For this edition, I weave together the stories of four people whose lives stretch across three hundred years. Their stories touch on the themes of rejection, love, resilience and ultimately freedom. In their own ways they each made a mark on South African history while also raising the question of what it means to be Coloured.
Dimitri Tsafendas was in love with Helen. Because he was classified white and she was classified Coloured, they would not be allowed to marry under Apartheid laws. In September 1964, Dimitri applied to have himself reclassified as Coloured. His application was rejected.
Dimitri had lived on the fringes of white South African society for most of his live and his application for reclassification as a Coloured person followed this trend. In addition to his mixed heritage, he also held strong Communist views. At around the time that he attained infamy, he was lodging in a Coloured area with the O’Ryans, a Coloured family.
Dimitri was born in 1918 in Mozambique from a Greek father and a Mozambican woman of mixed descent. At the age of ten, he moved to South Africa for two years before returning to Mozambique. For the greatest part of his youth and adulthood, he drifted through many parts of the world. He could speak eight languages.
In July 1966, soon after returning to South Africa, Dimitri was employed as a temporary messenger in Parliament in Cape Town. On 6 September 1966, he carried out his plan to kill Hendrik Verwoerd, Prime Minister of South Africa and the man known as the architect of Apartheid. Soon after the Prime Minister entered the debating chamber of Parliament, Dimitri approached him and stabbed him to death.
Most of the anti-apartheid movement distanced themselves from him and he was disowned by his church, the Greek community and by his family. At his trial, Dimitri was found not guilty by reason of insanity and he was made a ward of the State; detained “at the pleasure of the State President”.
Dimitri was subjected to torture and inhumane treatment for most of his imprisonment. He was jailed at various points on Robben Island, and at Pretoria Central and Zonderwater Prisons before finally being transferred to Sterkfontein psychiatric hospital.
“Every day, you see a man you know committing a very serious crime for which millions of people suffer. You cannot take him to court or report him to the police because he is the law in the country. Would you remain silent and let him continue with his crime or would you do something to stop him? You are guilty not only when you commit a crime, but also when you do nothing to prevent it when you have the chance.”
Dimitri Tsafendas to two priests who visited him years after he killed Hendrik Verwoerd
With his death in 1999, only about 10 people attended his funeral. The democratically elected government did not acknowledge Dimitri Tsafendas’s role in the fight against Apartheid and his remains are buried in an unmarked grave.
Anna De Koningh
Anna De Koningh came to the Cape from Batavia. Together with the rest of her family she formed part of the first 14 slaves at the Cape. She is the only slave from that period of whom there is a portrait in existence. She was set free on 13 April 1666, when her owner was transferred to Batavia.
On 10 September1678, she married Oloff Bergh. After he was convicted for corruption, they were banished to Robben Island and later to Ceylon. They returned to the Cape in 1695. Oloff rebuilt his reputation and became a wealthy person.
In 1712, Simon van der Stell, the Governor of the Cape, died and his estate was divided and sold. Oloff bought Groot Constantia. With his death in 1724, Anna became owner of Groot Constantia until her death in 1734. She had 11 children and is considered to be the matriarch of many families. Several South Africans of different races can trace their roots back to her.
The Basil D’Oliviera affair was a significant milestone in the journey towards Apartheid South Africa’s isolation from international sport.
Basil was born in 1931 in Cape Town. He was an avid cricketer but because he was classified Coloured he was not allowed to play cricket for the South African national team. He emigrated to England in 1960. In 1966, he was selected to play cricket for the England national team.
With the England cricket tour to South Africa approaching in 1968, the South African authorities feared that Basil would be selected to represent England in defiance of Apartheid laws which prohibited racial integration on the sport field. The South Africans applied pressure to prevent Basil from being selected. When he was selected, the South African authorities claimed that the selection was politically motivated. On 24 September 1968, the tour was cancelled.
The South African Cricket Board of Control announced its intention to remove racial barriers in South African cricket in 1969. But the international sport boycott movement escalated sharply, leading to South Africa’s near-complete isolation from international cricket from 1971 till 1991.
