How do we talk about the memory of Apartheid

The fact that the choices for black people under Apartheid were either martyrdom or compromise was part of the injustice of that system.

In 1966 the South African government declared District Six—a high-density, mixed, but mostly coloured residential area intrinsic to the fabric of downtown Cape Town for at least a century and situated on prime land beneath Table Mountain —to be a white “Group Area.” The state promptly set about forcefully removing District Six’s “non-white,” which included both coloureds and “Africans,” residents (eventually about 60,000 of them) to land up to 30 miles further to a flood plane known as the “Cape Flats,” which consisted of mostly swamp land and sand dunes populated by invasive vegetation.

Despite the fact that nowadays developers and the city council (governed by the mostly white Democratic Alliance which relies partly on the votes of poor coloureds who now inhabit the Cape Flats) would sooner forget that District Six ever existed (they want to remake that part of the city into a Maboneng-style district for hipsters and whites with money), and despite the fact that nothing but an ugly gash on the hillside near the city is the only evidence of razed buildings, its historical significance has been extensively memoralized. There’s a downtown museum—a few blocks from the original neighborhood—dedicated to its memory and District Six, and its former inhabitants have been the subjects of scores of books, novels, films and photographic exhibitions.

What we get from the Museum and these media are celebrations of a multiracial milieu: it was, after all, the neighborhood that started as a home for free slaves and black migrants to the city, a place which also attracted poor European—mostly Jewish—immigrants. We also see, in the objects and photographs of remembrance, evidence of the residents’ resilience—of how the mostly poor and working class renters made it in a city that made life difficult for them already. Finally, we see how, through forced removals, these people who built a vibrant place of possibility were condemned to various parts of the desolate Cape Flats.

Though District Six also had other black residents (especially Xhosa-speaking), it is coloureds that primarily lay claim to District Six (most coloureds don’t identify as black, but many trace their ancestors to Mozambican and Angolan slaves or Khoi and Xhosa unions). District Six is for them a lament for a lost city and a lodestar in reconstructing a more integrated metropole. And because the land where District Six stood has not been occupied much since, the area still stands as a monument for racial inequality and exclusion. Even as you drive above it on the elevated highway that takes you from the suburbs into central Cape Town, you can’t miss the presence of its empty expanse

The result of its lasting absence/presence is that popular memories of District Six—though it is punctuated by occasional stories of deprivation and communal violence (the infamous Cape Town Mongrels gang originated there)—generally celebrate those who lived there. (My father, who was born in Peninsula Maternity Hospital in District Six—but grew up in Newlands and Kirstenbosch—has the same nostalgia for “die Distriek.”).

The now-razed neighborhood also had profound influences on the city’s cultural life. The writer Alex la Guma (he died later, an exile, in Cuba) brought the quarter to life in his books (“A Walk in the Night”) as well as in his journalism for the Communist papers, The New Age and The Guardian. Musicians like Abdullah Ibrahim honed their skills in its clubs.

Yet, occasionally, residents recall more complicated memories, like how they remember or care to forget the history and legacy of institutions like the Eoan Group.

Eoan, a derivative of the Greek word for dawn (Eos), was founded by a white British immigrant, Helen Southern-Holt, in 1933 as a kind of ethnic uplift organization—a “culture and welfare organization” aimed at coloureds in District Six. Its politics was hardly radical. The emphasis was on teaching “the Coloured race” how to speak “proper,” have good posture, manners and hygiene. More importantly, they would also learn the arts, especially ballet and opera. The group used a building, the Liberman Institute, donated by a Jewish philanthropist.

Led by conductor Joseph Salvatore Manca, an Italian immigrant to Cape Town who worked as a bookkeeper for the city council, the all-coloured company (in terms of the performers; most trainers were white) performed from the early 1940s onwards, and gained some local and national fame. Condescending white critics were fond of declaring the group up to their high standards and some group members took this as genuine praise. But Eoan was a genuinely talented company of performers, conducting national and, later, international tours (especially to the UK).

