they were joined by peo­ple who had missed the start, and a few who did not know where Church Square was. Fi­nally, now about 500 strong, they trekked into the moon­lit Sig­nal Hill Quarry.

At this site those gath­ered learnt about the quarry and how many of the city’s first build­ings – such as the Cas­tle and many of the city’s old build­ings, the walls of the ceme­ter­ies which once lined Som­er­set Road – were built from rocks hewn from the side of Sig­nal Hill.

Trevor Manuel, dur­ing the pe­riod be­fore the tri­bunal on the un­cov­ered burial ground at Prest­wich Street, noted the quarry was the ideal lo­cale to cre­ate A House of Mem­ory – the phys­i­cal em­bod­i­ment of the dis­placed mem­ory of the city; the nar­ra­tive of the Khoi who had lived in the area; the story of slav­ery and the 19th-cen­tury Euro­pean im­mi­grants who set­tled in the vicin­ity of the har­bour; and the later Group Ar­eas Di­as­pora.

The evoca­tive power of this site was felt in some mea­sure on the night of Novem­ber 30. Cel­e­bra­tions con­tin­ued into the morn­ing of De­cem­ber 1, 2006. A bon­fire at the en­trance to the quarry was the point up to where peo­ple stepped to share their re­flec­tions.

Many were re­minded of com­mu­nal gath­er­ings, ei­ther in that space or in oth­ers like it. For oth­ers the quarry had meant noth­ing more than a part of the Cape Town back­drop.

As the crowd moved fur­ther into the hol­lowed space – which in some ways is a mon­u­ment to ab­sence – many ex­pressed shame that they had al­lowed it to be­come in­vis­i­ble to them while liv­ing and work­ing in its con­stant shadow.

All ex­pressed a long­ing to re­turn to re­flect and con­nect to what was and what had gone be­fore. Bob Mar­ley’s lament on slav­ery,

Re­demp­tion Song, was sung. Dianne Fer­rus, who ear­lier at Green­mar­ket Square had re­cited her trib­ute to Sara Baart­man, stood in re­flec­tive si­lence. Chris Fern­dale, that in­domitable anti-crime war­rior, with the ten­der­ness of a mother’s love, in­voked a Khoi bless­ing on all in the quarry.

But the young mem­bers of the street bands best rep­re­sented the in­ten­tion and ac­com­plish­ment of that night.

Their homes were on the Cape Flats, whose many so­cial evils mil­i­tated against the flow­er­ing of their abil­ity.

Three young women of about 15, clutch­ing their sax­o­phones, stepped into the fire­light.

The tune they played, shaky at first, was a bit fa­mil­iar. Then an older, trum­pet-blow­ing youth gen­tly moved in be­hind them and the strains of I Will Sur­vive rose con­fi­dently above and be­yond the quarry walls.

In sub­se­quent years more and dif­fer­ent peo­ple have joined the pro­ces­sion. Many of the first night’s march of 2006 are still in­volved. They in­clude Carol Don­son and Irene Wil­son from Chapel Street, District Six, Anne Davids from Kannabassie Close in Kew Town, and Crane Sou­dien, chair­man of the District Six Mu­seum board of trustees.

Last year, the march in­cluded out­go­ing mayor He­len Zille, who at­tended de­spite the rigours of the elec­tion trail.

The de­mo­graph­ics of this year’s De­cem­ber 1 Or­gan­is­ing Com­mit­tee re­flect the sig­nif­i­cance of the event on the city’s cal­en­dar. They in­clude Brad Brock­man (In­sti­tute of Jus­tice and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion), Natalie Jaynes (Gun-free South Africa) and var­i­ous rep­re­sen­ta­tives from Peace Jam and Chrisch­ene Julius (District Six Mu­seum).

The event or­gan­iser is Prim­rose Mr­webi from Gugulethu. This year, due to Fifa-im­posed re­stric­tions, there will be no march.

A press release on the event reads: “Re-imag­in­ing what this (slav­ery) might have been like, try­ing to un­der­stand its lega­cies and think­ing of what is meant by ‘mod­ern forms of slav­ery’ has been the fo­cus of a num­ber of work­shops held at the District Six Mu­seum over the past few months. A per­for­mance piece has been cre­ated, which has el­e­ments of dance, drama, mu­sic and po­etry, and this will form part of the com­mem­o­ra­tive pro­gramme.

“You are in­vited to the Prest­wich Vis­i­tor’s Cen­tre on the cor­ner of Buiten­gragt and Som­er­set Road to join in the com­mem­o­ra­tion on Mon­day night, Novem­ber 30, start­ing at 10pm. A mo­ment of si­lence at mid­night will mark the tran­si­tion into De­cem­ber 1, and the venue will be dark­ened, lit only by lanterns, to sym­bol­ise the cel­e­bra­tion with bon­fires which marked the 1834 cel­e­bra­tions.

“Af­ter mid­night, an open-mic ses­sion will sig­nal a more cel­e­bra­tory part of the pro­gramme. You are in­vited to join in this com­mem­o­ra­tive event. Please bring along a lantern or torch for the mid­night mo­ment. As fa­cil­i­ties at the Prest­wich Cen­tre are very lim­ited, we would like to en­cour­age you to bring along a pic­nic bas­ket or snack for the post-mid­night party.”

The Night March meets Sam Khan’s in­tent. A Par­lia­ment of a New and Free South Africa would look more kindly, than did his ad­ver­saries in the Union par­lia­ment, on his as yet un­ful­filled call for the in­clu­sion of “Lib­er­a­tion Day, 1st day of De­cem­ber” in our na­tion’s cal­en­dar for the ob­ser­vance of “the day the slaves were lib­er­ated”.

And Rosina... “dirty old devil and free woman” would smile from that place where the un­shack­led, the for­ever free, are home at last.

PIC­TURE: MICHAEL WEEDER

ARTS AC­TIVE: Dance, drama, mu­sic and po­etry will form part of the com­mem­o­ra­tive pro­gramme.

RE­MINDER: The names on the com­mem­o­ra­tive blocks in Church Square echo the dis­lo­ca­tion and cru­elty of slav­ery.

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