Due to his opposition to Apartheid, Abdullah Haron was tortured and killed by members of the South African police on 27 September 1969. He was made the Imam of the Al-Jamia Mosque in Stegman Road, Claremont, Cape Town in 1955 where he setup discussion groups and engaged in anti-apartheid activities. In 1965, he was affected by the Group Areas Act and was forced to move from his family home in Lansdowne to Athlone.
In 1968 he travelled to Mecca, Cairo and London where he met with various individuals regarding anti-apartheid activities. Imam Haron was arrested shortly after his return to Cape Town when he was summoned to the Security Branch office at the Caledon Square Police Station. He was detained and held in solitary confinement for 123 days, with daily interrogations about his involvement in the struggle against Apartheid. He died on 27 September 1969.
The official government inquest ruled that he died from falling down a flight of stairs. On 29 September, his funeral was attended by 40,000 mourners. Imam Haron was the first cleric of any faith to die in custody under the Apartheid regime, thus signalling increased repression. On 6 October 1969, he was the first Muslim commemorated in St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
Sophia Williams-De Bruyn is the last living leader of the Women’s March.
On 9 August 1956, at the age of 18, she joined Helen Joseph, Lillian Ngoyi and Rahima Moosa at the head of a crowd of 20,000 women who marched on the Union Buildings to protest Apartheid pass laws.
In 1969, she left South Africa and went into exile where she played a key role in the establishment of the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College in Tanzania.
Sophia returned to South Africa after the ANC was unbanned. Her work as a fighter for the rights of others continued as a member of the Commission on Gender Equality and as a Member of Parliament.
14 August: Wayde van Niekerk
Wayde van Niekerk set the world record for the men’s 400 metres at the Olympics Games on 14 August 2016. He is the first sprinter in history to have run the 100 metres in under 10 seconds, 200 metres in under 20 seconds, and 400 metres in under 44 seconds.
22 August: James April
On 22 August 1967, guerrillas from the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) engaged members of the Rhodesian security forces in battle. The guerrillas who were en route to South Africa were led by Chris Hani and had James April as Political Commissar. After a fierce battle, the Rhodesian security forces fled.
James April and his friend, Basil February, were among the first Coloured people to join MK, thereby recognising the common struggle of all black people in South Africa.
James was born and grew up in Bokmakerie, near Athlone, Cape Town. He attended Alexander Sinton High School. He later registered as a student at the University of Cape Town but dropped out after two years. In 1964, James and Basil went into exile.
They became members of the Luthuli Detachment of MK who engaged in the Wankie Campaign; a joint mission between the ANC and ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People’s Union). The plan was that the ANC guerrillas would assist their comrades to battle the Rhodesian security forces and would then move into South Africa. The last clash between the guerrillas and the Rhodesians took place on 4 September 1967. By then, some of the guerrillas had been killed, some had been imprisoned by the Rhodesian authorities and some had found refuge in Zambia or Swaziland. Others like James, found themselves in Botswana where they were arrested for being in possession of illegal arms.
Towards the end of 1970, James made a clandestine return to South Africa. He was arrested on charges of undergoing military training and attempting to overthrow the South African government through revolutionary means. He served a 15-year sentence on Robben Island. While in prison, he continued his studies and obtained a BA-degree.
James April was released on 10 May 1986 and returned to Cape Town after a 22-year absence. The government banned him from practising as teacher. After the end of Apartheid, he became an officer in the South African National Defence Force.
23 August: Harold Cressy
Harold Cressy was barred for racial reasons from studying at two universities in South Africa, despite gaining funding to pursue his studies. Abdullah Abdurahman applied pressure to the University of Cape Town to admit him. Harold graduated from the UCT in 1911 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. He was the first Coloured person to gain a university degree in South Africa.
In 1912, Harold was appointed principal of Trafalgar High School (established in 1910); the only school to offer secondary level education for Coloured learners. He co-founded the Teachers’ League of South Africa and was appointed president of the organisation in 1913.
Harold Cressy was 27 years old when he died from pneumonia on 23 August 1916.
Less than 2km from Die Watergat, the Langebaan pub
where Eben Etzebeth is said to have been involved in a racist incident, lies
Marra Street – named after a pioneer in the establishment of the town.