Eoan was a performance company that consisted of talented members; it was not a charity for half-baked dancers. Were they born somewhere else (free from race prejudice or dictatorship), they would have been celebrated for their work. What is remarkable is that a number of Eoan members would go on to prove themselves on global (meaning European and American) stages. They include the ballet dancer David Poole, who passed for white (one Eoan member remembers: “he went to London coloured and came back white!”) and joined the Sadler Wells Theater Ballet as well as the Royal Ballet in London; Gordon Jephtas, a pianist and arranger, on occasion accompanied famed Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi at the Royal Albert Hall in London. One of the male lead singers, Joseph Gabriels, a former municipal worker, became the first South African to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

By the time the government had bulldozed District Six to the ground in 1968, the Eoan Group had moved to Athlone coloured township on the Cape Flats, where they made their home at the Joseph Stone Theater, built as a theater space for coloureds. (Any visitor to Athlone will recognize the theater situated on Klipfontein Road, a main thoroughfare close to Athlone Football Stadium). By the late 1970s, however, Eoan was in decline. Though it retained the quality of its performances, a mix of factors contributed to its eventual decline.

Manca (who could be ornery, but was admired by Eoan performers for his high quality of coaching) dueled with Eoan’s coloured administrator, Ismail Sydow, over who should manage the group’s affairs and direction. Sydow was a local coloured grocer whose wife sewed the group’s costumes. Sydow eventually won out over Manca but soured inter-group relations in the process. But as race politics in Apartheid South Africa went, that was an inconsequential victory since both men shared Southern-Holt’s vision. In fact, such rivalries and minor coups happen in performance companies everywhere.

More important to Eoan’s fortunes were the group’s choice of political patrons and its compromises over racism and Apartheid.

Perhaps, it is only in hindsight that we can see how much racial politics and the changing laws affected the group’s dynamics. But at some level, the Eoan Group appeared doomed to controversy and political compromise right from the onset. It originated in Southern-Holt’s white, Conservative, Christian-based rhetoric and her disavowal of any “politics.” However, as the National Party came into power in 1948 and made law out of already discriminatory social practices, Eoan members couldn’t escape being politicized. (Remember this was the period of the “Defiance Campaign” when resistance to Apartheid increasingly took a mass form.) Group members had always vowed to not perform to segregated audiences. However, by the late 1950s, they had given in and were performing to audiences that were divided by a rope: two rows of coloured patrons and eight rows of mostly rich whites. Members rationalized—or so Manca made them think—that they needed the money.

Before long, Eoan applied for money from the Department of Coloured Affairs, a very unpopular arm of the state set up after 1948 to “govern” coloured education, social welfare and housing similar to “Native Affairs” and the Bantustans. Manca also encouraged Eoan to play concerts for white Cabinet ministers. Soon Eoan was going on overseas publicity tours for the Apartheid state. Ada Jansen, one of the senior coloured administrators of Eoan, went to the United Nations on a visit arranged by the regime and its defenders to try and break the cultural boycott and weaken international solidarity in opposition to apartheid. The company also went on tours of Western Europe. (Eoan was certainly not the only group used by the South African regime in this way, of course.)

For Eoan’s critics, the group had gone too far with compromises. The coloured middle classes, whose best qualities Eoan claimed to represent, now despised the group: Most coloureds that cared or noticed (especially the literary elites, political activists, andthe professional classes) now openly resented Eoan.

In 1956, the writer Alex la Guma (charged with treason that same year in a mass trial which included Nelson Mandela) wrote a letter to Eoan about receiving government funding to perform to segregated audiences:

People can … conclude, therefore, that the Eoan Group supports Apartheid. In fact, the whole idea remains one of the slave period when the farmers hired Coloureds to perform for them, their masters. Today in the 20th century we do not recognize the white man as our master. This is the land of our birth and we demand government support for ALL cultural movements. BUT WITHOUT APARTHEID STRINGS (La Guma’s emphasis).

