Defend Truth


Tyla, water and the racialised history of injustice against indigenous ‘coloured’ women


Prof Darlene Miller is Convenor: Citizenship Studies at the Thabo Mbeki African School of Public and International Affairs, Unisa. She has held various senior research positions in South Africa (Human Sciences Research Council, Plaas — Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies), Paris (International Science Council) and New York (Human Rights Watch), and was the Director of the Institute for African Alternatives (IFAA, South Africa).

A racialised controversy emerged around the sultry ‘brown’ singer Tyla after her Grammy award-winning song ‘Water’. Tyla’s self-identification as ‘coloured’ on TikTok provoked ‘black’ Americans. Lineage can be a powerful mode of (re)integration into society, a space of recognition. But in the absence of archives, and strong and cohesive families, finding this path back to lineage is a troubled pursuit.

The idea of making it” is a prevailing African imaginary in which cosmopolitan Africans are expected to get closer to the attainment of celebrity-style success, with the corresponding markers of successful citizenship: being the chair of a board; having your own company; living in a beautiful mansion; driving a kick-arse car.

This conspicuous consumption is how we are invited and included into (South) African citizenship. When we do not attain these markers of cosmopolitan success, we are deemed to have failed – the worst assessment being “you did not make it” and, to that extent, you are a less valued citizen.

Our young water goddess, Tyla, seems to be “making it” with her global fame and popularity in the music industry.

In Jacklyn Cock’s 2018 book, Writing the Ancestral River, she reflects as a “white” South African on her failure to understand the spiritual rituals undertaken by the Xhosa-speaking South Africans of the Eastern Cape. (Note: I use the inverted commas to indicate that these racialised categories are contested. However, I drop this punctuation for the rest of the article.)

A racialised controversy emerged around the sultry “brown” singer Tyla after her Grammy award-winning song ‘Water’. While the song evokes the sensual rather than symbolic aspect of water, the intersections with ancestral roots are interesting.

Tyla’s self-identification as “coloured” on TikTok provoked “black” Americans. Her lineage evidently has more Zulu ancestry than that of the Khoi or San Africans, who were among the indigenous people of the south of Africa. 

Many indigenous African groups, some of whom settled in the Eastern Cape where Cock’s observations of the river occurred, observe various ancient water rituals. Khoi African ancestors also quarrelled with other African groups, such as the Xhosa-speaking peoples in the Eastern Cape.

Much of Tyla’s lineage controversies would wash over most observers and be unfamiliar to her youthful South African fans as they imbibe the steamy ‘Water’ music video. 

The quarrels over her “mixed identity”, however, resonate with new citizenship claims in South Africa and the indigeneity of the coloured woman. 

Tyla’s new global fame provides us with the opportunity to reflect on the lack of knowledge, in South Africa and abroad, about coloured lineage in our country.

The history of the indigenous people of South Africa – the Khoi and the San – has recently received more attention in the political and academic landscape of the country. 

Part of the challenge of reconstructing the history of these peoples and their descendants – the “coloured” groups – is finding the archival sources of knowledge about this lesser known past.

The absence of formal, written archives for dispossessed peoples is a common phenomenon globally that limits historical records. More significantly, however, the absence of records produces another trauma for those who are dispossessed: the absence reminds the postcolonial subject that their existence historically was of little or no relevance at the time.

Whatever services their dispossessed ancestors provided in the Cape Colony, this was deemed insufficient to warrant systematic historical records of slaves, free labourers, domestic helpers, carers, water carriers, translators.

Did we come from ‘under the bed’/‘onder die kooi/Khoi’?

When researching the women of Proudly Manenberg” (The Red Tent, 2012), I was struck by their assertion that they were not dragged from under the bed (“onder die kooi/Khoi”); that they too, had a lineage and a past.

It would seem strange to have to assert that you have a past, but this is not unusual for those designated coloured in South Africa, who have very little knowledge of their past lineage.

