Excursions to 'The South'

By Clifford Pereira


Growing up in rural Kenya in the 1960s and 70s, my knowledge of South Africa was filtered through the politics of the day, inflected as they were by East Africa’s independence from British rule. Looking back, I cannot help but wonder if the information I received about other parts of the continent arose due to the different colonial histories of the Eastern and Southern parts of Africa, or if the information available was deliberately skewed due to issues affecting these regions at the time. Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to South Africa. The experience made me reflect on my own past in the continent, its association with the United Kingdom which my family moved to, and the vibrancy of contemporary Africa.

                                                                                                   Boer family c. 1886.

                                                                                                   Boer family c. 1886.

I recall that South Africa represented a distant part of the continent where “Europeans”, as all white people were referred to, still ruled, though black people were a majority. In East Africa at the time, media was in the form of radio and newspapers, which I read under the light of a hurricane lamp since we had no electricity. This media covered a daily flow of information about the oppression of black people in South Africa, which was then under Apartheid. Some older Goans in the community would tell of their journeys by sea to Europe via South Africa. Others nostalgically mentioned the colonial days when South African wines and cheese were readily available. Then there were the stories of the “Kaburu”, a European settler group that arrived in covered wagons, “Wild West-style”, but driven by two or four heads of cattle instead of horses. These travellers from the South set up farms in Kitale, Eldoret, and Nakuru. I knew nothing, then, of the thousands of Indians who had lived in South Africa for generations, or of Gandhi’s time in Natal, or even of the existence of the Cape Malays and Cape Coloureds – the “brown tribes” of Southern Africa. My image of the South was of a land like the Kenyan Highlands inhabited only by a minority of Europeans and a majority of Africans.

Kenya in the 1960s was a country in transition, where I was clearly aware of the existence of colour, race, and tribal affiliation, and the politics associated with the latter. No doubt, the state-run media’s fixation on South Africa was, in part, due to a government policy of diversion from the pressing social issues at home. The most confounding of these was likely the crisis of the dynamic population growth and the pressure this was placing on a relatively small area of productive land.

It was only on leaving Kenya and living in London in the 1970s that I learned of the magnitude of what was happening in Southern Africa. I drew parallels between the apartheid-related problems in that part of the world and the speeches of Enoch Powell, as well as the marches and demonstrations on the streets of South London by the fascist British National Party (BNP). These observations were coupled with my own fears of “Paki-bashing” by skinheads. Britain in the 1970s was not welcoming of racial difference, to put it mildly. In my mind, though on separate continents, British fascism and South African White-domination merged into one. These connections were heightened by a racist beating at school that left me unconscious and stunned. It would be two days before my mother received an apology from one of the assailants, and only because my father had protested. The school made no attempt to deal with the endemic racism on campus; in fact, verbal racism from some of my teachers continued for years.

It was my attempt to overcome the trauma of the racial incident, and my low self-confidence driven by my in-between status as an immigrant yet to become a British national, that led me to read countless books on Africa.  Unlike the first time when Southern Africa had become known to me as a youth in East Africa, this time my knowledge of the region was based on literature and Western news on TV. One of the books I read was North Of South (Penguin 1978), a travelogue by the Indo-Trinidadian author Shiva Naipaul. In his book, Naipaul critiques the Asians of Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia – which he collectively refers to as the North. Despite his criticisms of these communities, he also highlights their precarious social position in the region. Conspicuously, his travels to the North had not included Uganda and Malawi. These were the two African countries that had expelled Asians in the 1970s, the decade in which Naipaul had undertaken his travels. Naipaul’s South is South Africa, a country under the Apartheid system that was building its own nuclear arsenal at the time, while deeply embroiled in a violent struggle for independence and the subsequent civil wars in the ex-Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola. In a section on an outing in Arusha with the Goan Club, Naipaul includes several deprecating remarks about Goans, whom he refers to as being “spineless” and “foolish.” Additionally, Naipaul has no place for the Goan Portuguese heritage in his ethnography, and represents Indian Ocean migrations in the same light as ones in the Atlantic. For him, Goans represent another migration of indentured people, much like the manner in which his own community found themselves in Trinidad.   

