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HOW THE WEST WAS LOST

by Sandile Dikeni

At a rough guess, my grandfather, Voorslag Dikeni, must have carried about 90-something years of wisdom when he visited my family in the dusty Karoo town of Victoria West in 1978. My own age was exactly a dozen years of boyish mischief. At this age issues beyond yourself hurl themselves at you when you least expect them.

The purpose of the visit was to fulfil his duties as the eldest in the Dikeni lineage. He came to circumcise the two eldest in the house of his second youngest son George Ntweninji Dikeni, my father. My granddad came to lead my two eldest brothers in one of the most important rites of passage in Xhosa society, the path to manhood. Maybe this is why I cannot forget the spring of 1978. I cannot forget the wrinkled face of old man Voorslag under a grey crop of hair and the laughter that always crept from belly level to jump at you from an amazingly still intact set of teeth. I cannot forget that face especially: it keeps on coming back with the smell of blooming flowers and the song of birds in the quiet veld, where I made my way to and fro to the circumcision school, doing my duty to my brothers as a laaitie, carrying their food, my feet burning as the Karoo soil made braaivleis of them.

The spring of ‘78 was also a rite of passage for me, a closing of my primary school days. A closing of a particular relationship with my two eldest brothers. They were no more simply Dicey and Douglas. No, they were Mkhwetha Dicey and Mkhwetha Douglas. Soon they would be Krwalas Dicey and Douglas and later, when the summer crept in an early awakening sun, the titles would change to ‘bhuti’ denoting their arrival to manhood, ubudoda.

‘This is all about growing,’ I used to think as I walked through the silent veld stopping now and then to catch an unfortunate scorpion to dissect, searching for the difference compound eyes and simple eyes as taught in the standard five class of Victoria West Bantu community school.

Spring ’78, was also ten years after my father got arrested for a crime he did not commit. Ten years of losing jobs for no apparent reason after the Special Branch had visited some of his employers for a ‘coffee meeting’. Ten years of George Ntweninji Dikeni leaving as nothing with nothing except his manhood and his culture and his dompas.

In October ’78 this man entrusted his only link to whites and therefore to jobs and life – his dompas – to his namesake, second-last-born in the family, George Jr, also known as Sandile Dikeni, me, myself, I. The responsibility to keep a dompas in the 1970s, it should be remembered, was not a hierjy task, it was an enormous task given to a responsible person. I realised I was growing. I was becoming big. I was going to keep that dompas safe. So safe I kept it, that even I could not find it.

Where to go with the story of a dompas lost? To Mum? Everloving Mum who sleeps with my unemployed father every night? No man, that is one sure way to betray yourself to a hungry and therefore angry man called your father. To your younger brother and friend? No man, ten-year-olds have a tendency to talk out of turn and say oops afterwards. Shall you whisper to your elder brother with whom you never exchange anything except blows since he got his first girlfriend? No ways, that means exchanging blows with two people; your brother and your father. And so, what are grandfathers made for, especially when they are 90 and wrinkled and walk around with the most beautiful smile you have ever seen? They are made for counselling twelve-year-olds who lose dompasses in the 1970s.

I went to see Voorslag, the chief whip in the Dikeni family. My grandfather did not fail me. He advised me to go to Aunt Dingetjie, a fortune-teller who lived in the Coloured township called Sunrise. Clasping a 50-cent coin in my hands, I made my way across the river that divided the Coloured from the African natives, swerved past Blikkiesdorp where the poorest of the Coloured population made their survival in corrugated iron shacks, avoided the railway line that stretches through an area called Die Grens and, trotting at an easy pace with my heart in my throat, I swerved to the right towards the dust of Aasbult from where my rescue would come.

I was out of breath when I arrived at Aunt Dingetjies’ house. I was struck dumb when I saw the old lady. A shock of the white greyish hair nestled over a calm friendly face. Her face was a soft grey algae under what I presumed to be her hair. Her oriental body was covered with some white cloth that made her seem holy to me. I took two uncertain steps towards her when she summoned me in a sotto voice: ‘Kom nader.’ I felt naked in front of this strange Coloured woman who knew who my mother was without even asking me. She knew and told me that I was a good boy who did well at school and wished me all the best.