One instance is the narrative of extinction: your ancestors did not survive, even though you exist as one of their progenies. Another is the evisceration of your past: when your ancestors did exist, their records were irrelevant. 

There are multiple sides to this trauma of evisceration, producing what some historians have called a “melancholia”, an awareness of an absence, but an incapacity to define what this absence is.

Part of this poor knowledge of past lineage is attributable to a politically conscious act of disavowal of coloured identity. As part of apartheid racial classifications, the term ‘coloured’ was resisted politically in favour of a united black collective identity, forged in the heat of the struggle against apartheid.

But with this disavowal of coloured identity came a loss of knowledge of personal and collective past histories, and the particular history of those designated coloured. 

Michael Morris, head of media at the South African Institute of Race Relations, says the history of the coloured community is complex, but “quintessentially South African”:

“However, many of those designated ‘coloured’ under apartheid feel excluded from the nation-building project. This racialised group, found in different provinces of South Africa but mainly Cape Town, is often heard saying that ‘we were too black under apartheid but we are too white under the ANC’.”

We are estimated at 8.2% of the population, around 4.2 million of the 59-60 million South Africans, a numerical (and social) minority group.

There is much stereotyping of coloured people: I was called “Kaapse-dans” when I was the national education leader of one of the largest trade unions in Cosatu at the tender age of 28. A natural gaiety, a joy of life, an enjoyment of people – these were the traits that were betraying my roots.

I had not learnt the art of demure femininity that goes down so well with the patriarchy. I was given to flailing arms, legs, wild hair and a freedom in my movements that were a constant reminder of my ancestry, and which signalled the Khoi-bred coloured girl”, or meid (maid) as they liked to call us in the past.

Stereotypes are powerful governance mechanisms. They enter the minds of citizens and shape narratives for government and society. One such example is the poem that was used in the 1800s to mock and stereotype coloured-black girls, and often recited by the Dutch in the Eastern Cape:

My name is Kaatje Kekkelbek 
I kom van Kat Rivier
Dere is van water geen gebrek
Maar scarce van wyn en beer.
Myn a.b.c. st Philip’s school
I learnt ein Kleene bietjie
And left, with wisdom just as full
As gekke tante Meitjie.

(Boonzaaier, et al, oft-recited poem, 1838)

These narratives have powerful impacts on policy choices and approaches to the way a country is governed – who are considered privileged insiders and who are marginalised outsiders; less important, less valued.

But the most debilitating aspect of a stereotype is the way it enters the body of the stereotyped. It becomes a way of knowing the self – as flirty, frivolous, not serious, for instance, when in fact a layered experience of “coloured-black” interiority is being invested with prejudice and normative disapproval.

This latest injustice – the epistemic omissions of our lineage as coloured peoples – has added another layer of indignity to a lifetime of humiliations that life under apartheid bestowed to our communities. 

The theoretical consequence of the “narratives of extinction” is to produce an “epistemic silencing” where little is known about our sociocultural practices and histories, and our evolution into contemporary society.

At the practical level, these narratives have the effect of actual or perceived exclusion and marginalisation from active citizenship. Such actual or perceived exclusion can promote fragmented citizenships, and negate our national policy goals of social cohesion and integration.

Where “epistemic silences” persist, epistemic injustice and discriminatory epistemic injustice are produced by these absences in our national memory and psyche, with the consequent contested policy outcomes (the recent Employment Equity Act amendment being one example of this fragmented and fractured citizenship dialogue).

Substance abuse (alcohol, drugs), swearing, rebelliousness and the difficulties of finding a space of belonging haunt any indigenous peoples who are severed from their lineages. 

Lineage can be a powerful mode of (re)integration into society, a space of recognition. But in the absence of archives, and strong and cohesive families, finding this path back to lineage is a troubled pursuit.

The incomplete nation-building project in South Africa has excluded the Khoi, San and their coloured descendants from the reconstruction and development of the South African nation. Narratives of extinction have fed the myth that the Khoi were obliterated, yet their descendants remain.

