The Dean’s Tale: the poems of Michael Weeder

The Very Reverend Michael Weeder is the Dean of St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. He published two poetry collections over the period between 2020 and 2021. I interviewed him and we reflected on his poetry and the inspiration behind some of the themes in the collections.

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The title “Dean of the Cathedral of St George the Martyr” transports me into medieval England; the world of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. There was a time, before lunch on a Sunday, that I managed to get hold of the section of the Sunday Times that carried the instalments of the adventures of Prince Valiant. Other parts of the weekly newspaper held my attention in later years. But that is another story.

Prince Valiant was a gateway to Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and other legendary figures. Inevitably the heroes of these stories would be associated with the Crusades and battles between good and evil – fought against the background of green hills, forests and serene lakes. The English countryside was a prominent feature of my childhood literary landscape. Clergymen did not always come across well in these tales.

But we are in Cape Town and the dean is the African poet and priest, Michael Weeder. He is not perturbed by the occasional noise of the traffic that drifts into his office, and he accepts the cup of tea offered by the assistant as if it is part of a script. “No, thank you,” I had already declined the offer.

Weeder is an accomplished raconteur who regularly shares his humour and thoughtful reflections with his followers on social media. He has now, in quick succession, published two collections of poetry – Lockdown, Love and Lament (2020) and The Promise of Memory (2021).

“For me, poetry is a documentation of our lives. I have been inspired by Don Mattera and also the very intimate poetry of Jeremy Cronin,” he says. After our conversation, I look up one of Cronin’s poems that I first discovered in the now partially destroyed Jagger Library of the University of Cape Town:

Faraway city, there
with salt in its stones,
under its windswept doek,

There in our Cape Town where
they’re smashing down homes
of the hungry, labouring people
— will you wait for me, my love?

In that most beautiful,
desolate city of my heart
where if staying on were passive
life wouldn’t be what it is.

Not least for those rebuilding
yet again their demolished homes
with bits of plastic, port jackson saplings,
anything to hand — unshakably

Defiant, frightened, broken,
and unbreakable are the people of our city.

— Will you wait for me, my love?[1]

It is easy to see the similarities with the poems of Weeder. Both poets dance on the border between the public and the private. Weeder, more than Cronin, also operates in a country that has transitioned to political freedom but that has not quite shaken the shackles of socio-economic inequality and psychological (and spiritual) oppression.

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“Some of my favourite poems are in Lockdown, Love and Lament because it comes out of the focused period of the big lockdown,” he says as he holds up the first of the two volumes. Lockdown, Love and Lament is based on his daily reflections during the Covid19 pandemic in Cape Town. It is a record of the different phases of the lockdown that was imposed on South Africans during that period. The poems range from light-hearted to thoughtful meditations, and each is accompanied by a reflection.

The national state of disaster, which President Cyril Ramaphosa declared with effect from 26 March 2020, led to the curtailment of many freedoms. Black South Africans have a history of having their liberties restricted.

Even today, neighbourhood watch groups in some of Cape Town’s southern suburbs will alert its members of Black men walking in the area because of assumptions of who belongs. I have witnessed a Black man being confronted for walking in a public space. The white man who confronted him was walking his dog.

For the first time in history white South Africans had to contend with being denied some freedoms by a majority Black government. The desire to congregate on beaches, surf in the ocean, buy cigarettes, exercise in groups in public, and buy roast chicken became rallying points for many of the middle classes who felt entitled to these activities. The irony was that some of the beaches that became sites of protest were for decades closed to Black people in South Africa. That the restrictions imposed by the South African government were not dissimilar from what was enforced in many other countries in the context of a global pandemic was lost on the protestors.

Amidst all of the rancour and anger at having to follow precautions to slow the spread of Covid19, Weeder observed acts of basic humanity. It is the particular sight of one “grey SUV [that] arrives each day at the same time” from which a person, whose face he could not see, shares food with homeless people who sleep in the rough in a park opposite the deanery that speaks to the poem, “Being.”

I remember
your voice, kind
like your eyes

and I knew
that I was seen
and what you saw

made today, and the opening
of my eyes
to the nameless sky,

a prayer on its own.

Lockdown, Love and Lament contains poems that Weeder had written over the course of his life since the age of 16. But while they are not all new poems, the reflections that accompany each poem connects the past and present and points to the promise of new beginnings.

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I know where me from.
I feel it in de bounce of de goema drum
tho I not know a place specifically
or me first given name genealogically.

But I know where me from
under stormy, dark sky or under de laughin’ sun.

The Promise of Memory delves into the personal journey of identity. “It comes out of the peculiar and particular way in which we are African,” he says. The first poem, “I know where me from,” was inspired by an event in 1982 in London, on his first trip out of the country. On a Friday evening, he was walking with a South African exile and a young Jamaican man, who refused to acknowledge Weeder in the conversation. The South African exile “gently reprimanded [the Jamaican man] about his chauvinistic views about blackness.” Weeder appreciated this gesture and wrote this poem many years later as a response to the Jamaican.

Weeder’s views on identity resonates a lot of with the Caribbean experience. “When you are a Creole in Jamaica or Trinidad you are not up against other variations of yourself whereas the Cape Creole is defined in relation to other Africans and then we are often having to prove how African we are. And I want to contest that. When I say I am Black, it is a political identity; when I say I am African, it is the way that I am African – whether I don’t meet your criteria; that is your business. Because I am not European.”

In the aftermath of the 1994 election results in the Western Cape, Weeder and others were in shock that so many people who were classified “Coloured” under apartheid chose to vote for the same political party that was responsible for a crime against humanity. (Zoe Wicomb wrote in some detail about this in her monumental essay, “Shame and identity: the case of the coloured in South Africa.”) The contemplation that followed led to the formation of the December 1st Movement for which Weeder was asked to write a discussion paper.