I was confused. This is not what they told me about amaQheya. AmaQheya are supposed to be strange people whom you had to fear, especially little African boys who lose their fathers’ dompasses. This was different. She also made me sit and offered me some tea. After I had the tea out of a china cup that my mother reserves for visitors, she asked my reason for the visit with mischief written all over her oriental face. I told her of the wretched pass and its loss. With a laugh she told me: the pass was on the left side of my parents’ house at a place I could not reach. I pondered over this and suddenly I remembered: ‘Of course, the spens, on top of the pantry shelves! That’s where I hid it.’ That is also where I found the dompas when I reached home.

But that’s later. Before that, running home, with my feet choosing the stones across the slow flowing river, I became aware of the 50-cent piece in my sweaty palm. I did not pay her. ‘Jesus,’ it ran in my thoughts as I turned around in the middle of the river to go back, ‘now she is really going to kill me, put an amaQheya curse on me or something that will make me never reach circumcision age.’ I ran back to go and pay. She only laughed, told me again that I was a good boy and advised me to use the money wisely, save it or buy a book for the next school year! She confused me, Aunt Dingetjie.

Running back to New Bright location many thoughts milled around in my brain. There was a lot of strange things about Aunt Dingetjie. She did not really belong in Aasbult. Her long hair was more suited for Barnard Street where the Basters stayed. Also, amaQheya are not supposed to behave in the way she behaved. But why did my grandfather send me to iQheya instead of a Xhosa witchdoctor? Maybe the Coloured culture is stronger than our own amaGqirha who throw dolosses and sneeze vir die vaale. But what did the word iQheya mean anyway?

I went to ask my grandfather. ‘AmaQheya,’ said my grandpa, ‘are people who work for other people.’

That revelation in the spring of ’78 left me more confused than wiser. Because I did not understand why the term was derogatory. After all, my parents and their friends, all Xhosas, were also working for other people. For that matter they were working for amabhulu (white people).

The confusion was eased later in my life after I registered for sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand. There I met Karl Marx and Max Weber, who explained to me that ‘people working for other people’ are actually called a proletariat. It is an economic concept that has to do with labour relations. I also learnt other economic concepts, such as slave labour and slavery, that I could translate into isiXhosa as Ubukhoboka.

I also learnt at university about the industrialisation of South Africa and how this had been resisted by the African populations at the time. The Xhosa specifically resisted proletarianisation, preferring a peasant way of life. After uNongqawuse and the massive destruction of cattle by amaXhosa, the beginning of the end for a Xhosa peasantry came with the 1913 Land Act. The Act took away the land from the peasants and started a reluctant exodus to the mines. This is when the Xhosas began to refer to themselves as amaGoduka (those who go back home), refusing to accept that they were amaQheya – a proletariat.

That refusal is still prevalent today amongst most amaXhosa who have been urbanised as a proletariat. It is prevalent right inside my house where my father still refers to himself as a member if the Amagcina clan whose home is in the Transkei at Lady Frere at a village called eMachibini. The truth, however, is that my father is a proletarian – he works for other people. The truth is that most amaXhosa are actually amaQheya. The bigger truth is that there is no real peasantry anymore among the Xhosa. Even those who still go home to the rural areas (they are very few, if one looks at the statistics of urbanisation and unemployment since the Group Areas Act was repealed in 1986) do not produce for themselves but for the market.

But then, why do the Xhosa still refer to the Coloured people as amaQheya, excluding themselves? It’s a psychological thing with its base in cultural and historical factors.

IT all began many many years ago. The history books write in English that it was before Jan van Riebeeck. My elders say it was before Ntsikane, the Xhosa prophet, the first recorded Xhosa convert to Christianity and a composer. Then, history goes, amaXhosa had a system of labour relations that made it a disgrace for a man to work for another. Indeed, it was unnecessary because they all owned cattle and pieces of land utilised in a communal fashion by the tribe. Ubukhoboka or slavery was also a disgrace to the Xhosas who culturally could not – and still cannot – fathom a hierarchy other than that of Qamata as God, who is above all and who must be respected by the ancestors who in turn must be obeyed by the king. The king was respected by the men who ruled over women and, at the bottom, the children were expected to respect their mothers. This is the hierarchy outlined by the Xhosa writer S.E.K. Mqhayi in his famous book Ityala lama Wele. 