Excavating the intimate “herstories” of invisibilised indigenous women – and easing and healing the torture that resides in these troubled and complex excluded women in South Africas national polity – remains an imperative for a decolonised Academy and for a country that aims to include all its citizens.

Tyla is not the only one who is “making it”; there are many other African girls and women who are “making it” in different ways – making food to feed families; making clothes as seamstresses; making money through trading informally on the roadsides and pavements of African cities and towns; nurturing our children into social civility and making governable citizens.

These are the invisible women – some of whom are delighting in Tyla’s raunchy moves – but who our academic texts and nation-building choices have marginalised behind various gendered stereotypes and ignorance of our past.

We need to retrieve our lineages and our past, and sometimes memory in the water is the seamless way into such reconnection. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • ST ST says:

    I have some respect for DM journalism, facts and opinions. But I take issue here. There are several separate points here, albeit related and important

    1. The reaction of the US blacks to the term ‘coloured’ based on the historic use of that term to degrade them.

    2. The apartheid system that invented the segregation by race and therefore assigned the term coloured

    3. The wrongful neglect of the Khoi and San as indigenous emphasised by colonialists as they took over lands and in the process denied any indigenous peoples rights who to them were the same causing them the same nuisance.

    4. The neglect of the Indian and mixed-races in the new SA. Although they suffered less, they deserve attention.

    This piece appears to conflate these. It mainly seem to be using the Tyla issue to sensationalise particularly as she is more ‘Zulu’ and Khoi/San.

    The Khoi and San deserve attention. But their story is being used today by many who want to justify colonialism and deny blacks what they know as their home before the European settlers as well as their right to be aggrieved by the treatment they then received, and generational consequences of such treatment.

    The writer even refers to Khoi/San having ‘settled’ in the Cape. Maybe we need to define what ‘settler’ means. Nonetheless, this piece may fuel the wrongful justification of apartheid.

    I dream of a day when we do away with black/white South African. But centuries later, The US still not rid itself of that. So dream on me!

  • Ikeraam Korana says:

    The incomplete nation-building project in South Africa has excluded the Khoi, San and their coloured descendants from the reconstruction and development of the South African nation. Narratives of extinction have fed the myth that the Khoi were obliterated, yet their descendants remain.

    – To imply that the Coloureds is the descendants of the Khoi and San don’t tell the full story.

    If your from the Khoi or from the San then you are Khoi or you are San. That means the colonial term Coloured should not be your term of reference.
    Descendants supposed to be known, refered too and registered exactly as to what their ancestors and foreparents were. Not something different.

    The term Coloured was used to disconnect the descendants completely since the 1800’s until today.

    Another issue, it is not Khoi, it’s !Khwe and it’s not San, the so called San people is also ! Khwe.

    That means those everyone refered to as Khoi and as San is both !Khwe, which means they are not seperate nations, they are one big nation, that consist of various tribes and each tribe consist of various clans. Clan means family in English.

    The term San only means “South African Natives”, referring to those people refered to as Hottentot, Khoi, San, Coloureds, Kleurlinge. But nothing to do with those called or known as Griqua or Griekwa.

  • Tariq Mellet says:

    The first thing that I thought of with Tyla’s WATER was that it is a pity that she was unconscious of how WATER is the best way we have of expressing our identity as a people with deep African roots and as a people of multi-continental / multi-ethnic roots… something that also seems to have slipped away in Darlene Miller’s assessment.

    Over the last three decades many of us, who find the term “Coloured” imposed on us by European colonials formally since the 1911census and further defined in 7 sub-categories in 1950 insulting and meaningless, now proudly call ourselves Camissa Africans referring to our “Water People” indigenous roots. Over 100 businesses are now registered with CIPC using Camissa in their names and we have the Camissa Museum at the Castle of Good Hope tell the story of our many tributaries.

