Layered Identities

              This odyssey follows the author, as a young South African woman from an Afrikaner nationalist background, pursues a path of self-discovery that took her from a narrow, racist upbringing to a far different and more compassionate, cosmopolitan identity. Discovery of her distant slave ancestry was a decisive moment, leading her to write an historical novel, Kites of Good Fortune, which explores that past.[i] The trial of Nelson Mandela in 1964 also provided a vital turning point, leading to her emigration. Residence in several different countries followed, along with changes in citizenship and civic identity. The story I have to tell is of a journey that led from the ethnic identity to which I was born to a civic identity consciously chosen and cultivated. And though the map of this journey is unique to my own circumstances, I am sure many cultural nomads from the so-called developing world could identify with its meandering route of personal evolution.

            Imagine my citizenship as a three-layered costume: The outer layer is a free flowing star spangled banner, acquired in February 2011. The middle layer I have worn since 1979, the Maple Leaf, now comfortably molded to my shape. And closest to my chest, a vest made of an old flag that no longer represents a country. It is the flag that flew over South Africa from 1928-1994. It was known as the Unievlag and we were led to believe that it would never be lowered but miraculously the inclusive, upbeat flag of the New South Africa replaced it.

            This is how this triple citizenship came about:

            In 1942 I was born into an Afrikaans family in the Transvaal, a northern province of the old South Africa. My father was the first in his family to go to university. After seven years of studying theology, he became a Dutch Reformed minister. As such he had considerable influence in the civic affairs of the country towns where he worked. In Apartheid South Africa church and state were inseparable. My paternal ancestors took part in the Great Trek north - away from British taxes and laws - and fought against the British in the Boer War from 1899 to 1902. As a child the shadow of sadness cast by this history was a constant companion. It was not hard to imagine the terrible scene that day when the British came to the farm, torched the house, took the livestock and bundled every woman and child on to a wagon. My grandmother’s stories of suffering in the concentration camp and the death of her two small sons were heart-wrenching. There was never any doubt in my mind of the barbarity of the perpetrators and the innocence of the victims. We grew up with an animosity to all things British; English speakers were treated with disdain in solidarity with the death of our uncles and the suffering of our grandparents.

             Formal history lessons reinforced the victimology of the struggle against the British and glamorized the victories of the Great Trek against the black “tribes.” Two national holidays celebrated these. October 10 was Kruger Day when a parade of horsemen in commando uniform led the parade of women and children in costume through the streets of our town to the statue of Paul Kruger. Wreath laying followed Bible readings, prayers, psalm singing, and patriotic poetry recitations and concluded with the anthems, not only of South Africa but also of the Transvaal Republic. December 16, Dingaan’s Day, was an even more solemn affair. It was designated as a Sabbath, a day of prayer to commemorate the covenant the Trekker leader Andries Pretorius made with God before the battle of Blood River. In this battle the Zulu chief, Dingane, was dethroned and the massacre of Piet Retief and his men avenged.

            Participation in the rituals around these historical events formed a powerful element of our indoctrination. It combined a tailor-made version of the Calvinist concept of predestination with all the familiar biblical (usually Old Testament!) justifications used by Christians throughout history to sanction racial discrimination. This is how it went:

We, the Afrikaner Volk, a White people of European descent, pious and heroic in our oppression, are the chosen people of God. This southernmost tip of the Dark Continent is our promised land where we have been placed to bring the light of civilization and salvation to its barbaric and heathen inhabitants. They are also God’s creatures but inferior in station and intelligence and are destined to spend their lives in servitude to us. It was our Christian duty to point their souls to Heaven but keep their bodies forever at the back door.

In so-called anthropology classes we were filled with facts to boost our collective self-esteem. The emphasis was on our European ancestors, mostly Dutch, French and German who started arriving at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. “Studies” had found only 1 percent of non-white blood among the Afrikaner. This “contamination” occurred because of “uncontrolled, unnatural desire and human weakness” long before Apartheid’s Immorality Act put a stop to cross racial “interbreeding.” We learnt of American studies “proving” that Blacks have a lower IQ than whites and of other “studies” linking White superiority to brain size. I don’t recall anyone in these classes questioning these “facts.” To do so would invite immediate sanction and shunning.

