Of cobblers, colonialism, and choices
Growing up in South Africa, I was told my British colonial ancestors were a fundamentally decent lot. Researching a novel has taught me the opposite.
In 1826, an Englishman called William Pitt arrived in Algoa Bay, South Africa. He followed his brother, who had been brought to these same shores six years earlier to strengthen the British colonial regime. Most settlers were poor and unemployed, induced to travel to the colony with misleading promises. On arrival, they were sent forth with a handful of farming implements, a rifle, and the belief that the land was theirs for the taking. They were shocked to discover that not only was the terrain a lot drier and wilder than the English fields they were used to, but it was occupied by amaXhosa clans whom the settlers were expected to displace and hold at bay. William gave up farming quite rapidly and opened a cobbler’s shop in Grahamstown (now Makanda).
William was my great great great grandfather. A century and a half after his arrival, I was growing up in the surreal dystopia of the white suburbs of Johannesburg in the 1960s. Myriad racist laws governed our lives – some draconian, some petty – but all designed to entrench white dominance and deprive Black people of wealth, security, and dignity. The landscape was littered with “whites only” signs to keep Black people out of parks and other places deemed white, unless they were shepherding white children in which case they could enter the park but not sit on its benches.
My family were against apartheid, and I knew that something was hideously wrong with the society in which I was living, but I did not connect it to my British antecedents at the time. I thought of them as a fundamentally decent lot who did well because of their ingenuity and hard work, not because they were white. We were told that the British abolished slavery and brought benefits like mission schools, railways, and cash crops in return for the land they acquired. We were made to believe it was the Boers – the Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans – who were the real villains.
In 1976, I went to university. That year was a turning point in South Africa, as a protest by Soweto school children sparked nearly 20 years of civil unrest, repression, and police violence until apartheid ended in 1994. My mostly white fellow students and I joined candlelit vigils and solidarity marches. We learnt how Africa was divided up amongst the colonial powers like so many slices of cake, about African scholarship and art, and that civilisation and culture was not only a European thing or perhaps was not a European thing at all. We read Karl Marx, Franz Fanon, and Chinua Achebe. We learnt freedom songs and went to meetings where speakers shouted iAfrica mayibuye (“let Africa return”) and amandla ngawethu (“power is ours”). We tried to learn isiXhosa.
In seminars and discussions, I also learnt that the British had not been decent after all – that the colonialists stole land and enslaved people, and that those exploitative relationships persist into modern times, perpetuating global inequality and keeping Africa in poverty. I realised that my ancestors were early progenitors of the toxic society in which I was living and, whether I supported apartheid or not, I benefited from it. I was white and privileged, the daughter of a director of a major construction firm. My father had grown up in modest circumstances, but when he returned from fighting for the Allied forces in World War II, he was given funding for a five-year degree in architecture. His fellow Black soldiers were given bicycles.
As a white person, the choice was plain: if you did not actively oppose apartheid, you were complicit. And so, I worked for an anti-apartheid newspaper that was instrumental in the formation of the United Democratic Front. I ran media and printing workshops, handed out pamphlets, painted banners for political rallies. I marched for political detainees and striking workers and to protest police violence. As a result, I was arrested, teargassed, and questioned. Our offices were burnt and our homes raided. But still, any harassment I suffered was nothing compared to what Black activists were going through. Even political repression was governed by race.
When the African National Congress (ANC) took power in 1994 and apartheid ended, I naively believed that my discomfort about whiteness would also end. I believed in the ANC, had fought for Nelson Mandela’s release, and had upheld the party’s Freedom Charter as a vision of a free and just society. I took pride in our new constitution – one of the most progressive in the world – and hoped my children would grow up in a democracy that was not governed by race, where all would have housing, health care, equal education, and human rights. That said, I was not one of those whites who believed that the day the “whites only” signs came down, apartheid would be erased – I knew it had left a deep and bitter legacy – but I did not realise just how deep and bitter.
