The lie of 1652: race and class in South Africa Interview with Patric Mellet
Amandla Issue 73/74 | December 2020
Amandla!: Who is Patric Tariq Mellet?
Patric Mellet: I’m from Cape Town – District 6 and Woodstock. Our most overarching identity is that we were poor working class people: bucket toilet, primus stove cooking, living in one room. A single mother, earning R5 a week, working in a laundry shop. When I went to work in my 15th year, I earned R10 for a six-day working week in a small sweat shop. On top of that, our family suffered from race classification. Our family includes poor white, coloured and Indian in terms of the classification system labels. This created havoc when it was introduced. Racial classification, and District 6 being destroyed, conscientised me in the sense of something being taken away and becoming class-conscious. Our lives were being messed with. It made me angry.
I joined a trade union when I was 16, and at that time political parties were banned. The Black Consciousness movement was just finding its feet. In 1976, I was involved in small groups of workers that I organised and initially in the Young Christian Worker Movement. I started bringing out a newspaper, Young Voice, which got banned. Then we called it New Voice but it also got banned.
I kept pushing the boundaries, and then in 1978 people around me started to be taken by the security police. That’s when I crossed the border into Botswana and did my first liberation movement training with the ANC and SACP. I was also in Zambia for about 18 months. There I did training in use of arms and I was working on Radio Freedom and started a liberation movement printing press. In 1981 I was sent to the London College of Printing to upgrade my printing skills and from 1985 worked again in the liberation press. I worked in exile for 14 years in the Department of Publicity and Information and with the South African Congress of Trade Unions.
A!: A central aim of the book is to expose what you call, The lie of 1652. What are the key themes around which you dismantle this lie?
PM: When we say the lie of 1652, it’s effectively the lies of 1652 – plural. The first chapter demolishes the notion of an empty land and that our history starts with Van Riebeeck’s arrival. I go back 3,000 years and move forward to the first entry of Europeans into the region to show that there is an amazing history. The peopling of South Africa was a gradual process of circular migrations that happened across the whole of southern Africa.
The second chapter explains that the founding of a port (Cape Town) did not begin only in 1652. A port is a place of interaction and trade. This was happening from 1600 to 1652 in a big way – 2,000 ships if you take the outward and homebound ships, over 120,000 outsiders visiting, and people getting stranded for 4-9 months at the Cape. This interaction had huge impacts on local societies and economies.
The third chapter deals with 19 wars over 227 years, that resulted in dispossession of land. So you had things like the grazing licence that allowed settlers to take their cattle into Khoe and San territories. Once there, conflict occurred over water, grazing land, and European expropriation of cattle. Then the militia would come, there would be a war, and settlers would be allowed to peg out land with the VoC establishing a leasehold system by laying claim to the land as a company then leasing it to trek-Boers in the form of the “leningplaats”.
A!: Explain the meaning of Camissa and its importance in your argument.
PM: Throughout the world, societies developed around rivers. There is nothing unique about having a multi-ethnic society in a port. The uniqueness about South Africa is that the rest of Africa doesn’t call people coloured; they are Africans that are in the ports. The term Camissa is essentially the creolised version of an old Kora (Khoi) word for fresh drinking-water, (ǀǀKhamis sa – sweet water for all), and refers to the river that flows, now underground, through Cape Town.
I talk of three broad streams of South African ancestral and cultural heritage – African, Afro-European, and Asian, who came together for the first time around the Camissa River. These do not have sharp dividing lines; they blur into each other, and that blurring is where people express themselves. The port experience in Cape Town from 1600 occurred elsewhere in Africa: Luanda, Kilwa in Sofala, Pemba, Zanzibar. The Camissa embrace speaks of local indigenous people, African and Asian enslaved people and non-conformist Europeans who integrated. Together they faced the adversity of colonialism, slavery, indentured labour, genocide, de-Africanisation and Apartheid. In the process, a creole identity emerged. This Camissa African identity is thus not a race, ethnicity, or colour.
I’m an African, I’m a southern African, we are a cousin-connected peoples across Southern Africa. The Shona have as their basis the Khoe and the San. The Tsonga, Khoe and San, the early pastoral kingdoms, had as their root the Kalanga. The Kalanga is a mix of San, Khoe and slow infusions from west, east and central Africa which multiplied over time. So, when I use the term Camissa I’m not drawing simply on a “Coloured” multi-ethnic experience. I’m drawing on this older tradition that should unite us, through our roots of coming together – around “sweet water for all” – rivers, waterways.
A!: How do you respond to the criticisms that Camissa is a substitute for coloured and that it does not take account of experiences outside Cape Town?
PM: Answering the question, immediately means going way beyond 1911 when the term coloured becomes formalised. No African people today has singular ethnic roots. The only distinction between Camissa Africans and other African peoples is the former’s multi-ethnic roots include African, Asian and European admixture.