            Growing up Afrikaans in the 1940s and 1950s meant that all emotional, social and intellectual energy was directed towards forging an Afrikaner Christian Nationalist identity. The poisonous pedagogy flourished in our classrooms, bearing fruits of low self-esteem, anxiety and fear. Conformity was achieved by a rigid regime of small carrots and large sticks.[ii] Corporal punishment was deemed the only way to enforce discipline and respect for authority. Some teachers were fair but the culture of violence often invited sadism. Nail biting and hypochondria were common and terrifying nightmares abounded.

Membership in youth organizations was a requirement. It afforded us extracurricular recreation and opportunities for leadership while reinforcing the religious and secular elements that shaped our Christian Nationalist identity. Voortrekkers was (and still is) the secular youth movement named for the pioneers who settled the north. There was a uniform, camping and badges to be earned. Along with the hiking and campfire songs were the patriotic songs honoring national heroes and the struggle of our people. These matched the hymns and Bible verses memorized for Sunday school. Lists of Old Testament heroes and battles blended with those of the Great Trek. Hou Koers, - stay on track - the Voortrekker motto, matched the daily moral exhortation to follow the example of our pious forefathers and aim for “the strait gate” and follow “the narrow way.”[iii] Or else…. Eternal damnation and earthly punishments gave the constantly dangling sword of Damocles a double edge.

Afrikaans, the mother tongue, was used exclusively in all of these activities. The struggle for Afrikaans was revisited at every opportunity. The Afrikaans curriculum in high school included units on the First Language Movement (1875-1899) and Second Language Movement (1905) aimed at establishing Afrikaans as a language - not a dialect - distinct from Dutch, with its own literature. The heroes of the language movements were revered along with the leaders of the political struggle against the British. We were encouraged to be upholders – handhawers - avoiding the use of “Anglicisms,” speaking Afrikaans in public places and demanding service in Afrikaans in order to show Anglophones that ours, too, was an official language. The Afrikaans Bible, completed in 1933, was a source of pride. That it was “sanitized” in places to fit the racist ideology was not common knowledge;[iv] there was no reason to read the English Bible.

 The mixed race, or Coloureds, as they were officially classified, went largely unrecognized as part of the Afrikaner family. One sometimes heard sentimental expressions of guilt over racial mixing and a patronizing affection for their “dialect,” “Cape Afrikaans.” They are descendants from slaves and white colonists - the Muslim community at the Cape goes back to the seventeenth century. Only a few years ago did I learn that the Qur’an was being read in a transliterated version of Afrikaans (Arabic Afrikaans) as early as 1845, ironically nurturing a parallel religious/linguistic identity. On a recent stay in Cape Town we visited several Kramats, also called Mazaars, where the Muslim saints of the Cape are buried. In the shrine to Sayed Mahmud there are columns describing in English and Afrikaans the history of this revered holy man. As I read the inscriptions I imagined Cape Malay children brought here on a field trip, reading in Afrikaans about the wealth, influence and martyrdom of this hero. I realized that a parallel process took place on either side of the racial divide. Here children were brought to nurture an identity and cultivate pride in their roots in a world truly apart from my own. For us that identity was confirmed by visits to the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria, celebrating the Great Trek, and the Huguenot Monument in Franschhoek, commemorating our French Calvinist ancestry.[v]

 I am often asked what made me turn out differently. I think it was a simple conflict of nature and nurture. I have an innate sense of fairness and I loathe cruelty. These sensibilities reacted instinctively to the way Black people around me were being treated. I wondered about many things: Why did grown people have to have a curfew and carry passes just because they were Black? Why did my mother feel free to regularly lose her temper with domestics while my father kept a length of rubber hose in the garage as a warning to potential wrongdoers? Why did even educated Black preachers have to go to the back door and drink from enamel mugs? Why was it that we did not know how to say thank you in Tswana while no, get lost, I’ll smack you and I’ll smack you really hard came almost naturally? And why were we told not to touch Black people? The standard explanation was that

‘Black people are all children and not very hygienic at that. They have to carry passes so that we can control their movements in case they get it into their heads to overrun our nice neighbourhoods. Like children they have to be controlled with physical force. If we treat educated Blacks as our equals it will give all the people who work for us ideas about demanding more rights. And, besides, Tswana is not really a language; it has no literature.’

