New Injustice in Cape Town

On Friday 14th August, as the weather forecasts were predicting the bitterly cold and wet weather that hit Cape Town that weekend, the City of Cape Town demolished the homes of people living in Kensington and Factreton. Many of them were backyard dwellers, and their shacks were not new, as the City claimed; they had been there for about ten years. The KenFac Ratepayers’ organisation says that some of those families have been on waiting lists for houses for 50 years, but in that area not one brick has been delivered.

Yet Mayor Dan Plato says that Cape Town is under siege by people like these, who are derailing the housing plans. One might ask, what housing plans, after 50 years? It is surely time for such a “plan” to be drastically reviewed. In the article in the Daily Maverick, Clark, Hazell and Mohapi quite rightly discredit this war-like language that the City uses against its own citizens. These “land-invaders” are true South Africans, unlike many of the Johnny-come-latelys that want prime land in Cape Town. Who is the invader? The presence of people in these shacks is not evidence of their criminality, but of how long and how badly they have been neglected. Add to this the shocking fact that the city was R36.8 million for informal settlements, which it simply did not spend last year, according to Sandra on STOP COCT.

It seems the City has a split personality, because while JP Smith (ironically leading the Safety and Security committee) and Malusi Booi (Human Settlements – or should that be Inhuman Uprooting?) as the mayor’s hired guns were planning this callous eviction, other departments had been talking to the same residents about laying on a water supply. When the mayor was approached about the plight of the people on Friday, he replied that there was nothing he could do because it was “not a disaster.” His aggressive vocabulary and responses like these encourage gullible Capetonians to harden their hearts to this artificially created disaster, for disaster it is. On Saturday he was approached again and said that none of the building materials that had been confiscated would be returned. They could not even get their own sheets of corrugated iron and plastic, poles and doors back as they scrambled to find shelter. However you try to camouflage it, this is an act of sheer malice.

In 1996 the Constitutional Court reiterated that people being moved had to be treated with “dignity and respect.” Instead, Mayor Plato adopted the “blame the victim” attitude of callous rapists, with his war-like accusations.

It was the community that stepped in. There were donations of food, blankets and clothing from Kensington, Factreton and Pinelands, and Miles October accommodated all the children in his Play Sport for Life offices. The local mosque delivered 100 punnets of food from a family in 18th Avenue. Two of the three Solidarity kitchens that were opened in response to the Covid-19 crisis served fish and pasta on Friday night, and soup on Saturday. A new temporary kitchen has been set up to meet this crisis. Bless their hearts; but it is the City that should be helping its citizens to be warm, safe and fed. We hear of plans for world class improvements to the Waterfront costing billions, but the basic rights of the oldest Capetonians are irresponsibly trampled on.

We want to be proud of our city. Not only of its beauty and impressive developments, but of its morality, of its methods for correcting historic injustices. What happened on 14 August was an example of the opposite – shameless new injustices. There is something rotten, or maybe quite schizophrenic, in the City of Cape Town.

2017 March by residents of Factreton and Kensington

Cape Town and Covid-19

When the corona virus named SARS-CoV-2, or Covid-19, hit South Africa, we all knew it would mushroom when it reached the townships from the privileged suburbs that imported it. So it did. Few of the people in these constricted settings had been able to build up reserves of strength and a robust immune system. In addition, regular handwashing with an inadequate water supply, and social distancing in overcrowded conditions were pipe dreams.  In particular, I want to look at the case of Cape Town, where these neglected areas were soon the hotspots.

We inherited, after apartheid, a divided city, with and the poorer (and darker) citizens deliberately stuck on the outskirts in poorly serviced townships. When cities develop organically, the poorer citizens almost always end up in the inner city, but this was apartheid spatial planning. Today, those townships do mercifully have electricity, but they still exist – still on the outskirts and still locked in poverty – and now the electricity supply is being cut off regularly for load-shedding, which leaves vulnerable people literally in the dark. They are more overcrowded than ever, because urbanisation naturally continues (it had been artificially delayed by Apartheid), and many hopeful new arrivals find homes in backyard shacks. Also, the townships have not been developed or improved, so that more successful residents are not tempted to stay.