    Camissa is the creolised form of ǁkhamis sa, meaning “sweet water for all” in Kora the Khoe-language of the Cape. It refers to the river that flows from the !areb (mountain) Huriǁammaǂkx’oa (rising from the sea – Table Mountain) down to huriǁamma (the sea) (ǁamma also means water). This river system has over 40 tributaries and springs. Today the river runs beneath the city of Cape Town. Symbolically, Camissa represents life because without water, life cannot be sustained. More generally, ǁkhamis sa is the Kora name used for fresh-water rivers across Africa.

    The first Khoe traders who traded with European ships were settled in a small community on the banks of the Camissa River at the shoreline. These people of the Camissa called themselves ǁAmmaqua and at other times Kamisons (meaning “Water People) and the Europeans called them the Water People (‘Watermans’ in Dutch). Their familial ties were to the Cochoqua people of the West Coast.

    The Camissa settlement was seized by the Dutch in 1652 and over the next eight years the Camissa people were forced out of the area, particularly after the first Dutch-Khoe war in 1659. At the same time enslaved peoples from other parts of Africa and from Asia were forcibly brought across the shoreline in chains into the Camissa embrace.

    The Khoe and the enslaved became the cornerstones of a new creole African population who would, from 1911, be formally classified as ‘Coloured’. Camissa Africans cannot be defined by colour, features, ethnicity, or race but by a common experience of facing and rising above systemic adversity and a range of crimes against humanity – colonialism, slavery, ethnocide and genocide, forced removals, de-Africanisation and Apartheid. Just like the Camissa River was forced underground, so were the Camissa Africans.

    There are Seven Tributaries in Camissa African Heritage (still referred to by officialdom as ‘Coloured’) and includes – 1. Cape Indigenous Africans; 2. African-Asian Enslaved; 3. The Free Blacks; 4. The European Non-Conformists; 5. The Maroons, Drosters and Orlam; 6. The Exiles, Refugees and Convicted; 7. The Apprentices, Sailors, Indentures and other Migrants of colour.

    Under each tributary collectively we can identify a total of over 195 roots of origin, with many cultures – African, Asian, Euopean and from Australasia and the Americas. Our Camissa Museum tells this story and introduces the public to many historic characters who are our ancestors who explain our rich heritage. The Museum also introduces many from our Camissa African communities who have excelled in contributing to the arts, sciences, sport, politics, academic life etc as role-models for youth. Contrary to Apartheid which created a separate race/ethnic colorist silo to identify us, the Camissa African identity transcends these walls and shows that there are Camissa Africans who criss-cross all of the four race/colurist silos.

    One of our greatest Camissa African intellectuals, the late Dr Neville Alexander, using the Kai !Gariep River as a metaphor came up with a most wonderful way of explaining our identity linked to WATER and breaks with race, color, and ethno-nationalist definitions… a uniquely African explanation…

    Rivers like the Kai !Gariep are “… one of the major geographical features of this country. It traverses the whole of South Africa and its tributaries have their catchment areas in all parts of the country. It is also a dynamic metaphor, which gets us away from the sense of unchanging, eternal, and God-given identities… It accommodates the fact that at certain times of our history, any one tributary might flow more strongly than the others, that new streamlets and springs come into being and add their drops to this or that tributary, even as others dry up and disappear; above all, it represents the decisive notion that the mainstream is constituted by the confluence of all the tributaries, i.e. that no single current dominates, that all the tributaries in their ever-changing forms continue to exist as such, even as they continue to constitute and reconstitute the mainstream.”
    Dr Neville Alexander (1936–2012)

    Today instead of trotting out the racist “Coloured” label many of us stand up proudly saying we are Camissa Africans! Os is! We are! Water People.

    Tyla accidentally stumbled on the beautiful center of who we are and should be assisted to see beyond the sensual to embrace the liberation of WATER in her ancestral-cultural heritage. In so doing her popularity can be used to educate and instill a pride beyond “Coloured”.

  • Ben Harper says:

    Then only racial controversy is in the mind of the author, desperate to stoke up something that’s simply not there

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