This is a paraphrase of the kinds of things that I heard and were commonly said.

Natural curiosity and instinctive friendliness made me receptive to human connections normally frowned upon. One Easter holiday our maid’s daughter came to visit her mother. I remember being impressed that she was my age and in the same standard at school as I; we were told that Blacks started school late and left early. But Miriam had plans to become a teacher. She was smart and funny and full of imagination but deemed “too precocious” by my parents. She never came back to play but a few years after that Easter wrote to tell my parents that she was now at a prestigious Black boarding school and needed a tennis racket. Did our family have one to pass along? I’ll never forget the outrage: “the nerve! Who did she think she was… ridiculous, a Black girl wanting to play tennis? Whatever next?” The vehemence of the tirade stopped my question “Why not?” right in its tracks but created one of the first doubts I had about Apartheid, the system that prevented me from being friends with a girl like Miriam.

By watching these kinds of reactions, one began to realize that some things were best kept secret. I remember helping our garden “boy” (as the grown man was called) to plant tomatoes. As he transferred the little plants he was quietly singing a song my father had forbidden in the servants quarters: Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika. Quietly I sang along but told no one.

 Through my bedroom windows, close to the servant’s quarters I first heard the sounds of kwela (township jazz) music coming from the wind-up gramophone. Its energy and joy made a welcome change to our heavy diet of classical music and the sugar pop we were permitted to listen to. Rock and roll was of the devil, Elvis its high priest. The blaspheming Beatles came after I had left home but the wide spread support given to Beatle record-smashing parties came as no surprise.

My mother’s brother was the only person who ever exposed me to educated Blacks outside the church. He was an inspector of “Bantu” schools and, as I recently discovered, an advocate of mother tongue education. Two occasions stand out: once we went to the village wedding of the daughter of a headmaster. We sat in the VIP gallery with other important guests, watching the “tribal” wedding celebrations. I watched my uncle and aunt mingle comfortably with the other Black guests, switching easily between English, Afrikaans and Tswana or, perhaps Sotho. I remember my surprise at the fine china in which the tea was served, cake plates and forks all present and correctly placed as always on my mother’s own tea table. My uncle seemed to have no hygienic scruples in using the utensils so my sisters and I gingerly followed suit. On the second occasion my uncle took us to a performance of Julius Caesar that was presented in Tswana. About the translator, Sol Plaatje, nothing was said but the mere fact that work of such stature was being performed convincingly in a mere “vernacular,” which set me wondering about the claims of Black intellectual inferiority.

Questioning, however, was not generally encouraged. After some serious run-ins with my father in my late teens when I was told: “You think too much, you’ll drive yourself crazy!” and “I forbid you to say or think such things in this house! You’re not too big for a hiding!” In the knowledge that my thoughts were my own, I bided my time until I was at university, a thousand miles away from home. Here began the process of ridding myself of the shackles of Afrikaner Christian Nationalism. Without direct parental supervision I could scale down my church attendance and avoid memberships in secular and religious student organizations. In my English courses I learnt how to use I.A. Richards’ method of “Practical Criticism.” This technique of applying logic and reason to literature initially proved extremely challenging to someone who had been regurgitating prefabricated ideas and information to that point in life. But soon, fueled by rebellion, it became the perfect way to expose hypocrisy and obfuscation in every person, institution, dogma or ideology around me.

Philosophy 101 taught by a theologian was followed by a second year course in Political Philosophy. It was attended not by theology students but by law students and “truth seekers” like myself. The professor had recently returned from a sabbatical in Holland and brought with him a certain relaxed approachability particularly soothing to the nervously enquiring minds attending his lectures. Oh, what company I kept! The high priests of Existentialism, Kierkegaard, Camus and Sartre intoned their dissonant dirge; Nietzsche chanted God was dead while Marx and Engels subversively held hands in the shadows. Lectures danced carefully around the morality of racism and discrimination. Cognizant of the presence of informants, discussions and questions were deftly steered away from radicalism, towards an examination of the facts on both sides. Objectivity over subjectivity, reason over emotion, logic over sophistry, these were new concepts, new ideals to pursue. All irony was left to interpretation. Intense discussions continued long after class over many cups of black coffee and Lucky Strike cigarettes. I dressed in black, practiced a cynical laugh and adopted carpe diem as my new mantra. All I needed was the Left Bank! Little did I know how many years it would take to discard all the layers of conditioning in order to uncover my authentic self.

