Monday, 1 June 2015

Crying freedom in the Western Cape

Returning from St Helena via the Winelands of the Western Cape was an inspired decision. We fell in love with the landscape, lush vineyards stretching to the feet of craggy mountains, old farms nestling in between. We revelled in the warmth of the Mediterranean climate. And yet, and yet..... We both agree that we will probably never return. This post explains why.

We stayed in a small settlement called Franschhoek, now best known as a culinary and wine-growing centre. Its name, however, tells you something of its history. Franschhoek was founded in the late seventeenth century by 176 people, from nine French Huguenot families out of the two hundred who fled to the area seeking freedom from religious persecution in their home country. Some of them made their way first to the Netherlands. The Dutch East India Company, which governed the Cape at that time, paid their passage and, on their arrival in 1688, gave them land on which to settle.

Many surnames, street and house names are still French, though the language spoken is Afrikaans. Some of those French surnames are quite famous. Indeed, a few are notorious: de Klerk, du Plessis, Terreblanche. The style of the buildings and their contents, both original and more recent, recall the rustic architecture and furniture of French provincial life of the late 1600s.

On Sundays, the French Protestants worshipped with their Afrikaner neighbours in the Dutch Reformed Church. The building on the left is early nineteenth century.

The little Huguenot Museum in Franschhoek has traced each of the original settler families to the villages and towns in France from which they came from nearly four hundred years ago. The museum houses lovely domestic furniture such as chests and dressers, which the refugees either brought with them or made after they arrived. Old wine presses and other artefacts trace the development of the vineyards from a few cuttings brought on the ships to the world-famous vintages sold today.

True to its name, this is a Huguenot museum. The museum has just one room devoted to the lives of the Khoe herders and San hunter-gatherers (the Khoisan, as they are usually known), Bushmen who were the original inhabitants of the area. Here you can see dusty examples of 'Stone Age' tools and models made by local school children as part of their projects on the local area. No mention, however, is made of how the Khoisan were tricked out of their land by the settlers. The men were hunted down and killed by a group called Kommandos and the women and children were enslaved. The Khoisan are now only visible in the slight stature and fine features of some of the local Coloured population.

The museum contains no reference at all to the black slaves transported here from across southern Africa, who worked these Huguenot farms for no reward at all and to whose labour over centuries the modern wineries owe their fortunes.

The most striking landmark in Franschhoek is the Huguenot Monument itself, set at the end of the long main street and standing on a T junction where it can be seen from all directions. The views from the Monument itself are stunning.

Also stunning, in the context, is the sentiment expressed by the Monument, for this is a monument to Freedom - religious freedom, of course, freedom of expression. Freedom, however, so it seems, just for the white minority.

In Franschhoek, you look down the street and all you see are white people. In the Winelands as a whole the whites are only 12% of the population but represent about 95% of the people you see on the streets and sitting in the cafes of Franschhoek. The 62% who are Coloured are serving these white customers and tourists in the shops, restaurants and hotels. The Black Africans who are 24% of the population are as good as invisible. They are the manual workers. In our lovely hotel, Franschhoek Country House and Villas, the gardeners and maids were black. We tried to speak to them, but they kept their heads down. When we walked into town, the only white people who seemed to do so, we said hello to those we met. Only the younger pedestrians, born since the end of apartheid, smiled and returned our greeting. Older people kept their eyes on the ground, as they had been obliged to do over centuries.

You would almost think that nothing had changed in South Africa, though this post is obviously written from a European perspective.  Not long after we returned to Scotland, Cape Town erupted into protests at the failure of the University to remove the statue of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, resentment on the one side and intransigence on the other, bubbling up through the superficial tranquillity of this beautiful city. The statue has now been taken down.

So much, so depressing, you might think, despite the glorious scenery. We were fortunate, however, for we being driven around Franshhoek by a company called Vineyard Tours, who provide private winetasting visits combined with historical sightseeing. Our wonderfully knowledgeable guide, 'Small' Denver, recognising our interest and our attempts to understand the challenging history of the local area, changed the planned tour to take in what became the highlight of our stay: a visit to Solms Delta, a vineyard with a difference.

Solms Delta is owned by Mark Solms, a famous neuropsychologist from a Cape family. Solms has been working to restore this 320-year-old fruit farm to its original state as a vineyard. The wines are superb, but that is not why I am writing about it. The farm is more than an agricultural or business project. There are many different angles to its work.

Solms has set up the Music van der Caab Centre to explore and document the rich heritage of music from the different races and cultures which live on the Cape: indigenous, slave, African, European. In addition to organising concerts and festivals, the Centre has also set up a museum of music.

'Because music, which is one of humanity’s most primal means of communication, crosses boundaries and has the power to heal and unite; a power which is terribly necessary in post-apartheid South Africa.'

