Archive for the ‘History’ Category

One of the many things that I did not know about Cape Town is that between 17th and the 19th century, persons from other parts of the African continent, Madgascar, the Indian subcontinent and South-East Asia were enslaved by the Dutch and British for the purposes of forced agricultural labour. The emancipation proclamation of 1834 was followed by another four years of ‘apprenticeship’ in Cape Town whilst the planter class,  delayed what limited freedom would come for those enslaved.

Like the Caribbean, the language of ‘pioneering’ and ‘founding’ is part of the Dutch and British historical narrative. But in what is now known as Cape Town, the indigenous people, the ’Khoikhoi’, had been settled in the region for at least a thousand years before the Dutch arrived. They were pastoral people and dispossessed of their land and way of life by the Dutch East Indies enterprise.

Overlaid on this history, is the experience of apartheid, the legalization of land theft and the directly consequential poverty of the majority of Africans in the Cape and South Africa as a whole.

This week we spent a few days in Cape Town. It was an experience in sensory dissonance. The vistas are stunning. They inspire awe, as in a feeling of reverence for the natural world. The coast lines are gently undulating and the backdrop of Table Mountain,  a solid reminder of the effects of time and climate. The land is fertile even though it is a region that experiences drought. The coastline is a Mediterranean blue with powdery white sands.

IMG_9334It is a wealthy city full of posh residences and office buildings. Many would say, it has a European feel. By which they may mean, that the signs of poverty which may be expected in a developing country are not evident. They may also mean that one sees few African people in the malls, restaurants, wineries, scenic sites or public spaces. Those you see are mostly in the service sector.

After a while, it is hard to purely enjoy the natural and built up beauty. The politics of ethnic presence and absence are so intruding.

Through a mutual friend, Arlene, we met up with Lucelle Campbell and Melissa, both who self-describe as indigenous people. Lucelle, who advocates for ‘ethical tourism’,  spoke of the phenomenon of invisibility in Cape Town not only of indigenous Africans but also the invisibility of the history of slavery in the Cape region. Indeed, in our tour of wineries, with all the talk of the people who started wineries that go back to the 18th century, no mention was made of slavery. But if you looked closely enough, the past ideology of racism lurks. Ambling through one  winery, we came upon these books on a shelf.


I wonder whether this avoidance of history of slavery, of the meanings of emancipation shapes the defensiveness of the former oppressors as well as a fragile self-appreciation of the former oppressed. That it seems to me is also part of the story of the Caribbean. How can we have a genuine integration where economic structures maintain  the privileges of a few and inequality persists? How can we have reconciliation without, as Lucelle promotes, remembering and revisioning?

Driving home from our meeting with Lucelle, our Uber driver, of European descent, spoke knowledgeably of many things. I asked him about race relations in South Africa. He said things are getting worse.  How so? I expected him to speak of the failed expectations of the post-apartheid period, the continued poverty of Africans, the corruption of the politics and governance. Rather, his frame of reference was the proposed plans for land reform.

It was another sobering moment, a reminder of the deep challenge of redefining power relations and the struggle that lies ahead to get to social justice for Africans who already have had so much taken away from them.


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One of my Facebook ‘friends’ provocatively stated the following: “enslaved minds in African head-dress; playing dress up is no remedy for enslaved thoughts…” She was referring to the annual Emancipation Day celebrations in Trinidad and Tobago which has developed into an event with a number of dimensions. Organised by the Emancipation Support Committee, the commemoration of Caribbean freedom from legalized racial violence has a number of dimensions, including talks and community outreach. But culminates on 1 August in a celebratory march which ends up at the Emancipation Village.

 The people gather many of them in such beautiful African designs and fabrics. Quite a spectacle of the African aesthetic.

One imagines, that many of the people who attend Emancipation celebrations, also dress in African wear or shirt jacs for much of the year. For others, it is an occasion to wear beautiful clothes, to consciously adopt a style that connects one with ancestors as well as with contemporary African culture. We all want to belong and to know from whence we came and to feel proud about that. And there is the thing, some afro-Caribbean people do not feel proud of their connection to the African continent and are annoyed by the reminder. Others think that this ‘dressing up’ is simple-minded, empty symbolism. And so every year, the idea of Afro-trinis ‘dressing up’ is an occasion for discussion, even though derisory in some quarters. 

Yet still, the larger  point is that in Trinidad, there is a time of the year when people  pause, some people for sure, not all, and remember, really remember  Caribbean history and pay tribute to the ideals of freedom, human dignity, rights and justice for all.

Here in Barbados, someone said to me Happy Crop Over. And I replied, Happy Emancipation. He looked momentarily baffled, caught out, clueless until he recalled….ah yes….

Something feels  amiss with this conflation of Emancipation with wining back, jonesing and wukking up.

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