‘Liberation Day’ a reminder to us all
Commemorating the abolition of slavery honours those who suffered, writes Michael Weeder
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Another had been Ordinance 50 of 1828 which repealed the pass laws that coloured people had been subjected to since 1809.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.
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.