A descendant of the original Marra, Santeo Marra, has
been involved in a struggle for the past 24 years to reclaim property which
belonged to his family in Langebaan. In
the 1960s, at the age of six, Santeo’s family left Langebaan to settle in Cape
Town. They built a home in Athlone but the family returned regularly to the
properties in Langebaan. They returned to the main house for holidays and
rented out the cottages to the local people, who continued fishing and other
In 1966, the area demarcated as Langebaan A was
proclaimed an area for occupation and ownership by members of the white group.
This area included the property owned by Santeo’s family.
The Group Areas Act notoriously targeted communities and individuals who had documented proof – title deeds, lease agreements, etc., – to the property of which they were being dispossessed. Through this process huge tracts of land in areas which are now out of the reach of ordinary South Africans were taken from black people and handed to white people. In the Western Cape alone, prime property, which now falls in exclusive residential areas such as Constantia, Kirstenbosch, Claremont, and Zonnebloem (District 6), were declared white group areas and black people were forced to move. (See my article on Tohira Kerrike.)
Some of the first targets of the Group Areas Act in
Langebaan were the dead. 87-year old Faye Smith recalls a meeting that was
called in the local church hall to announce that the buried remains of Coloured
people in the local cemetery would have to be exhumed to make way for a new
road. “I pray that the ghosts of everyone who is dug up comes to haunt you and
your families,” shouted one old woman at the white officials who came to make
the announcement. The remains of everyone who was buried in the cemetery next
to St James’s Church were reburied in a mass grave in the black section of
Father James Van Staden, who was the Anglican
priest in Langebaan, points out that the destruction of the cemetery was
preceded by the demolition of St James Church school and the church building.
Those black people who owned property in the newly
declared white area of Langebaan were caught between a rock and a hard place.
They could either sell their properties at greatly reduced prices to white
people or they would have their properties expropriated by the state. Some
considered deals whereby they would transfer ownership to a friendly white
person in the hope of retaining some privileges. But such deals were fraught
with risks. Tenants lost all rights and were summarily evicted.
In 1967, Santeo’s
father, John Michael Marra, was forced to sell his property for R3,200. The
same property was resold for R20,000 in 1973 and again for R67,500 in 1982.
John Michael Marra died in 1987. By 2002, the asking price for the property was
In addition to losing the property, the townspeople lost their sources of income since the rights to the properties included fishing rights. The fisher folk were left destitute. Quality of life deteriorated and among the incalculable costs of the dispossession of land was the emotional trauma suffered by many of the older folk.
great-aunt, Gertrude Smith, grew blind and bitter in her old age in Athlone –
more than 120km from Langebaan. When she died in 1970, the beach on which she
played as a child was reserved for white people and she could not even set her
feet on it again one last time.
The Commission of the Restitution of Land Rights
was established in 1994 to deal with cases such as those of the Marra family.
As early as 1995, they submitted their claim. They are still waiting for
finalisation. In that period, two of Santeo’s siblings have passed away.
The options available to the remaining two are
accept a cash offer which will be far below the current market price of the property,
engage in negotiations with the current owners on the “willing buyer, willing
seller” principle, which is generally accepted to have failed elsewhere, or
accept alternative land of appropriately the same value in the area. They have
opted for the third alternative. The Commission on Restitution of Land Rights
acknowledges the legitimacy of the claim. As late as 2005, it claimed that they
had requested the Saldanha Bay Municipality for a land audit report in order to
proceed with settling the claim.
Descendants of Marra have been engaged in a long
struggle to claim what is rightfully theirs. It’s another South African
reality: people dispossessed of their properties who are yet to see justice
done. Meanwhile, other claimants are growing older and dying without any
restitution in sight.
Langebaan is still largely divided along racial
lines and any effort to return black people to the areas from which they were
forcibly removed just over 40 years ago is met with resistance. The
Presidential Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture says, “On the
confiscation of African land, the Europeans erased most evidence which Africans
seek to use to prove lawful customary ownership of their ancestral lands.
Graves and residential sites of Africans on some European farms were
deliberately destroyed to wipe out evidence in many cases. The ancestors of
Africans who were evicted from their lands could neither read nor write.
Therefore, it is very difficult for their descendants to prove that they ever
lived on the so-called ‘European farms’.”
But if a case as clear and simple as this of the Marra family has dragged on more than 25 years after the end of Apartheid, how will the ones with no evident paper trail ever see conclusion?