In 1963 I graduated from the University of Stellenbosch with a BA in English and French. I applied for scholarships in France but when that failed I started working in Pretoria for the Department of Information in 1964. This was the propaganda machine of the Apartheid government. My job, with my reading skills in Dutch, German and French, was to read foreign newspaper articles about South Africa and sort them into the blue for positive and red for negative trays. Thus I got to read uncensored criticism of the regime unseen in even our most liberal newspapers. The “other side of the argument” began to have a life of its own.

 1964 was also the year of the Rivonia Trial. The Department of Information was in a building just down the street from the Palace of Justice where Nelson Mandela was tried for terrorism along with nine other leaders of the African National Congress. On several occasions I slipped away from my desk, walked up to the court to see Mandela and his fellow accused in the dock. The following piece recalls in greater detail the events of the day Mandela was sentenced:


Life or Death

            The police presence was already visible as I stepped off the bus in Church Street to go to my work at the Department of Information. From Church Square the barking of police dogs cut through the cold morning air. It was the 12th of June 1964, the day many had been waiting for: the day of sentencing in the Rivonia trial.

As I stepped into the elevator the anticipated news of the day was on the lips of my colleagues. The sentence was expected around noon.

“Do you think there’ll be riots?” Stella from the library asked Mr. de Kok.

“I doubt it. The police have Church Square tightly cordoned off. And only a few have permission to gather, family and friends. But then, they’re all Communists and agitators. Who knows what they’ll do?”

Stella inspected her long red nails.

“Well, if they’re stupid enough to try anything, they’ll get it right there before the statue of Andries Pretorius. I hope the police left their rubber bullets at home today.”

The overpowering scent of her Chanel no 5 added intensity to her vengeful sentiments. She looked around to poll the occupants of the lift for agreement. I kept my eyes to the floor, knowing she would notice and give me a black mark. We all knew Stella was a scorekeeper. I was glad when the elevator let us both off, she to the library filled with factual information to support the activities of the journalists and information officers working for the department.

I was not a journalist; my job was to provide a special kind of information: Every morning I read newspapers sent by South African embassies in Anglo- and Francophone countries. This was what my BA degree in English and French enabled me to do. It was an orderly procedure: I marked up articles on South Africa, Daniel or Joseph collected the papers, clipped the articles, pasted them on sheets of 8 by 11, stamped the date on them and brought them back to me for sorting and indexing. To this process I brought two default qualifications: my upbringing in the Afrikaner heartland and my limited exposure to ‘outside influences’.

On my desk, in front of a large window, were two sets of index cards, two trays and a pile of newspapers. One set of cards contained the names of journalists and the other subjects they were most likely to address such as Pass Laws, Bantu Education, Bantustans, the Immorality Act, 90-Day Detention. Apartheid was classified under S for Separate Development and One Man One Vote under D for Democracy. The trays were color coded blue and red. The blue tray was for those who were for us: those who praised our wild life, our scenery, our hospitality and paid homage to our devout Calvinism. Blue was for those who loved our wine and could find no fault with the social ramifications of Separate Development, those who agreed that ‘our Bantu’ were better off than any in the rest of Africa and should be grateful. Blue was for turning a blind eye to the injustices of the system and the harsh discriminatory laws. Journalists whose articles landed in the blue tray were quoted in the South African Digest, the mouthpiece of the Department, and had their names placed on a list for future invitations to diplomatic parties and exchange programs. The list also facilitated their visa applications and diminished the need for Security Police supervision when visiting the country.

The opposite was true for those of in the red tray! My boss thought that tray was exactly the right color for ‘ those ignorant and prejudiced commies who dare sneak into our country, spend a week here, talk to the wrong people and then go and lie to the world.’ There was no doubt in his mind, and in that of the majority of the people I had known until then, that these red tray people were bad. They were bleeding hearts, subversive agitators who merited the red tray. They deserved never to get a visa, never to be invited to anything and to remain on a black list in perpetuity. Because Apartheid was going to last that long. And because we were right and they were wrong. Our truth was supported by the Bible, their lies sprung from their atheistic ideology. And we would go to heaven. So I was told.

