SA roots in literature: new reviews

26 November 2004“I am an African . I owe my being to the Khoi and the San . the migrants who left Europe . the Malay slaves from the East . those transported from India and China . the grandchild of the warrior men and women . taught never to dishonour the cause of freedom.” – Thabo Mbeki, opening of the new SA Constitution, 1996.The dawn of the new South Africa spawned a new quest for ancestral roots and the “real” story of how the Rainbow Nation got here – topics covered in an increasingly wide range of literature.

Here are quick reviews of a selection of new books from South African writers in search of the holistic truth espoused by President Thabo Mbeki.

What’s in a (South African) name? – Despite generations of official efforts to keep South Africans apart, racial mingling goes back to the very first years when white and black met at the Cape of Good Hope.

Dan Sleigh’s epic tale of the Khoe woman Eva/Krotoa, who grew up in Jan van Riebeeck’s household and married a Danish colleague, is complemented by Theresa Benade’s romantic version of events at the early Cape, seen through the eyes of Anna De Koning, acquaintance of Eva and product of an unsolemnised slave/European union.

Jackie Loos gives deeper insight into the unromantic shenanigans of slaves who didn’t make it out of bondage, while Michael Morris puts the course of events and early relationships which shaped the Cape, and later the whole of South Africa, into perspective.

Stephen Taylor’s exploration of the 1782 survivors throws a whole new light on “the other side of the frontier” and accounts for some interesting “mixed marriage” origins previously only hinted at. Ingest and enjoy!

Islands Islands
By Dan Sleigh (Secker and Warburg, 2004)
Translated from the original Afrikaans version by Andre Brink, this sumptuous testimony to everyday events at the Cape soon after Van Riebeeck’s arrival has been described as “the great South African novel” everyone has been waiting for.

Drawing on the early Dutch East Indies Company journals, archival researcher Dan Sleigh reads between the lines of official entries and creates a fictional voice for Krotoa, the Khoe woman who was taken into Van Riebeeck’s employ and married Danish surgeon and explorer Pieter Meerhoff, and her daughter Pieternella.

By dissecting Pieternella’s life into the perspectives of seven men closely associated with her, from birth through her education in Mauritius, return to South Africa and marriage to Dutch farmer Daniel Zaaiman, Sleigh also provides an intimate account of the lives of the free burghers, slaves and kingpins at the Castle in the Cape’s formative years.

Though hard-core critics are wary of deviating into speculative testimonies, there can be little doubt that Sleigh’s reconstruction of the soap opera of early Cape relationships and politics is firmly rooted in fact. While indulging in his own romantic love affair with Pieternella, he takes great pains, gleaned over years of non-fiction research and writing, to present documented background.

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Kites of Good Fortune
By Theresa Benade (New Africa Books, 2004)
A descendant of Angela of Bengal, a slave in the employ of Jan van Riebeeck, Theresa Benade traces the life of her daughter, Anna de Koning, who married Swede Olof Bergh and experienced comparative luxury for one born into slavery.

Using archival and museum research from the reign of the Van der Stels and before, Benade weaves the happenings at the early Cape into a tale of romance and heartbreak, the aim of which is to define an elusive South African identity somewhere between Europe and the East.

Besides its poignance for all South Africans with mixed roots, it provides a background of social and political factors at play and an insight into slave/European relations before De Koning’s death in 1734. An easy, fulfilling read.

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Echoes of Slavery Echoes of Slavery
By Jackie Loos (New Africa Books, 2004)
Timeously published for Unesco Year of the Slave, Cape Town historian Jackie Loos documents intimate accounts of conditions of slaves at the Cape before emancipation in 1834.

Using scant testimonies of slaves, who were usually not allowed to testify in court, Loos gets behind the scenes of the forces at work on European estates and the Slave Lodge which played no small part in shaping apartheid.

From beatings and sexual exploitation by harsh masters to heinous executions and occasional happy tales, her candid commentary, much of it published in weekly Argus columns, opens the doors for more in-depth research.

A veritable feast for anyone with slave ancestors, or those oblivious to the real conditions that didn’t make the text books.

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Every Step of the Way Every Step of the Way
By Michael Morris (HSRC Press, 2004)
A much-needed textbook for the new SA, Argus reporter and historian Michael Morris’s “Every Step of the Way”, commissioned by the Department of Education, is a far cry from the Great Trek and Anglo-Boer War offerings that 1980s students were force-fed.

A balanced look at the real forces that shaped South African politics from the time the Dutch arrived at the Cape in 1652, the book analyses the factors that preceded and created apartheid, with Morris’s philosophical insights into what makes history providing solid groundwork for aspiring historians.

It’s refreshing, simple without being over-simplified, and draws on alternative sources which provide a deeper background to early history than the official pre-apartheid version. From the Eva/Krotoa story to Makana and the repatriation of Sara Baartman, there’s food for thought for any South African who’s ever wanted to trace their ancestral roots.

Though the Voortrekkers are given their due, their background is placed in a much broader context where it is revealed, among other interesting facts, that the great great granddaughter of Shayk Yusuf, regarded as the founder of Islam in South Africa, married into the family of slain Voortrekker hero Piet Retief.

As Morris says, “The real puzzle of our history lies in its apparent ordinariness, in the seemingly habitual way of doing things”. This book makes those realities accessible to all.

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The Caliban Shore The Caliban Shore
By Stephen Taylor (Faber and Faber, 2004)
Though he does not set out specifically with this purpose, South African-born author Stephen Taylor offers a startling insight into undocumented “mixed marriages” in the 19th century along the area known as the Wild Coast because of its notorious ability to lure ships to their grave.

Drawing on published records of the ill-fated Grosvenor, which ran aground north of Port St Johns on 4 August 1782, a testimony given by one of its 19 survivors and new research findings, Taylor documents the journey of the ship from India to the trek of the six men who reached a Dutch farm outside Port Elizabeth – and, finally, the discovery of the wreck in 1999.

A harrowing account of a sequence of errors, misunderstandings and fraudulent claims by treasure-seekers keen to cash in on the claim that the wreck carried a rare Persian treasure, the book also offers convincing proof that descendants of at least one of the three British women who became a Tshomane chief’s wife still live in the area.

While he didn’t get to find anyone who could prove direct descent, Taylor did meet members of the abeLunge, who, with paler complexion and aquiline features, are brought up knowing they are descended from the ship people. Read it and believe!

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