There is a crisis of identity amongst coloured people. There is a need for us to assert and reclaim our African identity and not be marginalised from the broader African identity. Colonialism de-Africanised us. This is something that unites a person labelled coloured, in Durban, Joburg, Lusaka or Cape Town. It’s getting away from this “Cape Coloured” nonsense to a scenario in which we are African people with multi-ethnic ancestry like all other African people.
A Camissa African identity incorporates non-conformist Europeans who integrated into African-Asian societies. I also keep distinguishing between whiteism and being Afro-European. “White” is a colour and speaks of “race” while Afro-European is an ancestral-cultural heritage. There’s a very big difference having an ancestral and cultural identity that incorporates Europe with your African experience rather than defining yourself in terms of white superiority and whiteism.
Who is an African? This gets defined in the late 1800s through the Pan-African Association, established in London by African delegates from Africa, Britain, the Caribbean and the USA. Alice Alexander from Kimberley was a prime mover of the Pan African Association and conference. An amazing woman, who in my way of thinking was a Camissa African.
There are pitfalls to this as there are white people who say, “I am now proudly African, because I can identify an indigenous African in my family tree”, and then suppose all of the apartheid era doesn’t mean anything. No, no, no there is still something called the black experience. My response to them is, “you did not have the black experience”. Black is an experience in a world of white supremacy.
A!: Explain your historical review of the label coloured.
PM: Between 1840 and 1911 colonialists use a range of terminologies for people. The term “coloured” was initially “the British Coloured People of Southern Africa”; so it referred to all people of colour. If you were Xhosa, Sotho, San and Khoe you were coloured, as well as if you were “‘mixed-other”. At the end of the 1800s, a laissez faire use of the term coloured as meaning “mixed – other” is introduced and you start to get the use of the term “native” as meaning persons who are still tribally organised.
Before 1911 you had a number of African societies: Koranna, Damara, Nama, Griqua, Cape Hottentot, Zanzibari, Masbieker, etc. Suddenly in 1911 they disappear through a forced assimilation process and a new concept was introduced which effectively de-Africanised all people who did not speak any of the Bantu family of languages or were considered “mixed”.
Within the new grouping called “coloured”, 70 per cent were people with direct roots in African societies. Through slavery you had a combination of African, Indian and Southeast Asian people being brought together in a melting pot. And these independent identities were soon lost. And what basically held the emergent creolised community together was the experience of adversity.
A!: In the 1970s, black consciousness critiqued all of this from a different perspective, arguing for a need to embrace that oppressed people are all black. How does your notion of Camissa relate to the position of Black Consciousness?
PM: I fully support the Black Consciousness concept, which wasn’t about black in terms of the way apartheid thinks of it – as shame. It spoke to the black experience. PW Botha very cleverly turned the term “black” into an ethnic term in 1977 as an attack on the Black Consciousness movement, which used “I’m black and I’m proud of it”. That still remains important to me. The vast majority, 92 per cent of South Africans, are black. “Black” is not a label; nor does it substitute for or negate ancestral-cultural heritage.
We also cannot ignore the fact that the term “black” in our society today, for most people, has become Botha’s version of an ethnic term black. We navigate a territory of communication around black as an ethnicity, peculiar to South Africa. Most have lost sight of the valuable concept of Black Consciousness, with its focus on black pride and self-reliance.
A!: In the past period there have been several expressions of coloured nationalism, sometimes taking root in working class communities. What advice would you give activists about how to deal with this politics?
PM: There are two parts. One is around Khoe identities and the other is the issue of coloured identities. They are diametrically opposed to each other and both are rooted in communities. Whether or not they represent any substantial majorities in any communities is questionable.
The Khoe movement is highly fractured and has an element that is linked with far-right white groups. If we extrapolate from the 1904 census, there are probably around a million people who are connected to Khoe societies forced into marginalisation. We cannot ignore that. Just because officialdom said the Khoe no longer existed, doesn’t mean they were not there. Is it the right of those people and societies that survived to express their ancestral and cultural identity? Yes it is. There’s nothing wrong with that. Is it their right to elevate this to nation state, to begin to have separatist demands and so on? That’s where I would differ. I fundamentally differ with those using the European and Verwoerdian concept of “nation” or the non-Khoe concept of “kingdoms” and the imported term “First” which has subsequently tailored into a new meaning.
Then we come to those called “mixed other” and we analyse who they were. We find that 70 per cent have sub-Saharan African origins. The other 30 per cent is a mix of European, Eurasian, Southeast Asian and south and west Asian. But it cannot be separated out like that. It’s totally mixed. That beautiful history has been obliterated. The terminology “coloured” was placed on those people.