The December 1st Movement had a short existence and died soon after the celebration of its first anniversary. This was mainly due to the lack of mass support from members of the Coloured community but also due to opposition from among leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) who feared that it would promote Coloured separatism.[2] Weeder says that ANC veteran, Reg September, many years later in 2005, apologised to him for not having publicly supported the movement. It was September who told him about the influence that the heritage of slavery had in the formation of early political opposition to colonialism and apartheid.

The first two days of December are important dates in the history of the Cape since they mark the abolition of slavery in 1834. Weeder was greatly influenced by Father Clive McBride (an unofficial chaplain to some adherents of the Black Consciousness Movement). McBride introduced him to the history of the National Liberation League and others who celebrated 2 December as a commemoration of the liberation of enslaved people at the Cape.

In trying to understand more about the history of slavery, Weeder read several historical accounts and came across a footnote in Vivian Bickford-Smith’s chapter in Breaking the Chains, which mentioned Lydia Williams. Lydia Williams became the subject of his Honours dissertation at the University of the Western Cape. For about four successive weekends, his wife and children would bundle into his car and drive with him from Lotus River to Maitland cemetery to search for Williams’s gravesite. He found it eventually.

Lydia Williams occupied the role of a griot among her people. Like Father McBride, she marked an annual commemoration of the emancipation of enslaved people on 2 December. In her small cottage, she would host people including others who were freed from slavery. One of her teaching aids was to show the scars on her back that remained from the beatings that she received at the hands of the person who enslaved her. These stripes were mainly earned due to the many times that she ran away in her determination to be reunited with her child.

The trauma that enslaved people experienced manifests itself in the despondency of many of their descendants on the Cape Flats today. “The Hebrew scriptures speak about the scapegoat who takes on all the sins of the tribe and is sent into the desert. A lot of our children are the scapegoats inheriting the trauma – conflict, forced removals. In our family it was Mark,” says Weeder.

Mark, my brother,
your beautiful, brown eyes
coloured by the pain of knowing

that the wards and doctors were
of the same prison, you knew
from another time.

Mark, a year younger than Michael, had a violent streak and spent time in Valkenburg Psychiatric Hospital. He died at the age of 55, after a heart attack and a stroke – his leg having been amputated due to diabetes. Weeder recalls his brother’s plea, “You must get me out of here; these people are mad.”

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Weeder reflects on the power of pilgrimage, which is something that he believes Christianity has lost out on. In 2016, he visited the Holy Land with his wife. As a supporter of the Palestinian struggle, he faced criticism from some friends for his decision to participate in the tour. When he placed his hand in the cavity where, according to tradition, the cross on which Jesus died was placed, he was overcome with a deep sadness.

His own personal journey covered much of the Cape Flats where he was born and grew up. But he is an internationalist. He loves Cuba and he spontaneously broke into song when talking about his visit to Cuba in a New Apostolic Church congregation in Silvertown – “My heart is in Havana; Havana, ooh na-na.”

In 1982, he had the opportunity to visit Beirut as a guest of the Near East Council of Churches. His poem, “Something that is loved is never lost”, precedes his reflection on a 9-year-old girl, Mariam, who is reunited with her parents after a car-bomb explosion near her school. “My recall of that day,” he writes, “helped Bonita, my spouse, and me in our decision to have and to raise children in an Apartheid South Africa.”

In that same year, as a young man in New York, he tracked down, Abdullah Ibrahim, and arranged to meet him so that he could hand him a poem that he wrote in honour of the iconic jazz musician. He ended up spending the day with Ibrahim and met his (now) late wife, Sathima Bea Benjamin. The poem that he dedicated to Ibrahim does not make it into either of his two collections but Weeder writes in “Sathima sang,” –

Africa of birdsong
heard in the shade of trees
along which the Camissa flowed
an
adagio tempoed sigh of home.
Africa.

The Promise of Memory is available in Cape Town at The Book Lounge in Roeland Street and Exclusive Books Cape Town International Airport, Domestic Departures; and Johannesburg at Bridge Books in Commissioner Street and Exclusive Books Sandton City. Orders can also be placed online via www.africanbookscollective.com and Amazon.com. Lockdown, Love and Lament is available directly from Michael Weeder.

An edited version of this article appeared in New Frame. You can read it here.


[1] Jeremy Cronin, 1983, Inside, Johannesburg: Ravan Press

[2] Mohamed Adhikari, 2005, Not White Enough, Not Black Enough, Athens: Ohio University Press

The freed slave, the outcast, the cleric, and the cricketer

The freed slave, the outcast, the cleric, and the cricketer

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

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.

Basil D’Oliviera

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.

Abdullah Haron

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, Wayde van Niekerk, James April, and Harold Cressy

Sophia Williams-De Bruyn, Wayde van Niekerk, James April, and Harold Cressy

9 August: Sophia Williams-De Bruyn

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.

The stolen graves of Langebaan

The stolen graves of Langebaan

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 work.

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 Langebaan cemetery.

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 R1,25 million.

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.

This picture is retrieved from the Langebaan tourism site, which is silent on this history about which I write.

Santeo’s 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?

An edited version of this article was published in Daily Maverick.

Tohira Kerrike

Tohira Kerrike

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 Kerrike stands at Silwood Centre (Picture taken and shared with permission)

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.”

Flower Seller by Irma Stern

Nevertheless, 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 sellers.”

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.

Flower Seller by Vladimir Tretchikoff

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.

Constantia Mosque

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.