Eleanor du Plooy

What it means to be children of slaves

2017-08-31 08:00

I remember as a child singing the song, “January... February... March… April … May …” to the tune of a guitar being strummed or the clapping of hands.

The names of the two months I particularly enjoyed bellowing out were May and December. The latter was my birth month and the former is the surname of some of my cousins with whom I, in all likelihood, would have been singing the song with.

I don’t recall whether I knew the connection between the song and how my cousins’ surname came to be the same as a month on the calendar year.

The song would generally then herald a medley of songs including “Daar kom die Alibama”. It was only later in my life after moving to the Western Cape that I got to hear it being sung to the strum of a banjo and the beat of the ghoema by the Klopse.

Last year Iziko Museum collaborated with advertising agency Geometry Global on an exhibition titled “My Naam Is Februarie: Identities Rooted in Slavery”, a campaign that was awarded a bronze at this year’s Loeries Creative Week in the category ‘effective creativity’.

The Slave Calendar highlights the etymology of slave-derived names and identities and captures in portrait the living descendants of the slave trade who carry this painful history in their surnames.

The first enslaved people were brought to the Cape a few years after the Dutch East Indian Company established a halfway station in here in 1652. It remained a slave community for nearly 176 years before being officially abolished in 1834. It is estimated that between 1683 and 1856, over 71 000 slaves were brought to Cape Town.   

This campaign made me think of the many ways in which slavery and slaves have shaped South African history and culture and how much of the diversity that we pride ourselves in is a result of this history of slavery.

Coming from diverse backgrounds and bringing with them different languages, religions and customs, slaves formed relationships with the indigenous Khoekhoe and with some of the burghers creating the melting pot of experiences that has come to characterise this place.

I know very little of my own ancestry and know only the bits and pieces shared by family members over the years. Fragments of our history preserved in songs, food and childhood games. Yet traces of the legacy of slavery find expression in the most intimate component of my identity – my mother tongue.

Some historians argue that the Afrikaans language developed as a result of slaves and indigenous Khoekhoe trying to communicate with Dutch settlers and slave owners. Afrikaans contains many words that came from the languages spoken by slaves brought in from the East. Words like piering (saucer), baadjie (jacket), tronk (jail), koejawel (guava), soebat (beg) and tjap (to stamp).        

Why then, given the significance of this history, do we see so few sites of memory erected for slaves and their descendants in South Africa, and particularly in the Western Cape where the majority of the slave population lived between 1658 and 1838, and where the majority of their descendants continue to live today?

How often do we talk about slave memory in post-apartheid South Africa and why should we?

Despite the many shortcomings of our young democracy, it offers something that the previous dispensation did not allow for. It allows for the radical re-imagining of who we are and who we can be.

It allows us to explore and create a new kind of South African, one that is cognisant of the multiple identities and convergence of forces that shape our experiences and ultimately who we are.    

- Eleanor du Plooy runs the Ashley Kriel Youth Desk at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

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Read more on:    culture  |  slave trade  |  kaapse klopse  |  slavery
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