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Blackness, oceans and South Africa’s colonial history are at my family’s core

Cape Town. Sutterstock

Blackness, oceans and South Africa’s colonial history are at my family’s core

This excerpt is based on an extract from the book, “Race Otherwise: Forging a New Humanism for South Africa” by the author.


My blackness is supposedly visible only because I do not “look white”. But, in some parts of West Africa I am called white. My blackness is ambiguous because I am not black Black or black African. These descriptions are increasingly used to distinguish between formerly colonised South Africans with different historical relationships to this region and its colonial past. I am (more often than not) not considered African in South Africa. I am still called “Coloured”.

It is perhaps worth pausing for a moment to deal with the lexicon of race.

In my book “blackness” and “black” (not capitalised) refer to the racialised construct “black”. “Black”, capitalised and in inverted commas, refers to the apartheid racial category. Black, capitalised and without inverted commas, refers to the global political identification on the part of individuals and collectives who are constructed and classified as black.

At first use I place the apartheid race category “Coloured” in inverted commas to indicate that it is contested. Hereafter for ease of reading I do not use inverted commas. I capitalise the term to signify its continued official status as a race category. Simply writing “coloured” as a descriptive term erases its history, its contestation and its official status.

I write “White”, hereafter without inverted commas, to refer to the apartheid and the post-1994 official race category, capitalising the term to indicate its historical and current official categorical status. The terms “whiteness” and “white” (not capitalised) refer to the racialised construct “white”.

The cover of ‘Race Otherwise’.

In South Africa’s Western and Eastern Cape provinces “what I am”, racially speaking, is seldom questioned. People who say that they are from Limpopo and Mpumalanga, the northern provinces of South Africa, ask which tribe and which country I am from.

In parts of Europe I am assumed to be from a Caribbean island. African-Americans are surprised to find that I was born and live “in Africa”.

People from different parts of the world ask “what mix” I am. Which would you prefer? Salt and vinegar or cinnamon and sugar? Neither one of my parents was black Black. Neither one of them was white White. I am not half-and-half.

A bundle of story lines

Like all families, mine is a bundle of lines. A bundle of story lines. A bundle of journey lines. South Africa’s colonial history is at their core. Its “meshworks” – produced by the interconnected processes of modernity and coloniality – met in the southern African region and made waves of community that tangled in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

From these oceanic perspectives, the landscape and mindscape at the tip of the continent are thresholds between the two oceans; between the unrecorded lives sustained, changed and sacrificed by these seas; between circuits of ideas; and between circuits of lived experience and of possibilities.

My mother’s maternal grandmother was from St Helena Island in the south Atlantic Ocean. My mother told me that her paternal grandfather wore a kuffiya, a form of headdress worn by Muslim men in parts of the world, on his deathbed. He came to South Africa from the Indonesian island of Java with his parents, who were Muslim.

Their surname changed from Abdurahman to Adriaan. When this change happened remains unclear… I was shown photographs of a maternal great-aunt who was described as a “boere tannie” (Dutch aunty). She was called Cousin Snow and lived in the northern region of the then Cape Province.

My paternal grandfather was of the KhoiKhoi, people considered indigenous to South Africa. This is a diasporic history of cross-currents, of slavery and various forms of unfree labour, of “vrij zwarten” (free black people), of “inboekseling” (apprenticed labour), and of Dutch settlement.

It is a history of creolisation: processes by which ways of living and forms of community – for the most part (but not only) born of struggles against violent power – are forged in order to survive and to remake histories. These histories are intertwined in ways that do not obliterate social differences and they suggest several possibilities including complicity and resistance (not necessarily separate acts); domination and reciprocity; and various forms of intimacy and of distance.

My family’s stories are one response to a question posed by the literary scholar and poet Gabeba Baderoon:

‘What do the two oceans tell us?’ They show that the oceans ‘tell us about history’; about the ways in which ‘the individual relation to the sea is weighted with history’; about the ways in which ‘the register of the private can open a path to history’.

Birth of capitalist modernity

Histories of the North Atlantic have had a preponderant influence on scholarship about race because of its place in the birth of capitalist modernity as a world system based on the trade in African slaves. But, for scholars in the humanities and social sciences who study southern Africa, this is changing.

The Indian Ocean can be thought of as an emergent knowledge space. It is a domain of lived experience that is configured by interconnected histories; by the exchange and movement of people, things and ideas; and by the circulation of technologies, communities and institutions. The South Atlantic Ocean, and specifically St Helena Island, can also be thought of as an emergent and critical knowledge space.

These oceanic knowledge formations trouble ideas about race-making, race-mixing, and about inevitable links between place/nature and race/culture that are taken for granted. These links are expressed in what became a universal racial taxonomy premised on theories about the origin of permanent differences among humans as a species – Africa/Negroid, Asia/Mongoloid, Europe/Caucasoid.

St Helena Island and the port city of Cape Town at the Cape of Good Hope are two historical nodes in these ocean spaces through which people, ideas and goods circulated. These nodes, like slave and trading ships, tack together the two oceans making meshworks in the southern hemisphere. The mesh works are at the centre of my family history, and they are an important part of the history of southern Africa because of its position as a threshold between the two oceans.

“Race Otherwise: Forging a New Humanism for South Africa” published by Wits University Press: 2017.