Seen on Facebook: The history of slavery has somehow gone beneath the radar

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Steven Robins writes on Facebook:

Spending one night in the upmarket wine and tourist town of Franschhoek can give one a striking perspective on the many faces of post-apartheid South Africa.

Driving into Franschhoek one sees the shiny, metal structures of the Langrug informal settlement on the rocky and rugged Drakenstein mountains. On our first evening we also witnessed the spectacular beauty of a blood red sunset over the mountains. That evening, my wife drew my attention to a copy of the Philip Bawcombe’s water colour painting, “Slave Bell,” on the wall of our B&B. The London-born artist, who was born in 1906 and died in 2000, depicts a sentimental farm scene in which a black “domestic worker”/slave attends to two little white girls in Victorian bonnets and dresses, while two male black workers/slaves toil in yellow overalls next to the Cape Dutch house and Slave Bell. What does this painting, brazenly displayed in a B&B in 2021 reveal to us about our relationship, as South Africans, to our slave, colonial, and apartheid pasts?

Later in the evening I watched a YouTube interview with Susan Neiman about her 2019 book Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil. Neiman makes the compelling case that the United States and Britain could learn an enormous amount from the ways in which Germans have “worked through” (Vergangenheitsbewältigung) their Holocaust past. In the interview she refers to how, on December 7, 1970, German Chancellor Willy Brandt fell on his knees at the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto as an act of repentance and reconciliation for the Nazi genocide. The “Warsaw Genuflection” was dismissed by many as an “empty gesture” at a time when the majority of Germans seemed unwilling to confront their complicity in the Nazi past. For Neiman, it was the 1968 generation of militant student activists who directly confronted their parents and grandparents about this. The German Government only officially faced this past on May 8, 1985, when the West German President Richard von Weizsäcker, a former German soldier during World War Two, publicly stated that May 8, 1945 was the day that all Germans were liberated from Nazi tyranny. Since then, Neiman argues, Germans have initiated serious and sustained processes of “working through” this devastating past. Yet, it was only very recently, in the wake of the brutal murder of George Floyd, that the US and UK seriously began the kind of “memory work” that Germans have been doing for decades.

Although school textbooks and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission may have helped South Africans better understand the histories of land dispossession, the Frontier Wars and the devastation of apartheid, it would seem that the history of slavery has somehow gone beneath the radar and much work still needs to be done to extend public knowledge of this aspect of the country’s traumatic past. Only then can the process of working through this buried past really begin.

During our short visit to Franchhoek we also revisited the Solms-Delta wine estate and its Museum van de Caab. The museum provides a local history of slavery on the farm as well as personal narratives of slaves who once lived there. The Solms-Delta project goes beyond “working through” the past in museum displays. It is also part of a decade-long social and economic transformation programme whereby farmworkers have become co-owners of the wine farming enterprise. We were told by one of the waitrons at the restaurant that despite the economic fallout of the Covid-19 crisis, the Solms-Delta transformation programmes was surviving through a state-supported business rescue initiative. She also told us that she had grown up on the farm and had benefited from numerous hospitality industry training courses funded by Solms-Delta. The Solms-Delta experiment suggests that “working through” traumatic pasts also needs to include attempts to transform historical legacies of transgenerational racialised poverty.

While white South Africans clearly have much to learn from the Germans and from reading Neiman’s book, social experiments such as Solms-Delta can also provide lessons on the relationship between “memory work” and developmental initiatives that seek to transform the material realities of the lives of the descendants of those who experienced the devastation of these histories of slavery, colonialism and apartheid.

Photographs: Steven Robins

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Kommentaar

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    Albert Grundlingh

    Solms-Delta has a much more troubled history than what the author is aware of or prepared to admit, and the workers have been at the receiving end of this.

    The use of an unproblematized notion of history and memory further weakens the argument.

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    Steven Robins

    Thank you for your response, Professor Albert Grundlingh. You are correct, the history of Solms-Delta is much more complicated than my very short reflection allowed. I am very aware of earlier allegations of racial paternalism, worker grievances etc. But the main point I was trying to get across is that, while the memory project at Solms-Delta is very important in and of itself, what is equally significant are the concerted efforts, despite setbacks and failures, to transform the material conditions of life of the workers on the farm. As someone who once did research on land reform and rural development projects, I am acutely aware that virtually all development projects are riddled with problems, conflicts and contestations. This comes with the territory! What I wanted to convey was that it is impressive that Solms-Delta has actually attempted to establish a memory project on slavery alongside 'development' programmes which have attempted to improve the lives of farmer workers - notwithstanding these many challenges and setbacks. In my own personal situation in relation my reflections on the response of Germany to the Shoah (Holocaust), not only is there a massive archive (films, books, theatre, monuments, museums etc.) in many parts of the world, but there was also a massive restitution process - for example, my father received reparations for his imprisonment by the Nazis in 1933 and for the murder of family members in the death camps. My point is about the importance of linking the retrieval of erased histories and memory alongside material restitution. Solms-Delta attempted to do this even though they have encountered numerous difficulties. I hope this clarifies my motivation for writing this short piece.

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    Albert Grundlingh

    Thank you, Steven. This goes some way towards problematising the issue as I have suggested it should.
    I have not followed the Solms-Delta saga of late, but I still harbour some reservations pertaining to foreign capital with a "human" face invading the winelands, even appropriating historical memory with a single meta-narrative and inflated promises of a better life for all. All of this is done under the guise of benevolence and nobody asks where the real power lies. Till the bubble bursts.

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    Steven Robins

    Thanks, Albert. Your criticisms probably apply to philanthropy in general, e.g. Gates etc. But I still hold out some hope for such interventions, even if so many seem to disappoint.

  • Reageer

    Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Kommentaar is onderhewig aan moderering.


     

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