It would have been simple if it were just a matter of red and blue, if I were not suffering from an astrological handicap. I am a Libra, by nature obliged to give the benefit of the doubt, see both sides and choose the middle way. Many a day I felt in need of a purple tray, a tray of the middle way where I could place the articles of reasonable criticism and objective analysis. Since the beginning of the Rivonia trial in April, South Africa had become a hot topic in the international press and had doubled my volume of work. For the first time I read uncensored reports and opinions about my country and its government. I was used to accusations of ‘totalitarianism’, ‘fascism’ and ‘police state’ leveled at the USSR, China and Hitler’s Germany; now I found them applied to the very system I was supposed to support. I found myself hesitating before many of the articles that should have gone straight to the red tray. My confusion was the subject of a heart to heart with my boss who was a kind man with a soft spot for fashion conscious girls. He had done spot checks and was aware of my dilemma. He offered to ease my burden by vetting ‘doubtful’ articles himself. This he did with a quick scan of the text for adverbs and adjectives, sending them back marked ‘neg’ in red and ‘pos’ in blue. He was not a Libra; he did not need a purple tray. He also made life easier for me by instructing me to send all articles listing the grievances of the ANC or quoting Nelson Mandela’s speeches directly to the red tray.

That June morning I sat down as usual with my coffee to sort the incoming foreign newspapers. Most were already more than a week old but all were filled with anticipation of that day. Would Nelson Mandela and the other Rivonia accused receive the death penalty? What would be the moral justification for this? Too much purple tray material! The barking had unsettled me. I marked up the papers and gathered them in a pile to deliver to my boss. I saw him down the corridor at Daniel and Joseph’s cubicle. Officially these two were ‘Bantu messengers’. They used the service lift and kept a respectful low profile. Their office was a box room with a narrow window, a counter and two stools. Here they did their gluing and stamping, hardly challenging for two individuals possessing matriculation certificates. Despite the fact that they ran errands for the senior personnel, they seemed to have a lot of spare time on their hands. This they used to study for correspondence courses offered by the University of South Africa, an academic option to many urban Blacks who worked and lived too far from the Homeland based tribal colleges. The virtual campus of UNISA offered tertiary education to all, regardless of color. It passed muster with the Apartheid authorities because the student body was dispersed and was in no danger of actually mingling and forming ‘undesirable’ social attachments – thereby breaking the Immorality Laws. The absence of a campus also meant that there was no physical venue for the student body to gather in protest, should they dare.

Daniel was the serious one. I had no doubt that, along with his Shakespeare, he also made a careful study of the red tray articles. He was shy and unwilling to be drawn into conversation, always on the threshold of the office door, ready to escape at any time. Only once was he spontaneous when I questioned him about his tribal identity. According to the prevailing ideology all blacks had a clear and undisputed ethnic identity.

“So, Daniel, to which Bantustan do you belong?” I asked naively.

His round face broke into a broad grin, his eyes mixed with amusement and pity at my ignorance.

“I was born in Mamelodi, here in Pretoria. My mother is Tswana and my father Zulu. I don’t belong in a Bantustan!”

He never used an honorific for me and I never knew his surname.

And we never did mention the fact that we caught sight of each other one morning near the Palace of Justice where the Rivonia Trial was in progress. Had he been in the Black gallery while I was in the White? Had he seen the same smile on the face of Mandela, the Black Pimpernel, that elusive defender of African rights, now sitting in the dock with nine others, accused of sabotage and likely to receive the death penalty? Had he come to see history in the making, to take with him an image of the hero? Or had he been instructed to follow me ‘to the bank’ where I said I was going? Was I being watched as well as watched over by my boss or the ‘uncle’ upstairs who gave me the job because of my father and made me swear on the Bible to keep secrets?

I waited for the shoe to drop; to be accused of the subversive detour I took but nothing happened. Daniel and I were wrapped in a conspiracy of silence.

The narrow window in the messengers’ cubicle faced in the direction of the Church Square. Despite the cold, it was open. From the Square, the rousing sound of protest singing challenged the barking.