The City has often boasted about its administration and claimed to be a shining success. A successful city is one that cares for its people, provides the infrastructure for their needs and tries to improve their lot. In fact, to its shame, it created soulless drop-spots like Wolwerivier and Blikkiesdorp, at least as desolate as anything conjured up by the architects of apartheid.  Most of the people dumped there were the children of indigenous groups, descendants of slaves, whose labour helped to create the city, while Cape Town was catering for newer types – with money. Families that had been established for generations were elbowed out of Woodstock, Newlands, Wynberg, and other suburbs. Yet, somehow land was always found for developers of new gated communities and high-rises, while service provision for the poor lagged disgracefully behind. In fact, Cedric Nunn has commented that the townships are now worse off than they were in his youth. He has said that unemployment is high, and most townships are flooded with drugs and a sense of hopelessness.

In the case of Masiphumele, or Site 5, for example, the city has strung the leaders along for decades, delaying, obfuscating, working with selected favourites, but not making a firm, fast commitment to house decently the 30 000 people who live there. A full 30% of the population of the far south is crammed into this small area. Instead of making it a priority to improve conditions and find more land, the City actually lied to leaders in Masi, saying that SANParks owned the land which they had in fact bought from them more than 10 years before! SANParks earmarked it for the development of Masiphumelele. The residents of Masi and other informal settlements once again suffered unbelievable hardship during the recent storms. The Council has made things worse for Masi by extending the road around the vlei without considering people already living in its path. They seem to want to choke Masi, and do not have the political will to extend it, but expand it must, or explode, because it is bursting at the seams. The housing and zoning processes are crippled by over-bureaucratisation.

Particularly telling was the City’s reaction to the homeless at the beginning of the epidemic. They shunted them off to a camp that they erected in Strandfontein – suitably out of sight. Did this facilitate handwashing, social distancing and the wearing of masks? Quite the contrary. It was a give-away of their attitude: get the poor out of “our” city. The poor are Capetonians, the very people the city should be serving. As if more evidence of their motives were needed, they took the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) to court when the SAHRC appointed monitors to track the City’s responses regarding homeless and vulnerable groups during the epidemic. The City criticised the monitors and alleged that they were trying to spread misinformation. Now that is a useful allegation when you disagree with what someone is saying, whether it is the truth or not, a point made by Mr Justice Siraj Desai himself during the virtual hearing. He also noted that it was unusual for an organ of state to seek an interdict against a constitutionally mandated guardian of democracy. The City seems to imagine it can operate as a law unto itself. With breath-taking arrogance, they were actually trying to circumscribe the core functions of the SAHRC! It became clear that they would have to provide proof of their allegations, and lo and behold, they withdrew the application they had so carefully, and expensively, drawn up. These points were made by Advocate Norman Arendse, for the SAHRC.

Of course, Cape Town is not the only city that has been battling Covid-19 problems, but my point is that it claims to be a world-class city, ideal for tourists. Its beauty is spectacular, but it turns a blind eye to sections of the community. Recently, a primary school principal complained that he could not even get a fence erected around the school for the children’s safety, while other provincial schools were receiving far more elite deliveries. We are educating our children, all our children, for our future – this should absolutely not be done on a preferential basis.

According to the government statistician, Johannesburg has made better use of the time since Apartheid ended, and is the most integrated city of South Africa’s six major metros. Here is what a chartered financial analyst, Tinyiko Ngwenya, wrote in Fin24 in May 2018, after returning to Johannesburg from Cape Town. He had enjoyed positive experiences, but, in the circumstances, he asked, “How do you convince a child in Khayelitsha that they, too, can achieve financial freedom? … I truly hope that my generation will be the last to experience what I felt while living in Cape Town, and that the city will transform to be a proudly South African city – one that is well integrated and diverse.”

The city needs long-term planning in favour of the working classes. The City owns huge tracts  of inner city land that could be used to solve the problem of over-crowded shack towns. The people of Cape Town deserve more than rhetoric.

