Exploring the coloured heritage

2008-06-24 00:00

A SMALL “wanted” advert in the classified section of The Witness, calling for artefacts and photos for an exhibition on the coloured people of Pietermaritzburg, piqued some interest and eventually led me to the office of Msunduzi Museum researcher and anthropologist Khanya Ndlovu.

Ndlovu, who specialises in Zulu and coloured history, had earlier confirmed that the exhibition, due to be opened at the end of August to coincide with Heritage month in September, is “her baby”. Under the banner of “a tapestry of cultures”, it will join other cultural exhibitions on the mezzanine floor of the museum dedicated to representing the diverse cultural heritage of the province.

Ndlovu has been working on the project since the beginning of last year. Part of her work involved

45-minute unstructured interviews with a range of coloured people from KwaZulu-Natal and East Griqualand.

Former Witness journalist Elaine Anderson, who was killed by would-be hijackers in October last year, will be among the members of the city’s coloured community featured in the exhibition which will focus largely on the contributions and achievements of coloured people in areas such as business, sport and education.

There will also be some coverage of the history of the coloured community. In KwaZulu-Natal, that will mean touching on the role of historical British figures such as Henry Francis-Fynn and John Dunn, both of whom had several Zulu wives. While there were certainly many other mixed-race relationships in the province that produced children, Dunn and Francis-Fynn — largely because of the numbers of their wives — are credited with fathering significant coloured dynasties.

If sponsorship from the Msunduzi Municipality is forthcoming, Ndlovu says the exhibition will also boast a touch-screen computer through which visitors will be able to trace the genealogies of their families thanks to the work of Father Duncan Mckenzie from Durban.

The Voortrekker Museum opened in 1912 as a single-theme museum centring on the Church of the Vow in which Voortrekker relics were preserved. The museum also presented the history of the five Voortrekker parties who left the Eastern Cape and founded the Republic of Natalia in 1839.

By the nineties, says Ndlovu, “it became clear that there was a need for a more inclusive approach to cultural and historical representation”. Renamed the Msunduzi Museum late last year, the museum over time expanded both physically (among its assets is the magnificent redbrick school house formerly occupied by schools such as Longmarket Girls’ School) and thematically to accommodate the cultural heritage of all communities in the province.

According to Ndlovu, pulling together the new exhibition demanded a sensitive approach to issues of racial classification and identity. Raising these issues sometimes produced an emotional response. “For example, some people, particularly those from the Eastern Cape, felt that the term coloured was problematic; others were more resigned to and accepting of the label.”

Khanya said members of the Griqua communities whom she interviewed often stressed the differences between their heritage and that of KwaZulu-Natal coloured communities. “They wanted it to be clear that while most KwaZulu-Natal coloureds are descendants of unions between Zulu and British parents, the Griqua are descendants of Khoisan and Afrikaners,” said Ndlovu.

The importance of these differences seems to have been reflected in the bureaucracy of the time: Ndlovu said that an elderly woman in the Eastern Cape told her that while her birth certificate classifies her as coloured, there was another “unticked” category on her birth certificate called “other coloured” referring to coloureds outside of the Eastern Cape.

In the circumstances and to ensure that no one feels alienated by the museum’s representations of coloured people, Ndlovu consulted the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Dr Shahid Vawda who lectures in cultural and heritage tourism. “He dismissed the idea of using the term coloured in inverted commas, but suggested that the exhibition carry a note to say that the term is used as an identity marker and that the museum does not condone or accept any negative connotations which may be attached to the term.”

While there were undoubtedly challenges in the research process, Ndlovu says there were also huge benefits. One of these has been the forging of strong links with coloured people, some of whom had never visited a museum and saw it as the preserve of whites. “Now we can truthfully say that the museum is for everyone and you are represented.”

In a paper she compiled about her experiences in collecting the data for the exhibition, Ndlovu writes that she was forced to confront the similarities in the circumstances under which blacks and coloureds lived under apartheid. “They suffered injustice and hardships,” she said. “The exhibition will allow them to tell that story and to be involved in its telling,” she told me.

Ndlovu also said that being a custodian of people’s precious photographs and artifacts has also fostered a sense of ownership towards the museum on the part of the public and encouraged more black visitors to the complex.

As in most societies, but particularly so in South Africa, history is contested territory. I ask Ndlovu how the museum deals with the challenge of multiple interpretations. “Contestation is good. It forces you to know your sources,” she said. “Good exhibitions are the one’s that spark debate and getting people talking is part of the role of museums today.”

But it’s not all about the past, either. Ndlovu says all exhibitions are in line with the national school curriculum, so this ensures they are relevant. “This helps to keep the interest in museums alive.”

Having handed over her research to the museum’s in-house exhibition team, Ndlovu is due to leave the Msunduzi Museum at the end of the month for a position as curator at

the Durban Local History Museum. But she says she’ll be back for the opening.

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