Those Who Do Not Move, Do Not Notice Their Chains
Khoisan Poetry and Slave Narratives at Open Book Festival
This past Saturday I sat in on a discussion on Khoisan poetry at the Open Book Festival at the Fugard Theatre. One of my friends alongside two other thought leaders (Lucy Campbell – a researcher/tour guide and Weaam Williams a documentary filmmaker) sat on the panel. My friend NaMa Xam, a stalwart of the hip hop scene in Cape Town shared two of his spoken word poems that made use of the Nama language spoken by Khoisan people throughout Southern Africa. The discussion quickly evolved from that of poetry to issues surrounding ‘coloured’ identity (a topic of keen interest), the Khoisan genocide during the colonial era and the way forward for people of mixed ethnicity – most of us to this day still marginalised, the past under-rug-swept and most of us still searching for answers and closure about our ancestry. The topic became so heated that emotional outbursts became a fixture of the session – and not necessarily in a bad way at all.
Many of the attendees (including myself) agreed with these outbursts – a much needed catharsis, since much of what was raised is still almost taboo in our communities: topics of slavery, dehumanisation and race. I for one, cannot trace much of my lineage other than hearsay. Yesterday at lunch I spoke to my grandma about this and she doesn’t even know when we became people of ‘colour’ and she’s 91 years old. What is partially known is that somewhere along the line my Dutch ancestry became intertwined with my Khoisan, Malay and possibly Nguni ancestry. From my paternal side of my family there exists a Bible from the 1800s brought along by Dutch settlers who carry my surname – Prinsloo, but that doesn’t explain anything about what happened thereafter. In fact in ‘coloured’ society, families are more likely to assume ownership of their European ancestry than their slave ancestry – my family is case in point. So none of the latter (the “mix”) was recorded – is it because what happened was shameful or derisive? Or was it really just a matter of white is better, black is not?
You see, most ‘coloured’ people assume an almost farcical notion of identity, which is further amplified and further misrepresented by the media. It is because of this false notion that I’m endeavouring to find meaningful answers. As NaMa mentioned, coloureds are always depicted in media as gangsters, drunkards, tik-addicts, low-lifes and perpetual losers. Perhaps if a sole form of identity existed (as in other local cultures) we wouldn’t be facing these complex issues. But alas, we do not comprise one easily defined identity and the temptation to conform to a pre-determined often-times false label of who we are or should be is far, far too easy. It’s easier to get absorbed in appearances, materialism (cars, clothes, trends), consumerism, americanism and other isms. It’s easier to adopt the media’s depiction and in so doing, perpetuating a never ending and detrimental feedback loop – on play for countless generations. It’s like when coloured parents buy their toddlers name brand clothes, knowing full well that by next week the child will have outgrown those R800 sneakers – we will invariably by nature, outgrow these labels and then what?
I suppose the false label far too easily silences those nagging questions about where we come from, why we are the way we are and the path we must move on to find closure. Perhaps we will never find closure, perhaps we will.
Here is one of NaMa Xam’s music videos with local rapper Perspektif and John Robinson from New York:
Yesterday I found myself in the mascot suit again at the Cape Town Marathon, this time with Takalani Sesame. I played Zikwe, the furry blue muppet who resembles the Cookie Monster. It is true that one can go from playing a millionaire rockstar in an exciting rock musical (Rockville 2069) to an anonymous placeholder in a mascot suit on a sweltering day, I assure you that these are no lies. Or as it was last year around the same time, being the lead singer of an alternative rock band by night (Brother & Brother) while playing an inter-dimensional caveman in nursery schools by day (The Caveman Calamity) – the life of a performing artist is never without a sense of irony – or without (in my case anyway) that spiritual reward (something I did not find in the office environment).
Nonetheless, yesterday’s foray into the world of a stadium mascot was by all means not another day at the office – or shall I say, industrial storage container. My role was simple really: get into the suit, half damp from the sweat of the guy who wore the suit on Saturday and wave at the exhausted marathon runners as they approached the finish line. After the first 5 minutes of seemingly energetic cheering I realised that like a marathon runner, I was going to have to pace myself in the suit if I was ever going to approach the end of the day. I then limited my movements to little more than strategic, animated hand gestures. As with most mascot gigs, people always want to take pictures with the characters and it was no different on this occasion.