Slavery has occurred since Biblical times. We read in Genesis 16 that Abraham begat a son by his slave Hagar and that he sent her and the child, Ismael “away to a far land”. The first auction was as early as 1444 in Portugal and subsequently slaves were exported to the West Indies, Africa, South America and the southern United States for forced labour.
King Willem-Alexander expressed his deep regret to thousands of citizens of the South American state of Suriname (a country whose language sounds like Afrikaans) and the Caribbean islands.
Slavery at the Cape
In 1652, Jan van Riebeeck established a refreshment post at the Cape. There was much work and few hands. He, therefore, sent a request for slaves to his Dutch employers. The first slave, Abraham of Batavia, arrived at the Cape in 1653.
The slave numbers increased significantly when the Dutch hijacked a Portuguese slave ship with 500 Angolan slaves on board and stole the slaves. More slaves were captured in Mauritius and Madagascar and transported to South Africa and elsewhere where they were sold at auction and had to work for their owners until their dying day. Even their children would be slaves. In 1795 the British took over the Cape. They accepted the slave trade and continued to practise slavery.
Inhumane rules were enforced on the slaves which affected their human dignity and sometimes even meant their death. In 1753 the governor of the Cape, Rijk Tulbagh, compiled a set of rules for the control of slaves. One of these was a curfew which stipulated that slaves had to be indoors by 10 o’clock at night. If they were forced to be outside, they had to carry a pass and a lantern.
Slaves who insulted the free citizens (Vryburgers) were held in chains and flogged in public. Those who resisted their masters were executed. From 1680 to 1795 an average of one slave per month was executed at the Cape. The decomposing corpse of an executed slave was exhibited in public for public information and later removed and exhibited elsewhere to serve as a warning to other slaves.
I could write pages about the atrocities against slaves but due to space constraints, these few examples will suffice.
In 1833 the British law on the abolition of slavery was approved by royal ratification. It paved the way for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire and its colonies (like South Africa) in 1834. Thereafter slaves had to work four more years in the form of an apprenticeship. This explains why slaves were such good artisans, bricklayers, joiners and tailors. Many beautiful churches and other buildings carry the stamp of their handiwork. Slavery was abolished only much later in Denmark (1846), France (1848), Brazil (1851), Portugal (1858), the Netherlands (1861) and the USA (1862).
Today slavery and forced labour is illegal. Nevertheless, human trafficking for labour and sexual slavery continue.
Through history, there were many slaves or their children who rose above their circumstances. It is these stories which must be told to our children. Abdullah Abdurahman was born in Wellington on 18 December 1872. He received his schooling at the South African College School (SACS) and studied in Scotland.
In 1893 he qualified as a medical doctor and practised in his home town. Besides that, he was a respected politician and leader who campaigned for the upliftment of the coloured community through steps such as the establishment of high schools for coloureds. He was also the first member of colour of the Cape Town city council (1904) and the Cape Provincial Council (1914).
In 1902 this warrior against oppression founded the African Political Organisation (APO) and led two delegations to negotiate with the royal house in London to obtain the vote for coloured people.
Language of resistance
Abdurahman was also a writer and fighter for Afrikaans. Under the pseudonym Piet Uithaler, his column, Straatpraatjies (1909 – 1922), appeared in the APO magazine, one of the first examples of Afrikaans as a language of political resistance.
From his marriage to Helen James of Scotland, two daughters were born — Waradea and Zainunnisa (Cissie Gool). The latter was an important politician in her own right. Abdurahman died on 2 February 1940 and his funeral was attended by 30,000 people. A street in Wellington has been named after him, meagre recognition of such a great leader.
Clara Belle Williams
Clara-Belle Williams was the first black graduate of the New Mexico State University (NMSU). Her professors did not allow her in class and she had to stand at the door to take notes. She could also not join her classmates on the stage to receive her certificate.
But she persisted: she became a teacher who taught black students by day and their parents (all former slaves) by night. After she had lived more than 100 years, the NMSU named the building of the English department after this daughter of a slave.
As recorded in the eponymous slave novel by André P Brink, Philida was a slave in the period before and during the abolition of slavery at the Cape. It is the story of Philida who in 1832 was on her way to lay a complaint with the slave protector against Frans Brink, son of the farm owner, by whom she had four children. He had not kept his promise to purchase her freedom. She tackled the long walk from Zandvliet (today Solms Delta) in Groot Drakenstein to Stellenbosch barefoot. Slaves were not allowed to wear shoes. This was a way to keep you captive, similar to foot shackles.
Philida’s relationship with Frans was similar to the story of slavery at the Cape: a beautiful female slave gets involved in a relationship with her owner — in this case the son of the owner. This is a story in which the partners in the relationship are never on an equal footing. How much say did the female slaves have in these relationships? Philida’s story and the way in which she stood up for her freedom is a lesson to all. As a slave, she was one of the first to learn to read and write — in today’s context a powerful empowerment action which would contribute to her eventual emancipation.
Time of transition
The question is, of what relevance is the Dutch king’s apology to South Africans today? To be a slave is to live the extreme opposite of freedom — that everything is decided for you by others. Philida takes place during a dark time of transition in South African history: the abolition of slavery when both slave and slaver still had to find themselves because neither knew what impact freedom would have on their lives.
Abdurahman, Clare-Belle and Philida had one thing in common: the realisation that true freedom lies within you. Achieving freedom through legislation means little if you are still subject to intellectual slavery.
It is ironic that those South Africans who fought for freedom and the right to vote do NOT use it and are thus disempowered. South Africa is experiencing one of the darkest times in its history. What does freedom help if citizens are literally groping around in the dark in search of the meaning of their existence?
What does freedom mean, when you are continually looking over your shoulder to ensure that you are not attacked, robbed, raped or murdered? Motorists are hijacked, trucks are set alight and children live in fear when they go to school.
It is like living in foot shackles again.
To be truly free requires that you yourself take decisions about your future and take your life back from this modern “slavery”. This is only possible if we use the right to vote for which Dr Abdurahman and others fought so hard, to take ownership of our lives again in 2024.
I close with the words of Philida when she was asked: “Who are you?”
“I am Philida van de Caab (of the Cape). This me who was once a slave. I that am free. I, who are now completely human.” DM