In The Lie of 1652: A decolonised history of land, influential blogger and history activist Patric Mellet retells and debunks established precolonial and colonial land dispossession history. He provides a radically new, fresh perspective on South African history and highlights 176 years of San/Khoe colonial resistance. Contextualising the cultural mix of the Cape, he recounts the history of forced and voluntary migration to the Cape by Africans, Indians, Southeast Asians, Europeans and the African Diaspora in a new way. This provocative, novel perspective on “colouredness” also provides a highly topical new look at the burning issue of land, and how it was lost.
- 368 pages
What is it that motivates me to write about the loss of land, the loss of belonging and the loss of identity here at the southern tip of Africa? Is it just that I am deeply bothered by the vast expanse of shacks across half of the Cape Flats and Cape Peninsula, where, every rainy season, people are flooded out of the only place that they call home, and every windy season they are burnt out? Could it be that I am disturbed about how many people on the Cape Flats are back yard dwellers where three or more families share tiny subeconomic homes and most are unemployed, with communities besieged by gangs wreaking havoc, and death rates usually associated with wars? Or is it that a culture of brutality and violence in general, and against women and children in particular, has become so entrenched that society as a whole now hardly blinks an eye when figures such as 47 for deaths and an equal number for rapes in just one Cape Town district are reported on most weekends?
Or is it the stark poverty and nothingness that greets me when travelling to rural areas where each smart, predominantly white town has what can only be described as a segregated dormitory “slavery town” next to it? Is it because, 25 years after the fall of apartheid, there is little evidence of agrarian reform in these same rural districts? Or perhaps my focus results from the fact that I spent much of my life as a freedom fighter with many years in underground resistance and then more in exile, active in the broad liberation movement? Is it that I am afraid of the consequences for our country of what the poet Langston Hughes called “a dream deferred”?
All these questions contribute to my consciousness. But my motivation goes back all the way to my own childhood and personal experiences and feelings of homelessness, a lack of belonging, exploitation and trying to recover an identity that had been erased as a result of social engineering.
As a child, two things stood out for me. The first was that my single mother and I did not have a place called home. Mum, a low-paid laundry worker in District Six, rented rooms in other people’s homes and moved about frequently. In her room she would have a bed, an ablutions bucket, a basin for bathing, a Primus stove for cooking, a table and a chair. It was a Spartan existence.
Much of the time she could not have me with her, so I was fostered by three different families before I was six years old. The trajectory of my life from there was a short stint with my mother, then into a brutal children’s asylum, next into an industrial trade school, and at the end of my 15th year into a factory to work. There was never any sense of “home”. No sense of belonging, except perhaps to District Six, where my mother worked and where she took me with her to her workplace during those periods when I lived with her. In the District my mum was known as “Cleaners” and I was “Cleaners’ Boy”, and that was about as much a sense of belonging and identity as I had in my upbringing.
My lack of rootedness also arose out of my dysfunctional family life.
My mother, who was 40 years old when I was born, had had four other children before me, one of whom had died. Mum had been divorced from her children’s father and then briefly had a relationship with my father. My father, or sire, as he is known to his many children by different mothers, had been born in District Six. He was a shoemaker working in a factory near the garment factory where my mother had been working at that time. They were never married and they acrimoniously parted ways when I was just 18 months old. At the time I was in hospital recovering from third-degree burns over my upper body as a result of a Primus-stove cooking accident at home. Sixty years after my accident, the Primus stove is still a symbol of poverty in South Africa.
Mum’s mainstay was her matriarchal extended family – my grandmother and my mum’s older sister, Doll. It was at this time that apartheid was being ushered in. ‘Race’ classification had a devastating effect on our family that were a mix of people who would be classified as coloured, Indian and white. (As will be shown in the book, this classification system defied the fact that those classified as coloured have 195 roots of origin, the vast majority of whom were Africans, with Asian and some European admixture.) My grandmothers were coloured and my grandfathers white, my Aunty Doll’s husband was Indian, and my cousins had features ranging from the darkest Asian looks to the fairest of European complexions.
Apartheid, with its race classification, group areas, separate amenities, prohibition of mixed marriages, and immorality legislation, decimated a family that was as multi-ethnic as ours. As poor people, the adults, all women, also relied heavily on one another economically and for practical and moral support, especially with us kids. Under the new apartheid laws, the assault on family life became too much for my mother’s sister.
Aunty Doll and her entire brood of children and grandchildren moved to the UK to get away from the classification monster and its impact on lives. Only one son stayed on and became a seaman who spent much of his time on the high seas while his wife and children remained in Grassy Park in Cape Town.
My mum was then very much on her own with her fatherless child.
In desperation, she placed an advert in a weekly church newspaper asking for a family to take me in as one of their own. That was my third foster home, where I spent two years in a family that had eight children.
Mum had a nervous breakdown and was in no position to work, nor to look after herself and take care of me. I was aware enough to know that she felt alone and vulnerable, having lost her family support structure.
It was at this point that, as an eight-year-old, I briefly came under the influence of a German nun from the Holy Cross Convent in District Six, who did my mother a favour by looking after me sometimes when she could not take me along to her workplace because of company inspectors’ visits.
Sister Mary Martin became my part-time carer for a while. She had a devotion to the Peruvian slave saint Martino de Porres of Lima and I would often see her kneeling at the feet of St Martin’s statue, talking to him. A white woman asking for guidance from a statue of a long-dead black man was a sight to behold for a kid whose family life had been so disrupted by the apartheid system. Through storytelling, Sister Mary Martin introduced me to San Martino de Porres and to the history of slavery and the connection that the people around her in District Six had to the enslaved at the Cape. The stories captivated me and provided me with a key to understanding what the deeper sense of belonging was all about. It was my first experience of being able to associate deeply with anything. District Six and Marty, as I called him, became my muses for life.