The history of slavery and colonisation in South Africa has largely been ignored (except in academic circles) in favour of the more dominant narrative of apartheid.
However, given that the Cape was colonised two centuries before the rest of South Africa, the importance of this legacy and its impact on social and economic conditions is fundamental to the understanding of contemporary South Africa.
Slavery was a subject glossed over in the history classes we were taught in apartheid-era schools. Presented as a more benign version of slavery elsewhere, slave-owners in South Africa were portrayed as paternal figures caring for their child-like slaves while attempting to “civilise” them.
As a child I was vaguely aware that the Coon Carnival my parents took us to watch in District Six each New Year, or the liederen sung at “Malay” weddings, had a connection to slavery. The absence of published slave narratives confirmed that slaves were nothing more than possessions, their histories undocumented apart from lists of slave-owners’ possessions, estate transfer documents and court cases. It is only in the last thirty years that studies on slavery at the Cape have presented a counter-narrative.
Although slavery existed in antiquity, it did not equate with race until the 15th century. Questions about skin colour came from European contact with the wider world and the answers often came from an interpretation of the Book of Genesis that linked dark skin, Africans, and servile status to the curse of Ham (in spite of the fact that there is no textual connection to dark skin or to Africans).
By the 18th century the curse of dark skin and slavery were synonymous, and played a fundamental role in the justification of slavery in the British Empire and the New World.
In antiquity, many slaves occupied higher positions as artists, educators or soldiers, and were often symbols of power and prestige rather than a source of labour. In the New World, however, slavery provided the labour force for a profit-making system of plantation agriculture that produced cotton, sugar, coffee and cocoa for distant markets.
Slavery was essentially about economics – the trans-Atlantic slave route assisted the manufacturing industries of Europe which produced weapons and iron to purchase slaves who were taken to the New World; goods generated from slave labour there made its way back to Europe.
The forcible removal of over 12 million Africans to the Americas was one part of the trade in human bodies. Another was that of those who were shipped in an Indian Ocean slave trade to the Cape.
Indian Ocean slavery differed from North Atlantic slavery in a number of ways; trade was mainly female not male, slaves were required for household rather than plantation work, and the lines were blurred between slaves, “free” people, indentured labourers and settlers.
This was further complicated by the independent traders and, mainly Muslim, clerics and pilgrims who came to the Cape.
The Dutch were active participants in both the Atlantic and Indian Ocean slave trades.
The Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC or the Dutch East India Company) was a sovereign body which acted independently of the Dutch government, although its headquarters were in the Netherlands.
They were granted a monopoly over trade in the East Indies, where they enslaved over half of the population of Batavia (Jakarta) and protected their monopoly with brute force.
In 1652, the VOC established a refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope. Six years later the first slaves from the coast of Guinea and Angola arrived to meet the increased labour needs of the colony, but by 1700 about 50% of slaves came from the coast of India.
By 1660 the Cape was a busy port where a multitude of languages were spoken and women from all backgrounds bolstered the population.
The VOC turned a blind eye to the fact that the slave lodge served as a brothel for garrison soldiers and passing sailors, since it increased the slave population and within two decades liaisons between Europeans, slaves and the Khoisan had given rise to a population of mixed origin.
Between 1652 and 1795 there were 1 273 “mixed” unions and 147 cases of marriage between “coloureds” and Europeans. Cape-born women of mixed parentage made up the majority of brides and became matriarchs of “white” South African families. European surnames masked the slave woman’s origins and the descendants of these marriages were all accepted into the “white” community.
Slavery was a central element of the Dutch colonial conquest and part of the emergence of Afrikaner political and social ideas, although both the British and the Dutch occupied the Cape during this time and were responsible for the continuation of slavery until it was abolished in 1834.
As happened elsewhere, discrimination arose against non-Europeans and people of half-European descent. Racial prejudice and ethnic division laid the foundation for apartheid in South Africa and a climate of violence and the devaluation of the labour of domestic workers and farm labourers.
The Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and Lord Milner’s reconstruction programme (1902-1907) left thousands of Boer families homeless and destitute; they were accommodated in camps where they died in catastrophic numbers.
Those who flocked to the cities to work on the mines found themselves competing for the same jobs as “black” people. A new Afrikaner nationalism arose out of a deep sense of grievance. Power and European descent became very important and maintaining racial distinctions became a compelling necessity. The colour bar was to become the hallmark of the South African way of life.
Author and academic Gabeba Baderoon (2014) observes that “slavery generated foundational notions of race and sex in South Africa” that has largely been forgotten through the sustained system of propaganda that portrayed slavery as mild.
However, the legacy of slavery is not only present in our ideas about race and sex, but in the high levels of violence that South Africa continues to experience today.
For most of the 180 years that slavery existed at the Cape, slaves far outnumbered the settlers. Excessive force and punishment was used to control slaves who were subjected to regulations such as the size of their gatherings and the control of their movements by carrying passes – a practice that resurfaced in apartheid legislation.
Slave women were routinely subjected to brutal sexual assault, but throughout the period of slavery, not one male – slave or freed, white or black – was convicted for the rape of a slave woman. Today, sexual violence in South Africa has reached epidemic proportions, with one in five women being assaulted.
The history of the picturesque Cape vineyards is interwoven with 350 years of slavery and serfdom. Farmers controlled their workers with low wages, tied housing, corporal punishment and the dop system.
This system of paying workers in daily rations of cheap alcohol fostered a lifestyle of dependency and abuse. Poor living conditions and poor nutrition contributed to foetal alcohol syndrome and high infant mortality rates. Recent protests in the Robertson area of the Western Cape illustrate the plight of farmworkers today.
But to remember slavery is also to remember the spirit of resistance which brought into being a vibrant and diverse culture of music and dance, food, language, in spite of repression.
This process of creolisation was not specific to South Africa but occurred globally. Many of the slaves from Bengal, the Malabar Coast and the Indonesian archipelago came as political prisoners when the VOC used the Cape as a penal colony.
Men like Sheikh Yusuf of Macassar1 and Tuan Guru2, provided intellectual and religious leadership. It was Muslim political exiles who were the first to write in Afrikaans, a language that had evolved through the simplification of Dutch blended with “Malay” and indigenous languages in order for inhabitants of the Cape to communicate with each other.
South Africa’s rich legacy of music can be traced back to the 17th century when the indigenous Khoi people first played European folksongs on a ramkie, the guitar-like Malay instrument.
Music was a highly- valued skill which could ensure a higher price for slaves who often formed part of the estate’s orchestra. “Malay” slaves blended their music with Dutch ballads and further musical integration happened between “coloured” and African labourers working on the diamond mines in Kimberley.
According to social historian, David Coplan, (1985) it was jazz that would influence and shape most “black” music, fusing with mbaqanga, marabi and kwela, and with rock and pop. He observes that “versatile musicians absorbed almost everything, played for almost everyone, and gave birth to an authentically South African jazz”.
Each year on December 1, we celebrate the anniversary of the emancipation of slaves in South Africa. We should proudly remember the contributions to our society by ordinary people, who found ways to survive cruelty while holding onto what made them human.