In reading Naipaul and deciphering how he had misunderstood the experience of different communities in Africa, as well as the differences between migrations in various parts of the world, it dawned on me that my own world view was changing the more I read. It was then that I made a wish that someday I would visit the “South”, but not until the arrival of freedom and racial equality in South Africa. The ever-present protests outside South Africa house in London’s Trafalgar Square kept that wish alive, and psychologically served to bolster my self-esteem, which was at an all-time low. To me, racism in Africa was equivalent to racism in England; having been at the receiving end of it in the United Kingdom after having moved there from Kenya, it was an issue tied up with my sense of self. When I witnessed the protests about South Africa in London, it was a sign that racism was not going unchallenged. It was emboldening.

They say that when you are bitten by the African Fly, it stays in your blood like some tropical disease, and the urge to return to the land of the red earth and open skies never quite fades. When I was finally granted British nationality and a passport, after nine years of having lived in London, my first trip out of the country was back to Africa. My shock at the bustle and increasingly crowded streets of Nairobi, plus the intense security issues, were a far cry from the rural Kenya of my childhood. The fact that, unlike White or Black Britons, I was required to have a visa added to my view that the United Kingdom had not requested equal rights for her citizens, irrelevant of colour or place of birth; evidently, equality had not really arrived in either Kenya or the United Kingdom. Every subsequent return visit to Kenya resulted in the recognition of fewer familiar faces of family and friends, fewer familiar structures, fewer instances of wildlife alongside the roadside, and less snow on Kilimanjaro. At the same time, other parts of Africa beckoned – Morocco, the Seychelles, and Zambia.

Then on 11 February, 1990, after 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island. It was a day I clearly remember, and it seemed that my long-standing wish to visit a liberated South was finally a possibility. But the pressures of work and life led to other visits to Kenya, and South Africa remained a land that I could only visit in a dream – a kind of new African utopia, the “Rainbow Nation.” In the romantic excursions of my mind, this was the land of safaris, diversity, and equality of sex, race, creed, and sexual orientation.        

Finally, in 2017, I made my first trip to South Africa, and as I explored the places, cultures, and the flora and fauna of an incredibly diverse and photogenic country, I began to realise how much more there was to learn about and from this place. The ideology of racially excluded places, as demonstrated at the District Six Museum in Cape Town, brought to mind family stories about Kenya’s White Highlands scheme in the mid-twentieth century and the exclusivity of Nairobi’s Upper Hill more recently, or the Norfolk Hotel, which in the colonial days was the preserve of white people. Suddenly, that term “coloured”, that had been applied to me in London, had a new meaning in South Africa. In fact, at a restaurant in the Cape Malay quarter of Bo Kaap, I was mistaken for a Cape Coloured and, doubtlessly, I felt some connection to these brown-skinned, black-haired Africans with their distinctly Asian food.

Cape Coloured children from Bonteheuwel township, Cape Town, South Africa. Coloured is considered a neutral term in South Africa to address mixed-race populations.

Cape Coloured children from Bonteheuwel township, Cape Town, South Africa. Coloured is considered a neutral term in South Africa to address mixed-race populations.

The Cape of Good Hope is the meeting point of two oceans and was, of course, on the route from Portugal to India. This meant that the Portuguese sailed eastwards past Table Mountain, leaving a trail of Lusophonic names along the coast: Saldanha Bay, Cape Recife, Cape Padrone, St. Francis Bay, and Natal. They even attempted a settlement on the now famous Robben Island in 1496. A lesser known fact is that Goans, other Indians, a few Malays, the Chinese, and the Japanese sailed under the Portuguese banner the other way – from east to west – in the early modern period.

