What does heritage month mean to me: A person having grown up during the violence and oppression of Apartheid and the current inequality of the present day?
My history was erased as if it was nothing but chalk on a blackboard, unwanted and undesirable, and in its place, history was re-written! This new history that indicated I am violent because I came from the violence that my family endured, except the white side of it.
I was socialized as “Coloured” living on the Cape Flats during the violent years of Apartheid. I never saw a black person until I turned 10-years-old. I didn’t know they existed. I recall asking my “aunt” Aggie, where she was from, as a curious 10-year-old would, and I remember she didn’t “sound” like me. But I adored her, and that’s all that mattered. My maternal grandfather also had a “funny” accent, (no offence but I am trying to explain as a child), and I asked him about his family but was told he had none. I discovered as an adult when he passed away that even his name was a lie.
My maternal grandmother, I was told came from Namaqualand; “the farm” and grew up there until she married my grandfather.
I never knew much about her family, but she taught me all about plants and herbs and things you do to make yourself better if you’re ill. She couldn’t speak English very well, but I was told that she grew up speaking Afrikaans.
On my dad’s side, my paternal grandfather was Scottish and my paternal grandmother Indian.
Sadly, we knew all about my father’s side of the family. Its as if it imprinted into my mind that we have white family members and being curious because I didn’t “look white,” I wanted to know where the rest of my family were.
I felt like a boat that had broken free from the rope that anchored it to the shore; adrift, lost, wandering with no one to guide it. It is natural and human to be curious about where I come from! I didn’t know. I still don’t know because my maternal grandparents have passed on, and the papers and information they may have had have long ago been destroyed!
I believe my grandfather was Xhosa but more than that, I don’t know. I have never been introduced to any member of his family. His surname was changed, and all original documentation destroyed.
So how do I celebrate Heritage Day or Month when my heritage and history has been ruined? The displacement during Apartheid was more than just forced removals. It was a removal of my history, of families that I belong to and don’t. I know that given enough money, I could discover where I am truly from! The problem is those ties that could have been there was severed.
You bond with cousins and aunties and uncles when you are young. You sit at the knee of your grandparents while they give you history lessons about family. You get introduced to family members, and you play and learn to love each other and even if you don’t get on, you know who they are.
The shame in being black must have been so great that to have a better quality of life my grandfather denounced that side of him. Which government allows this to happen then laugh that we have no heritage or culture? Ours did, and it continues to do so by the current government’s failure to recognize that erasing identities was also a huge part of maintaining segregation.
This missing links to our ancestors are widely known worldwide, and it pains me when white people proudly talk about 5th or 6th generations in their families. It’s not as if I don’t have generations in my family; I don’t know them!
As with lots of “coloured” families particularly in the Western Cape, the closer they are to being white, the more it’s celebrated and heralded.
I know about that side of my family. I don’t need to know any more. I identify as Black because I discovered, albeit late, that I am. I want to uncover all there is to know, including learning to speak isiXhosa. However, a wall of resistance within my family structures that continue to deny the existence of anything “black.” The reluctance is not in my immediate but in the secondary family “secrets” that needs uncovering.
When I hear phrases such as, “get over the past it’s gone, rather focus on the future,” I want to scream. Because this is said by people who know their history and who haven’t experienced racism and oppression and certainly haven’t felt what it feels like to have your heritage erased.