Tohira Kerrike has been selling flowers at Silwood Centre in Rondebosch for the past 45 years. More than 50 years ago, her family were the victims of forced removals in Cape Town. Despite the end of Apartheid and the hope inspired by the first democratic elections of 1994, she is still waiting for a land restitution claim to be addressed. She talks about her early life in Untold Stories: Memories of growing up in a different era, a book by the Cape Town Museum of Childhood. The book was launched on 23 April 2019.
Tohira’s father owned a small farm in Constantia at the top of Ladies Mile Road. On the farm, they grew vegetables and flowers. Her mother sold the flowers that were grown on the farm. In Standard 5 (which is Grade 7 today), Tohira started helping her mother with the selling of flowers. After passing Standard 5, she dropped out of school and started working as a flower seller. She would continue in this occupation for the next 52 years.
Cape Town has a long history of flower selling. Melanie Boehi writes in “The flower sellers of Cape Town – a history”, that the cut flower trade began as an activity of slaves in early colonial Cape Town and that flower selling began in the mid-1880s.
“Being largely excluded from careers in botany and horticulture during apartheid, flower farming and selling were occupations in which black people successfully made a living by working with flowers,” she writes. Like many things in South Africa and Cape Town, in particular, the occupation of flower sellers and the regulations of the trade were subjected to racist legislation.
Tohira’s mother sold flowers on the Grand Parade in the Cape Town city centre. The sight of flower sellers in the central business district of Cape Town eventually became a popular tourist attraction. It was not always so. In 1905, the introduction of a permit for the sale of flowers was discussed in Parliament. There was opposition to allowing flower sellers to conduct their trade in the CBD. As one parliamentarian stated, “‘able-bodied coloured’ men and women should not be flower sellers but employed as farm labourers or domestic workers.”
by the early 1900s, flower sellers became a feature on postcards, tourist guidebooks
and in local newspapers and magazines. They were presented as exotic characters,
with little understanding of their real lives. Melanie says, “Photographs on
postcards were altered in ways that emphasised not only the colours of the flowers
but also of the flower sellers’ dresses, especially the ‘Malay’ attributes such
as women’s headscarves and men’s fezzes. Painters, with Irma Stern and Vladimir
Tretchikoff among the most well-known, frequently produced images of flower
Flower selling is hard work. When Tohira
started out, she had to get up at 5 o’clock every morning to get to the farm to
buy fresh flower. Then she would go home to pack them before travelling to
Rondebosch to sell them. In the early years, she would sell flowers till 2 o’clock
in the afternoon. But “now business isn’t like it was, and you have to work the
whole day!” she says.
The introduction of the Group Areas Act in 1950, placed the economic activity of black people in city centres throughout South Africa in a precarious position. In 1965, central Cape Town was proclaimed a white Group Area and it was announced that “the coloured flower sellers would eventually have to move from the flower market in Adderley Street.” In the end, they were allowed to stay.
However, the flower sellers experienced the wrath of the Group Areas Act in other ways. In 1968, Tohira’s family were uprooted from their farm in Constantia and forced to move to smaller land. Constantia, which today is one of Cape Town’s wealthiest residential areas, was declared a white area: black residents were evicted and their houses and gardens destroyed.
Melanie says that “Few traces remind us that until the 1960s Constantia was a farming area with a predominantly black working class population. They were farmers, farm workers, domestic workers and fruit and flower sellers, and they practiced subsistence farming, growing vegetables, fruit and flowers…” Being dispossessed of their land had serious consequences for black people. Tohira remembers eating the vegetables that her parents grew. Only surplus vegetables, like with the flowers, were sold on the market. Being forcibly removed from their farm and relocated to a much smaller area meant that they could no longer pursue their subsistence farming activities.
Tohira and went on a pilgrimage to Mecca at the age of 21. Today, evidence of the fact that her community once lived in Constantia is the Mosque and Muslim cemetery that still stands in Spaanschemat Road. Tohira and her family still go there. The school that she attended, Constantia Primary School, also still stands as a witness to their forced removal.
In 1998, Tohira’s family lodged a claim for the restoration of the rights to the land that they owned in Constantia. “If we ever do get it back, I’ll just thank God that we can go forward,” she says. Till today however, they have had no success.