The Justice Conference SA 2017 — Where are the coloured people?
A very brief response to some questions that came up after our panel.
Where is the coloured voice
I was honoured, a bit scared and very nervous when I was asked to be on a panel with 5 other people to give a storied talk about how we navigate identity in South Africa. Our session was titled Navigating the Deep Waters of Identity in South Africa. Each of us had a different approach and I chose to speak about how I have come to think about my coloured identity. I don’t want to rehash all that I said but here is a short extract of some of it:
When I think about conversations on identity I understand it to be something about who we are, where we come from and how we are. In modern day South Africa it feels like everyone is trying to hold onto their heritage or reclaim their cultural signifiers. The things that make them belong to a certain group of people. And this reminds me of a question a friend once asked me which was “what does it feel like to be part of race that was never meant to be?” So when we talk about these things I have that dilema. What do I look back to, and what are the things that I can hold onto as cultural signifiers? The harsh reality is that as coloured people we are the by-products of a system of colonialism and slavery. We are the colateral damage of a brutal occupation. My forefathers and mothers are colonisers, slaves, and indigenous people. We are the bastard children of the conquest for the colony.
And today 100’s of years after the first slave ship delivered its contents and some decades post 94, we are still dealing with that, we are still the forgoten bastard children of South Africa. And because we are by prodcuts, we have become bystanders. Our destiny always in the hands of someone else. We are subdued with apathy. I sometimes want to say to black people and white people you decide who’s in charge this time and just let us know. It is as if coloured people are invisible. I feel invisible in South Africa.
I then shared a few lines from this Khadija Heeger poem.
The talk received some interesting feedback and I made it clear to people that I am more a explorer than expert. Too many people claim to be experts on things, I am just trying to express my lived experience.
I am not your bridge
During the session there was a suggestion that perhaps coloured people should be the reconcilers in South Africa. There wasn’t enough time to engage that there but upon further reflection I felt disturbed. This very difficult thing that noone else has gotten right was being imposed on the coloured identity. Surely we cannot dictate to others what their identity is? Why are we being identified as things to be trampled on, things to get over: people walk across bridges much like they see through glass. We are not a thoroughfare: we are people. And we have the right to be.
Perhaps it was just a question of framing; we do have something to bring to the conversation in South Africa. I have often seen that as a prophetic picture. Inside of coloured people there is the DNA of the coloniser and colonised. The slave and the master. The oppressed and the oppressor. The coloured body embodies coexistence. And that is an allegory for South Africa. My DNA is not at war within myself. I am one whole functioning human being. Can that lead us to hope? And how can we as coloured people begin to access this as we figure out how to be in South Africa.
Die Stem is not My Stem
At the end of the conference we sang the national anthem. It was…weird. But it was sung. It was a mistake and it was never intended that it be sung at the conference, but some glitch led to it. Many were confused and didnt sing the Afrikaans bit. Others have written how looking at the national anthem with fresh lenses one can see the rainbowism seeping out. I was asked whether singing the Afrikaans bit helped coloured people feel like they had a “place” in the national anthem.
Personally, I didn’t sing the Afrikaans part of the anthem and not much of the English bit either. My main reason was that I thought it was inappropriate to sing a national anthem after the two days we had. Our conversation was more than nationalistic and had implications that were global. After all God’s story of justice and redemption is for the whole world and is not limited to a geopolitical framework.
Let’s be clear, there is nothing about Die Stem that speaks to the coloured experience in South Africa. I want to distance myself from it.
With regards to Afrikaans as a cultural signifier for coloured people, I think we need to look at the roots of the language. There is a whole conversation about decolonising Afrikaans that is happening and it would be interesting to read up on that. Afrikaans actually started because people of mixed descent had to communicate with one another. The stage production Afrikaaps gives an interesting take on this from the point of view of coloured people in Cape Town. There is a great documentary (Afrikaaps) that gives an overview of the process to produce the production.
The language used in Die Stem is different to what I would call my mother tongue. The unspoken injustice of Afrikaans is that it belonged to oppressed people first. I would go as far as to say that there are two different languages. And if we wanted a “coloured” part of a national anthem we would need to put in something new.
I want to hear how it was for coloured people at the conference. Were there gaps, did they feel represented? And more importantly was there enough for you to hold on to and take away to apply that was particularly contextual to your lived experienced.