This hierarchy explains the Xhosas’ relationship towards Coloureds as we know it now. Before the white people came, there were no ‘Coloured’ people. The recorded history of ‘Coloured’ people began when white people made amakhoboka – slaves – out of Hottentots and brought slaves from Java, Malaysia, Mauritius, etc. to the Cape.

The first integration between black and white that resulted in mixed people has its root in slavery at the Cape. (The Cape had been occupied by amongst others amaXhosa, amaQhakancu or Bushmen, and amaLawu or Hottentots as African native Peoples – I specifically use these terms.) The Xhosas had names and therefore relationships with other African natives, but not for the Malaysians, the Javaians or the black people from Mauritius. These people were first amaKhoboka to the Xhosas and then later, after the slaves were freed but still sold labour to the whites, amaQheya.

It is, for instance, interesting to note how the Xhosa name for Hottentot, amaLawu, is interchangeably used with amaQheya as derogatories to denote the same thing. This is because the Hottentots were located much nearer to the whites in the Western Cape. The geographic position of the Hottentots around the seventeenth century also explains why they fell more easily than the other native African groups to slavery and proletarianisation. 

I do not know the perspective of amaQhakancu to what happened at the Cape because I do not know their language and have never read a book written by a Bushman. (All the books I have seen about the history of Bushmen are written by whites about Bushmen.)

I do know, however, that amaXhosa looked at the foreign blacks (Malaysians, Javaians, Mauritians), and could only characterise them in terms of labour relations: amaQheya. But the term also combines culture and economics at a later stage. The relationship between slave and master and later worker and employer led to intermarriage between whites and blacks at an earlier stage and more frequent pace at the Cape than anywhere else in the country. Intermarriage did happen in other parts of the country, but the historic-cultural (and even economic) base for this did not have its origins in slavery. The first Xhosa, for instance, to marry a white person did so voluntarily during a scholarship in Scotland in the nineteenth century. He was a minister of the Scottish Presbyterian Church of Africa, by the name of Tiyo Soga. In other words, the derogatory aspect in mix breeding also had to do with the socio-economic aspect. Remember the reverend was a Xhosa who never worked for another person (except maybe, uQamata) and never was a slave.

In short, the people we now know as ‘Cape Coloured’ were, in the perspective of the Xhosas, slaves who worked for other people and who were therefore not held in high repute. Popular written history did not record that perspective. It also did not record the reaction of those slaves to Africa as their land of slavery. the only recorded fact is their attempts at rebellion against that form of labour.

THE ‘Cape Coloured’ comes a diaspora in the same way as the mulatto in Brazil and the Afro-American in North America. The psychological return to the motherland has always been a point at issue amongst diasporaed people. Could it be the same in South Africa?  How do the Coloured people regard Africa and African natives? Frankly I do not know, popular written history has never recorded this. South African history has forever recorded out history in terms of how black people (I include Coloured people here) relate to white people.  If it ever recorded how we related to each other it was some fiction written by a white person recreating Xhosa and Zulu war that never happened.

So, the question remains: how do the Coloured people relate the Xhosas in the Cape as African native people?  Not very well, according to my theory. The relationship worsened during the phase of proletarianisation and cultural assimilation of the slaves to be ‘Coloured’.  Further, it was worsened by apartheid which co-opted one side and segregated the two proletarians by legislation. Here history becomes interesting, because the apartheid legislation formulated the first record of what a Coloured is.  