By the late 1970s, most patrons had deserting Eoan’s shows. Opponents like the South African Council on Sports (they concerned themselves with more than games), was openly calling on people to boycott Eoan. In 1979, SACOS, who championed the slogan “no normal sport in an abnormal society,” in a piece of Gramscian theater, declared Eoan a “banned organization.”

Alex La Guma and SACOS—which between them represented competing strands of antiapartheid organizational politics—had a point. During Apartheid, the National Party worked hard to court moderate coloureds as a buffer against African demands. Some coloureds were willing participants in these schemes. The belief among some coloureds to see white people as their natural allies and patrons, of course date back further and implicates slavery, colonialism, mission Christianity, and various government “reforms.” However, throughout South African history, this hardly paid off: social conditions for the majority of coloureds approximated those of their African neighbors. Nevertheless, this paternalism stuck and may also explain why most coloured voters relate to white parties in the city and the Western Cape province. By the late 1950s, Eoan were thus charter members of divide-and-conquer policies.

It can be very difficult for someone with little or no time or even any understanding of the nuances of race, politics and identity in Cape Town to fully grasp the conundrum of groups like Eoan Group and its achievements and controversies. It also doesn’t help that Eoan is a part of a past that few want to revisit in South Africa.

This is why the appearance of a book (Eoan: Our Story) and a film (An Inconsolable Memory) about Eoan is a significant event. “An Inconsolable Memory” and “Eoan: Our Story” both trace their origins to about 100 odd containers and 75 folders filled with documents and information donated by the Eoan Group to Stellenbosch University. From these documents, the university created an Eoan Archive in its Documentation Centre for Music (DOMUS). A group of mostly white researchers sifted through the documents and looked into the prospect of publishing a book out of all this. DOMUS staff were joined on a steering committee by Ronald Samaai, the brother of a former Eoan Group member, and Ruth Viljoen, the widow of Eoan baritone, Lionel Fourie. The filmmaker Aryan Kaganof was invited to film the proceedings and go along on interviews.

The film and book set out to tell the story of the surviving Eoan group members.

The material in the book and film often overlap, with the book sometimes serving as a written transcript for the film.

“Eoan: Our Story” (the book) is organized into themed sections (“Beginnings,” “In Rehearsal,” “Playing Roles,” “Final Curtain,” etcetera). Conversations jump back and forth over time. Much of it is verbatim testimony by Eoan members compiled during interviews (45 in total). However, there’s little context, except for brief descriptions by the editors. This may be consistent with the book’s stated objective to let the Eoan members speak (“our story”), but leaves the reader in the dark about the weight of certain decisions or events. Everything is important and we just have to trust the editors.

Most Eoan members insist they only wanted to practice their art and could care less for “politics” (whether for or against Apartheid). They want to remember a time of glamorous costumes, triumphs and the occasional stage mishap. In general they are proud of the group’s legacy. Some read a progressive legacy into the past: In Eoan they could stop being, say factory- or dockworkers. Talent was what mattered.

Not surprisingly, the resistance and condemnation they faced for taking Apartheid’s money or playing to segregated audiences, still hurt. They want recognition for their efforts. They want people to see that they could perform and that they could create art regardless. For them, being black or coloured, had nothing to do with their abilities or talents. They were also acutely aware of the limitations of Apartheid. They don’t remember their involvement as transgression or collaboration.

Occasionally, some of them recognize the charged environment within which they operated, including within the group itself. Many of them point to slights at the hands of the conductor Manca and other white teachers at Eoan. Manca, for example, discouraged coloured chorus members from learning how to read music, and one of the Eoan trainers, the soprano Emma Renzi, to this day disparages Joseph Gabriels as a “little Cape coloured” who only got invited to sing at the Met in New York City because of his likeness to the more famous Enrico Caruso. That Gabriels enjoyed a fairly stable and successful career in Europe escapes her.

