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Asserting a Forgotten Identity

By Jean Burgess

In Heinrich Bohmke’s book, Sarie, set in South Africa, a farm attack from long ago plays out in modern times. The villain is a small, quick-witted coloured chap, Michael Appolis, and the victim is this pretty Boer girl. How predictable!

But, as I read on, it was plain to see. The violence visited upon poor Sarie had happened before to Michael’s people. And more. Sarie’s pain was the white exception. For Khoikhoi people, pain was the norm.

Sometimes it takes a work of fiction to say things that historians won’t. A casual reader of South African history might think that when white settlers arrived in South Africa they immediately set about grabbing land from black Africans. No, the people they encountered were Bushmen and Khoikhoi. Slight in build and speaking a distinct language renowned for its clicks, my ancestors did not plough and settle but lived off the bounty of the earth and moved in accordance with her seasons. For 150 years we bore the brunt of early colonialism. The Khoikhoi and Bushmen were enslaved, exterminated as vermin, robbed of livestock and lands, and starved. When this was over, the final indignity awaited—that of bonded labor to racist and frequently sadistic masters.

It is not as if all our black African brothers and sisters welcomed us either. Pushed by their own warrior culture and following vast grazing herds, they entered our territories too. Khoikhoi clans would become vassals of a Bantu-speaking chief, and subsumed into these tribes a generation later as low-ranking members.

Khoikhoi and Bushmen women bonded to white farmers often had children by their masters. Gradually the Khoikhoi lost their original language. Once off the land and kept apart from our kin, our spirituality and identity shriveled. We became “coloureds,” a term of racial categorization in South Africa, as if merely a mixture of other races.

The ancient meets the new in South Africa today. After the spectacular liberation from apartheid, the world was told a story largely in black and white terms. This was fine with many coloureds because we were accepted as Africans by the leaders of the nationalist cause. Coloured families gave their bravest children to the struggle.

But after the dawn, things changed. The ANC in power passed a series of laws that instituted a racial hierarchy of belonging, development, and redress in South Africa.

The Employment Equity Act carved coloureds apart from Africans when it came to awarding jobs, privileging Africans. Coloured oppression was said to be less severe because certain menial jobs were reserved for brown people during apartheid’s 48 years. In the Cape provinces, where we lived for a thousand years before a single black or white person set foot, government bureaucrats said that we were over-represented and hogging jobs for Africans. We should disperse to other places.

In Sarie, the character Michael Appolis is a descendant of a Khoikhoi chief, Ou Boesak. In real life, Boesak rebelled against the Colony in the 1800s. But Michael grew up knowing nothing of his history. When he does discover his identity, he becomes the villain. This tells us a little bit of the desperation of the coloured condition today. It is villainy or nothingness, unless you can escape to the middle class. A lot of the villainy is directed inwards among South Africa’s ‘”coloureds” who suffer a scourge of drug addiction and gang violence.

The problem is that the group with the deepest claims to this land is rendered rootless. We are ridiculed for asserting our first peoples status. We are told we are separatists or racists. Some coloured people assimilate and that is their personal right, but why is it wrong for others to be Khoikhoi?

Khoikhoi identity is as positive as the charming, jazz-loving, left intellectual identity Michael Appolis’ father affected. It is as exciting as the big-haired, arty, metropolitan lifestyle Michael’s sister developed. Being Khoikhoi accesses a spirituality and community. It is a mental respite from years of un-belonging and scorn from others. Being Khoikhoi invokes a thousand-year claim on lands we share with powerful white landowners and powerful black legislators alike.

But how can one assert a forgotten identity? Sarie warns that it can be a maddening undertaking. Bohmke reflects the quandary confronting coloured people well and the history that got us here is drawn in ferocious detail. While it is evident from certain plot details that Bohmke is not a member of the community, Sarie keeps you glued to the end. The writing is fresh and vivid. I am not going to speak much about the ending of the book, but I will say this. Ghonaqua giants still inhabit our mountains and forests. There is hope for justice as long as we are brave.

*****

*****

Jean Burgess is chief of the Ghonaqua Khoikhoi, Grahamstown, Eastern Cape.

[Photo courtesy of Randy OHC]

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