On my shelf: Giving SA’s slaves a voice


Written by herself. Written by himself...

Here are just a sliver of the written accounts that have come to define our understanding of the interior lives of people enslaved in North America and Great Britain.

They serve as a rendering of selfhood against the objectification of slavery: Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; or, Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789), Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave (1850), Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)...

In contrast to this archive, South Africa’s historiography contains great silences where the voices of its enslaved people should have figured.

For the most part denied literacy, let alone access to the printing press, there was, as Yvette Christiansë notes, “no chance for slaves to develop a literary voice, a written voice”.

The repression of this voice contributes to the creation of a South African history that is, as Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola names it in her book What Is Slavery To Me?

Post-Colonial/Slave Memory in Post-apartheid South Africa (2010), a “master’s history” in which slavery and emancipation in the 19th-century Cape Colony is undramatic and inconsequential.

In the absence of accounts from the mouths of South Africa’s enslaved people, we are left to interrogate our collective memory and ask: What stays unheard by force of repression? What stays unsaid by force of resistance?

To answer these silences, Toni Morrison’s concept of “re-memory” invites us to “journey to a site to see what remains were left behind and to reconstruct the world that these remains imply” in order to re-humanise those who have been “disremembered and unaccounted for”.

Rayda Jacobs’ The Slave Book (1998) and Christiansë’s Unconfessed (2007) are two such works that engage the “dis-remembered” past of the Cape Colony and poignantly enact the work of “re-memory” through an imaginative revisiting of the fragments of this history.

Deriving its title from the archival register that stipulated the codes controlling enslaved people at the “Cape of Good Hope”, The Slave Book is set against the backdrop of the 1834 abolition of slavery and the subsequent four-year period of forced apprenticeship.

It opens with the words of Sangora Salamah, a former Mohametan slave from Java, reflecting on the day slaves were granted their freedom:

“It rained that first day in 1838 ... People said it was God crying. Ashamed of what we’d become.

"I remember it as if it was yesterday. The slaves had prayed and waited for it, and when January first arrived, most of them had nowhere to go.”

The novel excavates the years preceding the emancipation, through the narrative of Salamah, his wife Noria, and her daughter Somiela. Salamah and Somiela are separated from Noria when they are sold to the De Villers family at a slave auction.

At the heart of the story is the love affair between Somiela, who is of mixed heritage and the voorman Harman Kloot, a white “vry-burger” (freeman), who is later revealed to also be of mixed ancestry.

Through this union, Jacobs destabilises racial and sexual boundaries central to the slavocratic society in which sexual abuse was as routine a weapon of control as the whip and chain.

Mirroring the archive, Christiansë’s Unconfessed uses an achronological, fragmented plot to foreground the silences at the heart of the life of historical figure Sila van den Kaap, who was incarcerated for the “kindermoord” or child murder of her nine-year-old son, Baro.

Her life spared because she was pregnant, she is later sent to Robben Island to serve an extended sentence of 14 years, after which her fate is unknown.

“I could not say as they wanted me to say,” says Sila. Throughout the novel, she refuses a confession of guilt to the crime she is being tried for.

Whereas the fact of her having taken her son’s life is unquestioned, the fact of this constituting a “crime” is questioned as Christiansë dedicates the narrative to “re-memorying” an enslaved woman who uses the act of kindermoord (child murder) to control the circumstances of her enslaved child’s life: protecting him from pain.

As a mother should.

Towards the end of the novel, Sila laments: “The daughters and sons of my generations will say, we are not people, we are things.

"The sons of my generations will say, we are men made of rock and it is our natures to throw ourselves against all enemies until their skin breaks.

"I fear for the daughters of my generations for, with such fathers, there will be no home … And I will be weeping in my grave ... And I will be wisps of grief myself, forgotten, hungering after other people’s children, for my children will be running behind me, forgotten too as their children’s children, those rocks who were once people, smash and smash some terrible future into shape.”

The Slave Book and Unconfessed take on Morrison’s invitation and offer a haunting, poignant poetics that foregrounds language, voice and presence in order to “re-memory” the silences of enslaved women.

A lyrical wreath lain on the graves of ancestors so that they may not weep: their daughters and sons know that they are not things, they are people.

Written by her descendants.

Written by his descendants...

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