Colesberg heritage project gets under way

PHAKAMISA MAYABA  /  In person, Mr Jeffrey Rademeyer’s voice is more disarming than the clerical tone it takes on over the phone. He is also taller than the Facebook photos let on. So when he rises to address the second workshop of the Colesberg History Project – held in the N1 government building on Human Rights day — those gathered listen intently, craning their necks to meet his eyes.

An eclectic group has come out on the day — mostly elders, who can trace the townships back to a time when the schools were no more than cow dung smeared church floors, and water was hauled from communal tanks. The demographics reflected an intercultural melting pot from enclaves as far as the former Transkei and the highlands of Lesotho.

Boasting a grounded work ethic, their predecessors are said to have been an enterprising lot; backwater pastoralists, livestock farmers, packers, shop assistants, and blockmen. Most have spent their working lives out on the surrounding farms. Today, however, they are floating and bouncing off ideas that may inform the direction of the proposed project.

Described as ‘a walking encyclopaedia’, Mr Mleleki’s memory stretches very far back. In fact, in the course of his wistful, partly humorous monologue, he conveys the thought that the sheer idea of the initiative is unprecedented to people whose forebears tended to keep things – their origins included – very close to their chests. His father, a sallow man who laboured hard with his hands, was a product of the times. ‘I’m not a Motaung,’ Mr Mleleki recalls him reiterating, ‘I’m an Englishman!’

Exactly what this cryptic pronouncement meant is a question that has hung over him for decades. But he expresses gratitude that, finally, there are people who want to start piecing together and documenting the long-haul history of those who came before us. For this reason, he has generously availed himself to the cause — so much so that colleagues in a farming cooperative eventually had to whisk him away. But not before his parting message: ‘You can’t know who you are if you don’t first know where you come from.’ Everybody nodded.

Mr Solomzi Mtubu addresses the workshop.

Mama Katie de Wee, a teacher, is a thoughtful speaker. Apart from a long-standing desire to put together a book on the education history of the township, she also ruminates on the socio-cultural and cross-generational impact of legalised segregation. Surprisingly, she is less interested in traditional apartheid — ie., apartheid as an instrument of white supremacy — than its enduring efficacy in wedging divisions among black and brown people.

To her, the term ‘Coloured’ is a misnomer, an accident of history. If she could have it her way, we’d all just be ‘people’, but when pressed on racial tagging, she still feels that ‘Coloured’ ought to refer to a people’s culture than serve as a racial classification. ‘Does a white English man having a child with a black Xhosa woman make that child Coloured?’ she asks. That scion, she continues, will probably have no social reference to what it means to be ‘Coloured’. She also touches on the intra-cultural form of racialisation affecting the various communities — how, for instance, loose and subliminal racial slurs still thrive in these spaces. She cites the example of how having a dark skin might invite epithets like the K-word from members of the lighter-skinned Coloured population. Everybody cogitates….

As someone who was active in the ‘struggle’ and witnessed the massacre of the Colesberg Four ‘with my own eyes,’ the last thing Mr Solomzi Mtubu would want is for the memory of those martyrs to slip from local consciousness.

Back then, he was a student and an activist – an ‘agitator’, in the security parlance of the day. Nonetheless, he was instrumental in working (‘with many others,’ he insists) towards the preservation of this part of Kuyasa’s history. He feels the project would be therapeutic for those who were simply expected to move on from the psychological impacts of those events.

‘There are deep-seated wounds in the community,’ he declares, ‘wonde wat ons moet krap.’ He believes the dialogues will precisely offer the opportunity to scratch at those wounds until they have healed.

Rademeyer’s long-term vision is to create a sustainable project that will serve the community for years. Of course, he notes, endeavours of this nature that aim to function independently and are primarily community-driven may be regarded with suspision.

Sadly, while he he had sent an invitation to the Umsobomvu Municipality, no representative could make it. It being Human Rights Day, Rademeyer chalked this up to the possibility that other events required the municipality’s attention. That said, Rademeyer is adamant that he has only the community’s interests at heart.

He envisions a new book about the history of the town. ‘But the vital factor’, he remarks, ‘is to break down social divisions … and [the project must] culminate in the development of Colesberg’.

Inspired by what he terms ‘the Chinese model’, which ‘is steeped in culture and history,’ he feels the town’s various communities have lost their ‘connectedness’ – an indispensable ingredient of social cohesion. Ultimately, the project centres on what sort of future the town is building, which by default, would be inherited by the next generation.

Aware of potential limitations, he has already reached out to several universities which he feels could contribute by granting access to archived material as well as providing training. He also believes the project has the potential to outlive those who start it. Somewhere in the future, he sees a library in Kuyasa that could also stimulate tourism. He also sees its crumbling stone houses which we have previously written about as ‘ancestral homes’, and monuments that should be protected. Most of the development in Colesberg is commercially oriented, and he hopes that in the future relevant role players would be equally enthusiastic about developing the historical / heritage aspect as well.

Despite the fact that this is her husband’s baby, Mrs Rademeyer punctiliously scrambled around to ensure that those gathered were treated to a hearty meal. Yes, the dialogue was fruitful, but the lamb curry made everything just that much more enjoyable.

FEATURED IMAGE: The second workshop of the Colesberg History Project under way.

This is an edited version of an article that was first published on Phakamisa Mayaba’s website, eParkeni. Used with permission.

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