Solms also started a programme of land reform, with his friend Richard Astor, buying the farm next door to enable his previously indentured workers to gain their own stake in the land. Through the Delta Trust Solms and Astor provide educational, cultural, sporting and social programmes including enhanced health care and educational provision for the workers on the farm.

The project which fascinated me, however, and led to me to make all sorts of new discoveries was a historical one. When digging the fields to plant the new vines, workers came across the remains of old buildings. Intrigued, the owner brought in archaeologists to excavate the land. What they came across were ancient farm buildings going back to the very first days of the farm, including the old slave quarters. You can see the lines of the old buildings in the photo on the right.

Solms initiated a project to find out the identity of every person who used to live on the farm, whether settlers, slaves or indigenous people, The history of the site, the artefacts and stories of its all inhabitants over the ages are displayed and recorded in the farm's wonderful Museum van der Caab (Caab = Cape). The museum itself is housed in an old Cape Dutch cellar which dates back to the 1740s, a striking barn-like building which is the first thing you see when you enter the site.

The names the historians discovered have now been etched onto black slabs on the furthest wall of this building. Most of them are slaves, for 190 slaves once worked this land. Many slaves were given generic names, for their real names were taken from them. They might be called Adam, or January, for example. For surnames, many simply have 'van der Kaap' (from the Cape) or 'van Mozambique'. Some slabs may note a woman's name with, perhaps, the words 'with two unnamed children'. Some have no names at all, simply their occupation. The museum has produced a wonderful 'newspaper' guide to the farm, giving the individual stories of several of these once anonymous people.

So much, so moving, but there was more. One of the names was Philida, a name that at that time meant nothing at all to me. I knew the famous Afrikaner writer Andre Brink, of course, that thorn in the previous regime's side. Indeed, I had read various of his books in the past, but nothing recently. Brink's latest book, however, is a novel called Philida. It is the story of a young female slave, a knitting girl, who used to live on what is now the Solms-Delta farm in Franschhoek. She was bought by Cornelis Brink, an ancestor of Andre Brink, who used to own the farm.

Philida was brought from Cape Town as a child. She was a girl of mixed ancestry, but who probably had Cape Malay (Asian) blood in her.  Slaves from India, Madagascar and Sri Lanka were brought to the Cape by the Dutch in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Below you can see some of the Cape Malay houses which still stand in the Bo-Kaap area of Cape Town.

Philida had four children by Francois, the son of Cornelis Brink, the first when she was barely into her mid-teens. Female slaves were often raped by male owners. What is remarkable about Philida, however, is that in 1832 she took Francois to court for failing to give her her freedom, which is what he had promised to do when she had a child. Philida seems to have been understandably desperate to gain her freedom.  Slaves had the terrible prospect of their children being sold on to other owners, with no hope of ever seeing them again. Philida was eventually sold on, to keep her away from Frans Brink, who was about to get married to a young white woman from the Cape. In some respects, she was fortunate, for the British abolished slavery in 1834, though slaves were required to be 'apprenticed' until 1838, which wasn't much different from slavery.

Brink was able to find out much of Philida's story by means of contemporary records, the family connection adding piquancy. Philida was long listed for the Booker Prize in 2012. On 6th February 2015 Andre Brink died, while we were in Franschhoek.

Andre Brink had long been a banned writer in South Africa, part of the Afrikaans literary movement called Die Sestigers, the Sixtyers (a reference to the generation in which they came to political maturity), which also included Breytan Breytanbach.  Brink's books, which are published simultaneously in English and Afrikaans, are no longer banned since the fall of the apartheid regime. One sign of political freedom.

Our last stop before we left the Cape was Drakenstein Correctional Prison, between Franschhoek and Paarl, not far from the Solms-Delta farm. It was here that Nelson Mandela spent the last 14 months of his imprisonment before he was released, following his removal from Robben Island. It was at Drakenstein that Mandela prepared for his return to politics and it was from here that he was finally released. The statue at the entrance presents Mandela in his familiar stance, setting off on the Long Walk to Freedom.

That symbol of Freedom was one of our last sights of Franschhoek. The next morning we drove towards the airport. On our left, on the outskirts of Cape Town, we passed the terrible shanty towns of which we had heard. The word 'freedom' seemed hollow.

The day before, I had tried to buy a copy of Philida in Franschhoek, to no avail. 'You'll get it in the airport bookshop,' the bookseller assured me. 'They'll have it there.' Once at Cape Town airport, I quickly looked for the bookshop.

Not only was there no copy of Philida on the shelves of the airport bookshop, but it did not have a single copy of any book by Andre Brink, South Africa's most famous author, a man who had died only two days before. I asked at the cash desk.

'You'll not find any book by that writer in this bookshop,' the shop assistant said.

So much for freedom.

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