The Day Grace Came

What enlightened employers, I thought when I heard that their domestic worker lived in their house with them, and not in servant’s quarters. Now their parents were coming from overseas for a two-week holiday, so they were booking her into our Air BnB round the corner for that time. They forgot to mention her name.

She stepped out of her employers’ car on arrival, huge and stately, carrying herself with aplomb. Her hair was beautifully plaited and arranged mainly on one side of her head. In South Africa one needs to mention – none of them was white. When I stepped towards her, she touched my shoulder and inclined her head towards me. I felt an enormous need for acceptance, warmth. Her name was Grace.

Two days passed, and I didn’t see her. She was gone when I got up at 7, and came home after I’d taken Irang out for her last wee walk at 9pm. When she came home on the third day, still looking groomed, I mentioned that she was working hard. “Yes, my schedule is hectic,” she smiled, so dignified. Hectic? I thought. It’s exploitive, and now I know why they want you in the house. But I bit my tongue because I’m running the BnB for someone else. Don’t stir.

The next day Puseletso, our house helper two days a week, was scheduled to clean that room and change the sheets and towels. However, she came to me to announce, “I can’t clean that room. It’s too untidy. Clothes everywhere. And she’s only slept on the sheets for two nights, so she’s all right.” Now Puseletso is experienced and I’m a stand-in. Also, when I’m taken by surprise, I tend to react on the lenient side, a fact which my children exploited brilliantly. So I didn’t say, No it’s three nights, or Let me check with the owner. I said, “Oh. All right then.”

The next cleaning day was Thursday, which was Human Rights Day. Puseletso would not be working, of course, but of course Grace was. So I was on cleaning duty, and when I went into Grace’s room, I saw what Puselesto had meant. It looked as if a bomb had hit it, but I tackled it with determination. Pick up one tissue at a time, I thought. Fold the clothes and put them in piles on the desk – blouses, underwear, socks.. The really dirty clothes were in the laundry basket – it was full. I didn’t think about it. Too much to do. Ah, here’s the lid for that open jar of cream. Ah, this must be the net that keeps her gorgeous hair in place while she is sleeping. Another plastic shopping bag with left-over KFC. It was clear to me that she took all her rage out on her own body. I told myself not to judge. With hours like that, all she could do was eat take-aways for comfort and drop into bed to sleep at night.

Eventually the towels and linen were on the washing line and I could vacuum and dust. I brought the fresh sheets and made the bed; replaced the towels. Now that looks welcoming, I thought. She deserves it.

Then my eye fell on the corner of the laundry basket sticking out from under the bed. Our policy is that guests may use the washing machine. We show them the ropes, and it’s over to them. That works well with vacationing Parisians, but when would I show her? When would she do it? I remembered my childhood – there was always a black woman to pick up after me, do our laundry, cook our dinners… Mom never expected them to work hours like Grace’s, and we were taught to be respectful and say please and thank you. Big deal. Where were her kids? I had never asked. And this was Human Rights Day.

I took the basket to the scullery and put on another load of washing, hung it out and folded it neatly when it was dry. Thank you for the chance to pay it forward for one day. I hoped she wouldn’t be too grateful. I wanted her to be the madam – this was my Madam and Eve moment, I smiled to myself. It occurred to me that she would not know what usually happened at an Air BnB; how should she?

Indeed, when I saw her that evening and mentioned, “I didn’t iron any of your laundry,” the queen could not have been more gracious. “Never mind, dear. I appreciate it.”

That weekend I was out for much of Saturday morning. When I got back, I heard Grace talking in the kitchen area; I thought she was on her phone. I’d been looking forward to a swim, so I put on my swimsuit, wrapped a towel around myself and headed through the dining room towards the pool. Around the dining room table were five people. Grace happily introduced me to her two sisters, brother-in-law and niece. We had a pleasant chat and I went for my swim. While I was swimming, I remembered that one of the house rules the owner had mentioned was No Visitors. I’m not suited to doing this job, I thought. Surprised again, and too lenient again, but what should I have said? Walking back, I exchanged pleasantries again and noticed the glasses of sugary cooldrink, KFC boxes and more all spread out for their little party. Back in my room I worried. Could Grace think the Air BnB services included this kind of cleaning up? If they did clean up themselves, would they use the recycling bin properly?