I am not an advocate of saying you’ve got to ban the term coloured. If someone wants to self-identify as coloured, that is their right. What you’ve got to do is to create the environment for people to explore their way out of the dead end that they’ve been taken down. My argument is that the state must stop with the use of the term coloured because that doesn’t allow exploration, it closes the door, it’s a gatekeeper.
My advice is NOT to aggressively engage in argument and insult in this arena. It’s a long game –we need to educate and wean people from false and insulting notions of “Khoisan” (a term born out of the genocide of the San and Nama in Namibia) and “Coloured”.
A!: You counter the obsession with racial classification in contemporary South Africa with the need to take a class-based approach to deal with the continuation of oppression and exploitation. The Democratic Alliance has recently claimed, problematically, to be the guardians of non-racialism What are your views on this?
PM: I’ve wrestled a long time with the term non-racialism and I certainly would not frame poverty as a proxy. Non-racialism is rooted in the phrase “without regard to race”. But “race” is a social construct of racism – it’s pseudo-science. My ideas are specifically anti-race, anti-racism. The DA are conflating a range of things. There is something called the black experience and the white experience. Colonialism and imperialism cannot be avoided; nor can their by-products of race superiority.
The DA uses the terms equal – “equal society” and “non-racial society”. When looked at closely their approach to equality is that it means 50/50 in terms of white and black. Our society is not 50% white to 50% black but rather 8% to 92% and it is this ratio that should define “‘equality’ and redress. The DA’s approach is to leave South Africa white dominated. It has a range of policies that are orientated around the white dominant business community and its interests, and has created a paradigm for finding solutions within a baaskap box.
I firmly believe in affirmative or, better still, transformative action. We have inequality as a result of imperialism and colonialism, which resulted in black dispossession and white empowerment. This power relationship must be shattered. When I use the term “white” here, I am referring to white-ism, an experience of Europeans being at the top of the pile, under-developing Africa to develop themselves.
Class rather than colour is the way to deal with that. We have a real imbalance where whites control 70 to 80 per cent of the means of production, farmland, schooling, and built environment. For affirmation to happen, class and poverty should be the yardstick and not the race-silo system. Why? The overwhelming majority of the marginalised poor are black. While the majority of the rich and powerful are white. Not all rich and powerful are white; a substantial class of rich and powerful persons of colour has emerged. They derail all transformative and empowerment opportunities aimed at the most vulnerable and marginalised. They manipulate a simple colour-based yardstick to monopolise the transformative system, thereby empowering themselves over and over again. Effectively they join forces in what has become an increasingly “non-racial” upper class. Ironically colour here gets to entrench the system of economic disenfranchisement in South Africa and a classical neo-colonial paradigm takes root.
The DA is not the only threat to the advancement of the poor black majority. I am the first one to say that the ANC has become bankrupt in terms of economic policy, in terms of the national question, in terms of the class question, in terms of the land question, in terms of corruption, ethno-nationalism. I can pile it on, my critique of the ANC.
What I’m talking about, in terms of “Class” rather than “Colour” as the means for redress should not be counterposed to the black experience as an intellectual paradigm for looking at South Africa. We are fighting a black struggle of the majority black poor. We are not fighting for “Black” as meant by PW Botha’s renamed Bantu ethnic group. The concept of black being an ethnicity of sub-Saharan Bantu language-speaking people is problematic, as problematic as is the term “Coloured”.
You cannot just wish away what happened and that people came to be called coloured. We’ve got to work on it. And what I’m doing is providing the means to talk about it with the aim of the state no longer using the black, white, coloured paradigm as a first step.
The language of engagement has to shift more from the academic to the experiential, but we are talking about the same thing. I personally have had to learn how to speak in an academic environment. As a young man my adjectives were all swear words before. I couldn’t speak well; I couldn’t write well. But I trained myself to do so because it’s important to wrestle within the world of discourse of ideas if we want to change our world. But it’s as important not to alienate the world that I come from by using a language in that context that is the one that I would use in this context. It’s very important.
How to deal with transformational issues: 92 per cent of our society are people of colour; 85 per cent of them are poor. Surely poverty and class should be the measure of progress? If you were dirt poor yesterday, where are you today and, where do you want to take that community tomorrow? It’s nonsense to say that for us to be able to measure this we have to have these race silos. Measuring transformation from poverty is the most important measurement and why the hell should we be measuring degrees of poverty and vulnerability along the divisions of Apartheid? So for me the whole issue of expression of cultural heritage and ancestry should not be brought into social engineering of any sort or into social redress of any sort. We should use class as the measure of progress and dealing with the dispossession of the past.
Patric Mellet is a retired pensioner after years of working in the NGO and state sectors since returning from exile in 1990. He now works as a heritage activist and does research and writing in this field.