But what seems to hurt (and rankle) surviving Eoan Group members more was the criticism they got from other coloureds. Eoan members relied on the “community” to reinforce their sense of themselves; to validate them and when that validation was withdrawn—slowly from the 1950s onwards–they suffered.

The twin effects of the “testimonies” in the book and the film are that it is hard to deny the coloured members of Eoan the pleasure of wanting to produce and practice their art given the oppression of their daily lives. It wasn’t like they had the pick of opera companies; and until the mid-1980s, they could not perform in whites-only opera houses and theaters. By the time political freedom arrived in 1994 many of them were retired or had died (Gordon Jephtas died in New York City in 1992). They were too old to enjoy freedom.

Between the book and the film, it’s Kaganof’s approach that points to more promising possibilities for getting at some of the unease and murk associated with Eoan. The Stellenbosch researchers probably felt the same way as they indicate in the front of the book. (“And then there was (Kaganof’s) presence behind the camera: filming, moving, filming, winking, filming, laughing soundlessly. How much of what transpired was directed by Aryan Kaganof? I suspect more than we think.”) Kaganof’s film makes you wonder whether documentary film is better suited at getting at our fragmented, complicated pasts. In an interview after I read the book and watched the film, Kaganof told me that “… the film permits itself certain territory that is forbidden to the book. The nature of the academic contract locks the book into the terms of the release form. The film operates outside of that contract and hence shows us that, perhaps, ‘official’ history is only part of the story, and perhaps the least interesting part.”

Kaganof’s film opens with this message: “Let us not begin at the beginning, nor even at the archive, but rather at the word memory…” The emphasis in the film will thus be on fragmented memories. The pace is deliberately show and long, uninterrupted, shots dwell on interviewees as they read the release form for example or offer him tea in mostly overstuffed living rooms (the film also gives a sense of the class politics of Eoan). Kaganof is always present in the film. You see or hear him occasionally as he prompts interviews and in the editing choices he makes.

Then there are the lengthy archival sequences of District Six—mostly street scenes, people milling about or hanging over balconies of run-down tenements, and of children playing among ruins. The overriding sense is one of poverty and neglect. These scenes are overlaid with original recordings by Eoan’s opera company. I counted a total of about 30 minutes worth of these scenes. Some elements in these scenes are often repeated. Three shots in particular: the first is of a (white?) man, probably a security policeman, loafing around a street and who looks straight the camera; and the second, footage that Kaganof shot of a white homeless man lingering outside the Cape Town City Hall (where Eoan performed during Apartheid) as well-dressed patrons arrive for some performance. These shots are jarring—they are the only shots of whites in the film despite the heavy footprint of whites on how Apartheid worked—and you can’t help noticing that. Finally, there’s a slowed-down sequence of a bulldozer about to demolish a house. The sense of loss, anger and disorientation produced by these scenes stays with the viewer for a while after. In contrast, the book has a breezy quality to it in the way it presents the testimony of Eoan group members.

There’s a moment in the film, right at the end, where Ada Jansen, a key organizer for the Eoan Group mentioned earlier, asks Kaganof to put off the camera and he doesn’t and she gives her most honest answer about how people felt about Eoan: “They (other coloured people) hated us for being collaborators.” In this moment, Jansen comes across as proud of what she did, unrepentant and resigned about her position. But also hurt and coming to terms with that past. It is quite revealing. One can debate Kaganof’s ethics and whether it was justified to reveal the truth, but it gets at some of the questions any person interested in Eoan may want to broach or are fascinated by.