My youngest child was born in the year Mandela was elected. They are now 28 years old and, despite some progress, still living in a fundamentally unequal society in which race is still a major predictor of prosperity. For instance, over 37% of Black people are unemployed compared to 8% of whites. The average income of Black people is a third that of their white counterparts. And public hospitals and schools, used predominantly by Black South Africans, are buckling under the strain of mismanagement and underfunding.
There is no doubt that much can be laid at the door of corrupt ANC leaders who have siphoned public money and valued loyalty over competence – much like the apartheid government before them. But it is equally true that white business leaders and politicians entered into negotiations at the end of apartheid with an agenda to weaken the ANC’s social democratic policies so business could continue as usual. That their agenda has been so successful is depressing. In only blaming the ANC, as many white South Africans like to do, it is also easy to overlook just how much the post-apartheid government was set up to fail by powerful global interests seeking to entrench a neoliberal agenda – interests whose roots lie in colonialism and British imperialism.
In recent years, I have acquainted myself more thoroughly with the British who colonised South Africa while researching a novel set in that time. My forebears left no diaries or letters, but I have read the words of many of their contemporaries. I have been moved by their courage, fortitude, and wry self-deprecation. And I have been appalled by their assumption of their right to appropriate land; by their belief in their superiority over anyone who has a different skin colour. I have learnt that there was collaboration with indigenous people as well as coercion; that a few, very few, who came to uphold the colonial project turned against it and supported indigenous people in their struggle for justice. I’ve also learnt that monstrous systems are upheld not only by monsters but by kindly people, who are either frightened, ignorant or deluded about the system they are helping to sustain; that history is knitted from an entangled mesh of conflicting narratives.
But entangled or not, my reading confirmed that British colonialism cast a long shadow, setting in motion a system that would impoverish indigenous people and give rise to racist eugenics that would underpin apartheid. Colonialism promoted a system of wealth production predicated on environmental destruction and human exploitation, which still governs our world today. Fossil fuels and growth-driven economies are creating a hell-scape for current and future generations.
There are days when I feel consumed by rage for my ancestors. Lambasting the dead is not helpful and holding people accountable for their ancestor’s actions in perpetuity is not feasible – if we did, the British might still be demanding reparations from Rome – but we can’t address the dangers that threaten our world today if we don’t understand their origins and how inequality is continually reproduced by historical relationships of power. The Global North needs to recalibrate its exploitative and extractive relationship with the Global South and repay some of what it has stolen. As an individual, I need to understand and acknowledge how I benefit from my ancestors’ actions and find ways to redress the balance.
Which brings me back to William, labouring away at his last. William himself might not have run a bayonet through anyone but he supplied the shoes of those who did. And, unlike their amaZulu and amaXhosa counterparts, British soldiers could not have conquered anyone had they been barefoot. William was a tiny cog in the gargantuan machine of British imperialism, but even gargantuan machines run on small cogs, and most of us are willing or unwilling parts in the neoliberal imperialist machine that drives the world today. I have no illusion about the limits of my power to change things, but if enough of those small cogs refused to keep turning, the machine could no longer function.
In my latest novel, I explore a story of how two brothers – one black, one white, one born to a Zulu shaman, one to English missionaries – subverted the colonial project in surprising ways. What continues to motivate me in these difficult days is the human capacity for subversion. Even in the darkest of times, there have been those brave enough to resist the agenda of those in power, to keep striving to manifest a different way of being in the world, however hopeless their struggle might seem. And perhaps their struggle is not hopeless, if you understand hope not as the absence of despair, but as the refusal to surrender.
I live in a complicated, messy, tragic, beautiful, and inspiring country. I live with the knowledge that I share the DNA of those who brought deep misery to its shores. But I can choose not to perpetuate that agenda. Everyday I see people doing extraordinary things to make this country and the world a better place for all to live in. Irrespective of my obligations to redress some of the injustices caused by my forebears, I want to be part of a movement that values community and nature over profit, fairness over greed, kindness over fear. Perhaps Great Great Grandfather William, had he known how things would transpire, would have approved.
Eye Brother Horn (Catalyst Press, 2023) is out now, available for shipping worldwide and as an e-book.