The ex-slaves were given an ethnic identity by white people which they refused. They formed Coloured political parties which, in my opinion, was a response by a mixed people to a threat to their economic position.  And unlike during the days of slavery, they reached out for an alliance with African natives who were also economically threatened. The African natives also formalised their identity on the basis of what racism tried to do to their economy; their land.  They formed the African Native Congress. Batswana, Xhosa, etc. came together to defend their right as a peasantry under the banner of the then ANC. These two economic blocks later formed part of what was called the Congress Alliance which gathered at Kliptown in 1955 to protest against apartheid. But they went on to adopt the Freedom Charter – as African natives and Coloureds.


What I am trying to do here is simply to discover the attitude of diasporaed and once enslaved people to an African reality called South Africa.  The end result is that it is an economic relationship with cultural overtones. The reason is that a Coloured cultural existence is an economic one.  Diaspora (the Xhosas do not have a term for this one because they were never displaced), ubukhodoka (slavery), ubuQheya (proletarianisation) are the three cornerstones of the Cape Coloured people’s relationship to Africa and South Africa. Diaspora is a bit overshadowed by the two economic factors, but nevertheless remains equally important.  In fact, the reason why the economic factors became so important is because of diaspora. There is forever a quest amongst displaced people to survive the antagonisms of the land of slavery. That quest is spelled out in economic terms.  

I further wish to dispute the notion that Coloureds do not have a culture.  They do have a culture; albeit sometimes battered and denied, it is nevertheless there.  It is a culture of slavery and brave resistance to slavery. In the many national battles fought in South Africa there is one that goes unnoticed: how people resisted slavery in the Cape.  

Nobody wanted to claim slavery as a proud thing. More, the strength of the Muslim religion at the Cape is significant of the diaspora from Malaysia.  I have witnessed the same in Brazil’s Bo-Kaap, Pillorinho. There the remnants of a West African religion assimilated into Brazilian culture is called Candomble.  And as far as tradition is concerned, remember Aunt Dingetjie from Victoria West. And what about the Cape Coons that still keep the songs from the days of slavery alive every time they enter another year alive?

So, there is something called a Cape Coloured culture although it is denied.  The denial always comes when one asks Coloureds about their roots. Most (at least from the Western Cape) say they come from somewhere in Europe.  There are a few Coloureds to whom I have posed the question who gave me both sides of their parentage. One such person is Jakes Gerwel, who told me that his mother is Xhosa, another is Don Mattera, who recalls both the Tswana and Italian heritage.  But alas they do not come from the Western Cape. It is important what it reveals of the divide between the Cape Coloured and the rest of the country. Jakes and Bra Don are able and prepared to deal with their identity because of their integration with African culture.  In other regions the emotionalism of the slave culture is excluded by geographical distance from the castle but also, the higher level of integration in the other regions was favoured by the fact that mixed people are a definite minority in those regions.

The identity of the Cape Coloured has many characteristics of which the most important is their lack of integration into the African native way of life.  This is not only true for the Coloured, but for all of us in the Cape. The obvious sign of such integration can be found in language. Our languages are segregated in the Cape while Johannesburg and Soweto have listened to the voice of Africa and gave birth to what is called flaaitaal.  My conclusion is that the rate of segregation is high in the Cape, but it does not mean that the Coloured people are racist. Racially Prejudiced yes, but racist no. Racism is a justification of economic and political power based on skin colour. Coloured people never had economic and political power in this country or in the world – so how can they want to justify such power when they never had it in the first place?

As far as the world is concerned, both myself and the Coloured are marginalised as ‘the black people’ without our consent.  I learnt this in London, Munich and Oslo where me and my fellow Coloured travellers were invariably ‘die Schwarze’ or ‘the blacks’.  What I am saying here is that black people cannot be racist because they do not have the power to enforce racism, neither on a national level, nor on an international level.  I am further saying that the Coloured people are black and they can therefore not be racist. So, I reject the notion that Coloured people in the Western Cape were racist when they voted against the liberation movement (not for the NP) in the first democratic elections. I accept instead a much more complex explanation.  What happened in the Western Cape during the election was a culmination of a historic cultural trend that I could begin to discern in the 1980s.

The Western Cape experienced a higher level of integration in the 1980s with, first, the formation of the United Democratic Front which united us on a non-racial ticket against the tricameral parliament.  Later the scrapping of the influx control allowed an exodus of African peoples into the Western Cape. I arrived in the Cape around this time as a result of the demise of Section 10(1)(a).