One thing the film and the book made me think about is that there must be more productive ways to write or think about black people whose lives or work were compromised by colonialism or Apartheid in South Africa. The popular, default position is usually to label the most disgraced amongst them as traitors or quislings. Some within the ANC and the United Democratic Front publicly promoted singling out and shaming collaborators. In extreme forms, collaborators were executed (e.g. municipal policemen, Askaris, informants) or their houses firebombed or burned down. Sometimes they or their families were shunned or worse physically attacked or murdered. Of course, some black people compromised by Apartheid (homeland leaders, tricameral politicians), were “rehabilitated,” with a number of them even turning up later as ANC MPs in a postapartheid parliament. But in general, the compromised have been written out of history through a mix of shame and a tendency to focus only on those who individually resisted the system. Curiously, the tainted ones end up in a worse place than that reserved for whites, the beneficiaries of those systems.

In a new article in The American Historical Review, the U.S. historian Dan Magaziner (he has previously written a book about South Africa’s black consciousness movement) tackles some of the puzzles thrown up by this history. Specifically Magaziner writes about a group of black South African art teachers (products of Ndaleni, a legendary all-black art institution in Kwazulu-Natal) who worked in racially segregated schools after the imposition of Apartheid.

In Magaziner’s telling these teachers attempted to carve out their independence, producing art that went against state directives, while in the process training generations of black artists and art teachers. Yet by the 1980s, many of them were ostracized, and in extreme cases paid with their lives (one of them, working in the Ciskei Bantustan in 1980, was murdered by his own students who identified him as a direct representative of the oppressive state).

Magaziner concludes that for historians it is important to recognize what kinds of lives were possible for these art teachers. “The state, its educationists and their racialist ideologies were (the) reality (of these teachers) and limited the form of their lives. So they chiseled that reality and tried to make something beautiful of it.”

Yet Magaziner argues that to reduce these art teachers, and others in their position, to history’s victims—“to dwell on such cold, objective facts”—also denies them “the dialogue with reality that constituted the art of their lives.” Magaziner’s solution is to pursue the “echo” of Ndaleni: “a distortion in time, voices that do not say exactly what we expect to hear and whose sense we struggle to discern.” As Magaziner writes about one of his subjects: the challenge is to see “the complexity of his experience, the fine-grained, everyday negotiations of satisfaction and struggle that doubtlessly marked his life.”

Chances are appreciation, and a more critical understanding of Eoan will probably grow if this book and film gets a wider distribution (though the latter is unlikely) and when historians (and other researchers) revisit the social life of black people under colonialism and Apartheid.

The best contrast to Eoan’s fate is how African American performers of the Jim Crow and segregation eras are viewed now than when they played for segregated audiences in America’s clubs and theaters, donned blackface or performed humiliating sketches on radio, television and in film. For example, later generations of civil rights campaigners despised the jazz trumpeter and bandleader Louis Armstrong, for his bug-eyed performances in front of white audiences and trips on behalf of the US State Department in the 1960s to counter Soviet criticism of persistent racism in the United States against blacks. (Armstrong, also controversially, performed in blackface as “King of the Zulus” in the 1949 New Orleans Mardi Gras.) Malcolm X said of Butterfly McQueen, a black actress who played a servile maid in “Gone with the Wind”: “When Butterfly McQueen went into her act, I felt like crawling under the rug.”

However, with time, some of these same critics have been kinder to performers like Armstrong, 1920s singer Bert Williams (he performed in blackface in minstrel shows) or Butterfly McQueen. Armstrong, for example, it turns out often veered off script during those State Department trips and quietly supported the legal defenses of civil rights campaigners.

Yet, for all this, we can’t help but feel uncomfortable with groups like Eoan that made major compromises with Apartheid. At the same time we have to recognize that there weren’t any easy good choices for blacks living under Apartheid who wanted to be creative. Yes, there were artists who resisted heroically and who suffered greatly for it. But as someone who doesn’t want to suffer in his own life (and I lived my formative years under that system), I find it hard to expect anyone else to do it. The fact that the choices were either martyrdom or compromise was part of the injustice of Apartheid. Why should blacks always have to be so much better than everybody else?

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.