The nightmare of being coloured on Heritage Day
by: Terry Simelane-Mathabathe - 18 September 2017
Growing up coloured, Heritage Day would always be one of the most awkward celebrations for me. People at school would be wearing their traditional clothes, ready with answers about what foods they will be eating. Even simple questions like “Where’s home?” would be a nightmare. This is owed to the fact that I, like many other coloured people, don’t really know my family origins so Heritage Day is not a day that I connect with.
There are many factors that have contributed to coloured people not knowing their origins such as displacement, slavery and so on, and this has affected our Heritage Day rituals.
All is not doom and gloom. Despite the lack of a specific traditional dress or special dishes, coloured people have found unique ways to spend the day. With the discussion on coloured identity being open, folks are starting to look up their family origins. We are learning more about who we are and throwing away the shame of not having a place in South Africa’s cultural landscape.
I had a chat with a few of SA’s favourite coloured faces to get their thoughts on the topic. Publicist and entrepreneur Farah Fortune, actress Waydene Laing, and content creator Alyx Carolus were very keen to discuss their Heritage Day plans.
How do you celebrate heritage day?
Farah: As a Muslim and an African, I tend to celebrate by dressing in traditional clothing from all sides of my heritage and every year I share stories with my daughter about the strong women in our family, including teaching her how to cook traditional food dishes.
Alyx: I don’t think I’ve ever celebrated Heritage Day and wouldn’t really know where to start, to be honest
Waydene: My family and I celebrate Heritage Day the best way we know how, proudly South African, with a full-on Braai!
Do you know your family origins?
Farah: Yes I do. I know my family heritage on my dad’s side back to 1500’s. My mom’s side I know my heritage from the early 1900’s. I am a mix of British, Indonesian, Malaysian and Xhosa.
My great grandmother (Johanna Heartzenberg born 1871) on my dad’s side, was the first licensed female diamond digger, of colour, in South Africa. She was also an anti-apartheid activist and helped smuggle Miriam Makeba’s sisters out of apartheid South Africa through a series of safe houses. She lived through the Boer war and helped feed starving people by stealing the municipality’s horses and slaughtering them to distribute the meat amongst the starving.
She is now honoured in Kimberley’s history museum with all the above facts.
My Malaysian great grandmother from my mom’s side originated from India. To escape an abusive husband she was forced to marry, she smuggled herself onto a ship that docked in South Africa and she stayed here.
My grandfather, Osman Fortune, was a renowned athlete and boxer. He qualified for the Olympics in Germany for cycling, however, he was banned from participating due to apartheid.
Alyx: I only know my mother’s side of the family, and even then I’m not able to trace any information beyond my maternal great-grandmother. I’ve toyed with the idea of doing a DNA test, just to find out where I could have come from and have a bit more information about why I look the way I do.
Waydene: Yes I do.
How does this impact your heritage day celebrations?
Farah: I celebrate my heritage just like everyone else, I’m not affected by anything. I am just more fortunate that I know my family history quite well and am lucky enough to celebrate a number of heritage traditions.
Alyx: I think it dulls it down a bit for me, personally. Coloured people definitely have a distinct culture that varies from region to region regarding variations in the food we eat, clothing we wear and language we speak.
Waydene: The one thing that binds our family together is food; an amalgamation of flavours and recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation. My family’s love for food stems from a long line of farmers, and the influence of different cultures.
What are your thoughts on coloured identity in 2017?
Farah: For many years coloured people have never ever been afforded the opportunity to identify themselves, due to the fact that most coloured people are unaware of their own history and that is mostly due to circumstances (Displacement etc). During Apartheid coloured people had to adhere to the same restrictions as black people, however, they were given better opportunities, therefore seen by black people as more privileged than them but less than white people, always ‘in the middle’.
After apartheid coloured people are still effectively ‘in the middle’. It is going to take time for coloured people to really understand who they are, especially since most coloured people were classified as coloured due to the area they lived in etc.
Alyx: It’s complex and there’s no one-size-fits-all way to describe coloured identity. There are many conversations that need to happen, from anti-blackness, diverse representation, to violence in the community and erasure of our identity. I, for one, am tired of being told what being coloured is “supposed” to be, by people who aren’t coloured.
Waydene: I am blessed to have grown up in an environment where I was not even aware of my race until I was much older. Even then, being coloured was only something I ticked on documents. I have always been proudly South African: a mixture of cultures and people. However, this is difficult in my line of work in the entertainment industry where you are unfortunately labelled in order to be cast. I look forward to a future where it becomes too difficult to box anyone in because we are bursting with so many different cultures, and our identity is placed not on the colour of our skin, but in what we believe.
Got any Heritage Day rituals or if you just want to add your thoughts on coloured identity, share your views in the comment section.