I went to study law at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in 1987.  I was not alone. Many other African students came to this traditionally Coloured campus, chased away by repression from ‘black’ campuses and welcomed by the open-door policy of Bush (UWC).  Bush was a microcosm of the Western Cape, especially of the Peninsula. The demographics spoke for themselves. African natives were a minority at the university. Our interaction (socio-politically) as students showed a great divide between Coloured and African natives.  Many of us came to UWC with an African militancy that stood in contrast to the political traditions of the Cape. More and more Coloured students began to distance themselves from the progressive student movement, but remained active in their community structures. This phenomenon was quickly dubbed ‘reactionary’ by the student movement.  The SRC began to lose its popularity amongst Coloured students to the point that its elections failed to reach the required minimum for student government…

This polarisation amongst black people in the Cape was not limited to UWC.  It was a regional phenomenon playing itself out within the non-racial movement of the Cape in that horrible form I dub ‘the vulgarity of the privacy of language’.  The African natives held for a long time that the Coloureds sold them out many times within the non-racial struggle. As evidence, citations are given about how Coloured students dissented on national decisions to boycott examinations – first in 1976 and then again in 1980.  A further polarisation, in my opinion, happened in the youth structures of the liberation movement when more and more power was wrangled from the hands of Coloured activists under the slogan: ‘Leadership of the African majority’. This ‘undebatable’ concept was a result of one of the many strategic meetings of the SACP/ANC alliance, and might have had a relevance in the national discourse.  But in the Western Cape it did not make sense – the Coloureds were a majority in this region. This blunder in the politics of the Western Cape was maintained until the liberation elections with an unwarranted number of African natives leading the movement in the province – many of them coming from outside the region without a proper understanding of the area to provide proper leadership in it.

It is around this time that the country held its national local government elections.  Many times, I was told that the ‘bloody Coloureds’ are going to vote for the reactionaries.  But the election results were a shock in the Cape. While the rest of Cape Town showed low polls of 0 – 1 percent in those elections, Khayelitsha had the highest poll of nearly 45 percent and the candidate who won was Mali Hoza.  That gets one thinking, doesn’t it?

It also makes one think about the elections in 1994.  How does a people who gave a vote of no confidence to the Nats in 1988 turnaround in an election that means Uhuru and vote for the very same National Party?  I think that commentators tend to underestimate the sophistication of the Coloured voter.

The sophistication comes from history, a history of being contested by the white nationalists, the liberation movement (seen as African) and the Cape’s traditional movements like the Unity Movement (Coloured intellectual) and its likes.

It must be explained that although the Coloured people were never part of the decision to receive preferential treatment from the whites, they did receive such treatment.  They received some benefits like a higher education that left them more literate compared to the average African. It also means that they therefore had a greater opportunity to make informed decisions than their African counterparts.  I further suggest that the lesson we need to learn from the local government elections in the 1980s is that the 

Africans were mere followers in the absence of the banned ANC in Khayelitsha.

Illiteracy has made followers out of our people.  I also argue that the African voter was less informed during the recent elections and basically voted as followers of a popular ANC at an emotional time called national liberation.  The Coloured people, in contrast, are a proletariat who joins Cosatu unions but reserves the choice of a political movement.

There is a river between the African native people and the Coloureds.  But I do not believe that the river is a purely ethnic one, nor is it racial, let alone a racist divide.

If one thinks about it the whole thing goes back to amaQheya; the cultural proletariat.  This is a proletariat who does not care a damn who Allan Boesak takes to bed as long as he does not threaten their economic survival.  A proletariat that in fact believes that a man is a thing that sleeps around. But also, a proletariat with a cultural history that has taught it to be careful of an African existence… After all, its own real moment of liberation (from slavery into a proletariat) was in the nineteenth century.

This piece first appeared in Chimurenga 07: Kaapstad! And Jozi the Night Moses Died (July 2005), a collection of musings – in words, images and sounds – from beneath the processed skin of Cape Town.


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