On a visit to the famous Vineyards of Stellenbosch, our African guide told me that the town was given its name after Simon van der Stel, the first governor of the Cape Colony from 1691 to 1699. He also remarked that this governor was often forgotten in the subsequent history of apartheid South Africa, because van der Stel was of mixed blood. The following day, my good friend Mwangi from Nairobi took us to Simon’s Town which is also named after van der Stel, and here I found out that the former governor’s maternal grandmother was Monica da Costa, a freed slave from Goa! An Afrikaner guide would later also comment on how van der Stel was sidelined in history “during apartheid days because of his Indian connection.” 

The humble museum at Simon’s Town held another, more personal, connection. It appears that during the First World War, Goan crewmen frequently called at Simon’s Town on board British Royal navy ships. In fact, the ship’s log of the HMS Astraea states: “1:30pm discharged seven coloured ratings landed at Cape Town Patrol.”

One of these “coloured ratings” was my great-grandfather who was landed there to be transferred to the HMS Hyacinth. As it happens, the volunteer assistant at the museum was the granddaughter of a British sailor from the very same HMS Hyacinth, and she provided ample images of the ship in port. The museum also held memorabilia from the ship.

I wonder, beyond slavery and sailors, what other stories of Goans in port cities await to be uncovered? For now, I feel content knowing that we Goans have been known as “coloureds” for over a century. Perhaps encouraged by the Cape Coloureds, I am mentally reclaiming the term. The South Asians in the Cape merged with the Cape Malays and Cape Coloureds over time. Of South Africa’s “Indians” who number over one million, a majority are derived from nineteenth century indentured labourers and live primarily in Kwa-Zulu Natal. I met just one, a student at Cape Town University who shared Diwali sweets with us.

My media-related, literary, and romantic excursions to “the South”, over the years, have been challenged by the physical visit. Thinking back to Naipaul, after my own journey to South Africa, I am of the view that Naipaul could not see past the Black/Native-White binary of the Atlantic, its history of the decimation of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans.  Were Shiva Naipaul still alive and able to visit the South Africa of today, he would experience both the colonial connectivity and the disconnect that exists in a country whose heritage has been influenced by histories of the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans.

The Cape experience was certainly not the only one I had in South Africa. On the “low veldt”, by Kruger National Park, overseas Indian tourists are nothing new. But a brown African with an English accent was something of an enigma; I was welcomed by the African guides and lodge-workers but problematic to the Afrikaner visitors who appeared to feel challenged by me. I thought it was amusing that one of them exclaimed: “I can’t place you in a box.” I reminded her that I was as African, just like she or our Xhosa-speaking guide was. To be honest, I came back from the trip with a high regard for the lady who, after years of being incarcerated in a cultural box by the apartheid system, was now a migrant in multi-racial New Zealand. She was now attempting to explore the Africa that she had been isolated from. Other Afrikaners were not quite so open to discourse, preferring to request a separate table where they could keep company with their fellow Afrikaner and Dutch travellers. But that was their choice and their loss.

Daily newspaper articles and Twitter streams about rape and violence in the African and Coloured townships and rural areas, of European farmers being attacked, of gangs that number in their thousands, and of the ignored “correction rape” of, often, imagined lesbians, brought my romantic excursion to (what I had hoped would be) an African utopia to an abrupt end.  On the other hand, my romantic thoughts about South Africa were upheld by the beauty of the landscape and the eagerness of South Africans of all races to preserve the natural and cultural heritage. My experience demonstrated to me how important South Africa was in the cultural making of the modern world, especially because of its position between the two great oceans that ferried humankind, in both directions, across the globe. The friendliness, tolerance, and genuine empathy of the vast majority of people of all ethnic groups was amazing, as was their reverence for the wisdom of Nelson Mandela. This is a wonderful country, still in transition from a harsh past. There is a vision for its future that stands as a beacon in a troubled world. I hope its people are empowered enough to realise that vision.

All images used are courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.


Clifford J. Pereira FRGS is an independent researcher, curator, and museum consultant. His research in London, Vancouver, and Hong Kong over the last sixteen years, has focused on a variety of themes, leading to publications by UNESCO, Brill, and Routledge. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG); a researcher with the Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, Canada, and a guest lecturer with the African Studies Department, University of Hong Kong. His recent research into Canada's naval history was featured on CTV Halifax.