“The forces are gathering,” said my boss ominously. “The sentence will come over the telex as soon as it is given. We’ll be the first to know. They should hang him, of course. Dead, the world will soon forget him but alive he will continue to be the focus for their rallying cry. ”

I was aware of Daniel’s gaze on me. I think I must have blushed as I quickly escaped back to my office.

Long before noon people were beginning to position themselves close to the telex room. Next door, in the library, some loitered aimlessly pretending not to be too eager for the result. Stella, however, declared brazenly that she was waiting for ‘good news’. It was clear to me that Stella and I did not share the same nightmares about death row, the gallows and the irreversible fact of hanging itself.

The verdict was expected at midday. At about eleven thirty, I managed to maneuver myself into a place by the window in the tiny telex room. This window, too, was open. Over the roofs of adjacent buildings I had a partial view of Church Square. The singing protesters filled the square in a seething mass of dancing, clapping and chanting. Police in riot gear patrolled the perimeters of the crowd. The hysterical barking reached a fever pitch. Black Mariahs were parked along the square in preparation for the expected arrests. Like a metronome, the mechanical click-clack of the telex machine kept the beat. As noon approached the volume of shouting, singing and barking increased. No shooting – so far so good. And then it came:

“Life! Mandela got life!”

Disbelief flooded the faces around me. I saw Daniel at the door, smiling.

“Ag, sies,” said Stella, “they should have hanged him!”


Long after the crowds had left the Square and everyone in the Department of Information was back at their desks, Daniel appeared at my office door. He just stood there awkwardly, expectantly.

“I’m glad they’re not going to hang him, “ I said simply.

“So, am I,” he mumbled.

For an instant our eyes met, confirming our mutual joy and relief. Then, true creatures of the police state in which we lived, we returned to our work.


 This event, more than any other, determined my resolve to leave South Africa. I married a fellow Afrikaner rebel who shared my desire to explore other places, countries where one could live a “normal” life, away from the oppressive imperatives of Apartheid. His profession allowed him to work anywhere in the English speaking world. We lived in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) for two years, but when Ian Smith declared unilateral independence, we moved to England.

Now began a five-year period of cultural, intellectual and emotional growth. If I were to carry trademarks, one would say “Made in South Africa,” the other “Civilized in England!” For the first time I was actually able to say what I thought. We were part of the academic community where informed debate was expected. Our Northumbrian neighbors welcomed us with kindness and generosity. Soon we were able to understand and even communicate in the Geordy dialect. For the first time opportunities for spontaneous cross-racial contact presented themselves: Among my pupils at the School for the Deaf where I taught was a little Sikh boy. Naturally I cuddled him along with his classmates. In the depths of despair after a miscarriage, the nursing sister who comforted me was West Indian. Remember, I was taught not to touch! What a treat it was to entertain a visiting black South African pediatrician without giving race a second thought. ‘This is the way it should be,’ I thought.

Every summer we took a tent to Europe, traveling far and wide. Once, we drove to Greece, exploring all the European countries on the way. Another time we crossed the North Sea Scandinavia in pursuit of Ibsen, Grieg and the Vikings. We even went to Prague in 1967 to see what real Communists looked like! They looked just like everyone else, of course, not the menacing monsters we were led to believe they would be. As I nibbled at so many customs and cultures my love of the human family grew and was validated. Gradually I envisioned another identity for myself, an identity fueled by poetry rather than politics. It would mean, of course, exchanging my South African citizenship for a British one. But before that could happen, family pressure recalled us to South Africa.

I remember the time back in Cape Town as one of terrible tension between the half-discarded old and the half-formed new identity. I felt like a chrysalis unable to unfurl its wings. We were back to separate everything: doors, benches, beaches, neighborhoods, friends, restaurants, schools, churches and concert halls. At academic dinner parties the men – “liberal” professors all – still went away to drink brandy and talk politics while women discussed servants over black coffee. Biting my tongue again became a painful necessity. Family pressure mounted, urging us to conform while I despaired of raising my two small children in a social and educational climate little different from the one in which I grew up. But now I knew there were other places more in tune with my nature, gentle societies where I could raise my children without constant inner and outer conflict. I had seen places where imagination and creativity were valued and critical thinking encouraged. After a sabbatical in Canada my husband was offered a job at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. We emigrated in 1976.

But let us rewind the chronology and return to 1971 when I made a discovery that would change my sense of identity forever. I attended a lecture by J. A. Heese, a genealogist, who introduced a new study that found at least 7 percent non-white blood in the Afrikaner. Remember, we were always told there was only 1 percent! Heese’s book, Die Herkoms van die Afrikaner (Afrikaner Origins) recorded cross-racial marriages between 1657 and 1867.[vi] One such marriage was that of Olof Bergh, my most revered Swedish ancestor, to Anna de Koning the illegitimate daughter of a Bengali slave, Angela. I remembered an enigmatic reference to “skeleton’s in the cupboard” once made by a venerable Bergh aunt. Now I knew why I was never told where I got my middle name, Anna. Anna had Indian blood! I wasn’t “pure.” I had Indian blood!

Angela of Bengal’s life is well documented. She came to the Cape as a slave in 1655. She had three children and worked in the household of Commander Jan van Riebeeck as nanny to his children. Her second owner, Abraham Gabbema, manumitted her in 1666 “uijt pure genegentheijt” – from pure affection. In 1667 she was given a piece of land with permission to build and cultivate. She hired a slave from a sea captain and set about growing and selling vegetables to passing ships. Her marriage in 1669 to the free burgher, Arnoldus Willemz Basson, completed her rehabilitation to become a respected and well to do member of the small community at the Cape. Thus she found her place as stammoeder – founding matriarch – on the family tree of a number of prominent Afrikaner family trees; Bergh, Basson and De Wet the most well-known among them.

This upbeat story did not please my Afrikaner Nationalist mother at all. And what was wrong with it? Not the rags, not the riches but the race. How dare I take such nonsense seriously? Not nonsense, archival facts. Says who? Dr. Heese. Oh, yes, there are people like that who will write books for people like you to read and believe! The battle raged for a whole weekend. On Sunday night, exhausted, we agreed to disagree.

It was only after both my parents had passed away that I seriously returned to the subject, did my own primary source research and wrote Kites of Good Fortune, an historical novel about Angela of Bengal and Anna de Koning. It was published in Cape Town in 2004. Market research convinced the publisher that an Afrikaans translation would sell well as a ‘roots’ book. They gave it the descriptive title: Anna, dogter van Angela van Bengale. It has made its way into university libraries and conference papers as a serious post-Apartheid story. Most recently I learnt that Anna de Koning is included in the Social Sciences series for Grade 7 published by Cambridge University Press Africa.

 Soon after these books appeared, a Bengali historian, whose research revolves around slaves of Indian origin at the early Cape, asked me what the discovery of Angela did for me. Without hesitation I replied: “it made me feel as though I really belonged in South Africa for the first time.” The fact of my Bengali blood adds a pleasing nuance of multi-ethnicity to my Afrikaner identity. It also validates the solidarity I feel with those who suffered the humiliation of Apartheid.

Let me return now to my Canadian years: this country did prove to be everything I wished for as an immigrant. I found all the support and resources to raise my children to be free to be themselves. A Hamilton Public School and education at York University and Ryerson University enabled them to choose creative careers. The University of Toronto afforded me a Bachelor of Education when I needed to earn a living. I loved teaching in this multi-cultural society though teaching French in southern Ontario sometimes challenged my powers of persuasion. But I always saw myself as a bridge builder seeking to widen horizons and deepening understanding. I could have lived in Canada forever but then, love made me change course and a new exploration began.

In 1992 I married an American working in Rio de Janeiro. Being resident in a country offers opportunities denied to the tourist: one has time to develop the peripheral vision that enhances cultural understanding. There are the everyday occurrences that foster affection and communication. I became functional in Portuguese, which gave me access to some subtleties of the culture and customs, even understanding some irony and jokes as well as the cursing on the school bus. Living and traveling in Brazil added an informal layer to my changing identity. My ears have been opened to the sounds of samba and firecrackers in the favela, that is the slums overlooking Rio. When I close my eyes I still see the sun rising over Guanabara Bay and clouds hugging the Corcovado. I feel different because I have tasted the tart, salt-sprinkled fruit of the cashew and have drunk many a caipirinha. I was beginning to see the possibilities of being a cultural chameleon.

But in 1995 another posting, this time to Pakistan – the land of the pure – the exact opposite of the land of Carnaval. Pakistan, where life happens within the walls of the compound rather than on the beach. Where the shalwar kameez, rather than the bikini rules! From the moment of entry I noticed a familiar sullen seriousness from officialdom and in the bazaar. The presence of prayer and the unvarying piousness brought back the Puritanism of my youth. Over the next six years I was struck by the number of similarities between Pakistan and the South Africa in which I grew up: There was the same interweaving of church and state as laws sought to impose Puritanism on the people. A small élite ran the country, exploiting the impoverished and ignorant masses. Servants were treated with the same disregard as they were back where I grew up. Apartheid existed but it was gender Apartheid driven by male chauvinism already noticeable in the small boys I taught. This I experienced not only in the expectations of daily behavior and dress but also in being shunted to the “woman line” in the bank and the “woman frisk” at the airport. Once I waited in a sweltering overcrowded “woman waiting room” at a clinic while the male escorts of the female patients sat in air-conditioned comfort. This escorting extended to all single women regardless of age or status. Imagine my surprise when a forty year-old female professor once asked me to chaperone her on a date! She was living with her parents; of course, no single woman would dare to live by herself. There are many more stories about phantom schools, Afghan refugees and the hypocrisy induced by all the repression. Suffice it to say that I came away from Pakistan – evacuated after 9/11- with a sense of foreboding about what might happen when the zealots take over. I realize that Calvinism is to Christianity what Wahabism is to Islam but while the former has been contained, the latter seems rampant. Experiencing Pakistan taught me that not every neighborhood in the global village is progressive and welcoming.

Then to Indonesia, our last residency abroad before retiring to the United States. Here we have Islam “Light,” practiced by a people who have seen the tidal waves of various religions and ideologies wash over them through the centuries. Their language is larded with words of former conquerors; their rituals go back to the mystic beginning. Whereas the prayers from the mosque in Pak sounded strident and direct, in Indonesia they rise five times a day like curling smoke from a slow burning fire, their spirituality unmistakable. The intricacy of ikat and batik and the perpetual motion of the gamelan reflect a collective complexity. I was lucky enough to spend a week at a batik studio and play in a gamelan orchestra. In a curious way these activities widened my spiritual horizons in a move away from materialism, towards detachment.

So, here I am, retired and living in Ipswich, Massachusetts. I have had three official names, have had mail delivered to addresses in eight countries and, as already mentioned, have two prestigious passports. I am cloaked in a patchwork quilt global of citizenship, content in the knowledge that it is possible to escape the confines of the identity of one’s birth, assuming newly contextualized identities, adopting new layers of self. In 68 years that original identity has morphed and evolved from the ethnic to the civic where who one is supersedes race, religion and even nationality. The enriching customs, languages, landscapes, art and music of other cultures, which I have internalized, allow me to view my Afrikaner identity from an ironic distance. All identity, in fact, becomes relative. No longer need I be limited by the imperatives of politics; I am free to pursue the poetry of humanity, free to contemplate the tree of life that connects us all.



[i]Therese Benadé, (2004) Kites of Good Fortune David Philip, Cape Town


[ii] See the work of educationalists Alice Miller (1990) (3RD ed.) For your own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux and Katharina Rutschky, (1997) Schwarze Pädagogik. Quellen zur Naturgeschichte der bürgerlichen Erziehung (in German) Ullstein Buchverlag.

[iii] See King James Version of Matthew 7:13-14.

[iv] The example often given is the translation of the Song of Solomon, Chapter 1:5. In the English version the beloved calls herself “black and comely” whereas the Afrikaans version avoids the color black but focuses instead on the suntan referred to in the next verse. “Ek is bruingebrand maar lieflik” – “I am suntanned but comely….” is the version with which I grew up.

[v] The first French Huguenot immigrants, having fled Catholic persecution in France, arrived at the Cape in 1687 as farmers, mostly viticulturists. Although the language did not survive, many Afrikaans families still carry French surnames.

[vi] J.A. Heese, (1971) Die Herkoms van die Afrikaner, 1657-1867, A. A. Balkema, Cape Town