I was still wondering how I would deal with the situation when I fell asleep. I woke up to a roar. Good heavens, that sounded like our vacuum cleaner. Yes, for sure, and it got so close to my door that Irang gave a protective yap. Grace must be vacuuming the entire house.  She must have, like the pro she is, easily found the vacuum cleaner in the owner’s linen cupboard and taken it out to use. Wow! When I’d changed, I went to make a cup of tea. First, the dining room – oh great; spotless. The glass on the table shining without a smudge. What about the kitchen? Ditto. I opened the waste and recycling bins – nothing. The visitors had taken all the scraps and litter away with them. Bless their hearts. Grace is never going to hear from me that visitors are not allowed, I vowed. She had mentioned that they hadn’t had a chance to see one another for the longest time.  I realised how ugly my thoughts had been, that she might not clean up when she had a chance. Shame on me.

Next Thursday I will do her laundry again, although Puseletso will object. I am so grateful for the day that Grace came into my life and heart.

Homeless in Cape Town

Homeless in Cape Town
          by Melanie Steyn

I saw St Christopher today
I see him almost every day.
He strides around the Southern Suburbs
And waves at every single car.

No one gives a second glance,
His default begging mode ignored.
He crosses mountains, waving, blessing
Waving, his household on his back.

Reclining on the Sea Point wall
Is Francis talking to a bird
That tilts its head to hear
That beatific voice of love.

Cecilia is lost in song
And dances on the twilight beach
With the groom she’s serenading
In her intoxicated heart.

For thirty coins of Friday’s pay
The bottle store has got its cut
And in the Mowbray Main Road gutter
Lies Christ, out, spread-eagled.

Photo by 2|

My Festive Season

A sailor walking among African captives in the hold of a slave ship. From the book Revelations of a Slave Smuggler published in 1860. 

According to the newspapers, Clifton would seem to be the only thing that happened in Cape Town this festive season. Well, I experienced it differently. During the week of the Clifton saga (See ) I had these interactions with brown, white and black people. Doesn’t matter which is which.

On the Monday morning we heard that security men had told people to leave the white sandy beach at Clifton.

I was outside and I heard a voice shouting, Merry Christmas, Mama! I turned and saw Zaid hanging out of a car window up to his waist, in time to yell his greeting back.

When I met Zaid he was a beach bum, a hustler, an addict, but smiling and ready to help. He would help to pull boats across the beach, wash your car or have a chat. His girlfriend lived with him on the beach, and he told us they loved skinny dipping after dark. Once when I started looking for some change to give him, but he said, No, Mama, you give me enough.

Then the city locked the toilets, and winter came, but the rain did not. They could no longer wash cars, but they offered to wash the sand off people’s feet in buckets of sea water, before they got into their cars. He was popular. A group of divers sponsored him to learn diving, and he was loving it, he told me.

Later, he said he had joined the Simon’s Town initiative that was coordinating the homeless people, and he was emerging as a leader. He beat the drug habit, and stated studying properly.

On the Tuesday, our heads were whirling with accusations and lies about Clifton.

I went swimming in Gelncairn’s tidal pool. I was approaching the water across some rocks when a stranger offered me advice on a better place to enter. Once Sasha and I were swimming, both adults and children discovered that she would run and dive after a stick of seaweed. She was a great animal ambassador, giving some kids their first feel of a dog’s coat.

On the Wednesday, the Clifton story was developing with the mentioning of businessmen’s names and various denials.

I went to the mall but realized it was too hot to leave Sasha in the car, even for a short visit to Clicks. It must have been 30 degrees; there was no shade and she is a black dog. I couldn’t do it. So I found Loveous, a trolley guard who has helped me often before, and asked if I could hire him to hold onto my dog for 15 minutes. He readily agreed and took her leash. When I came out of Clicks, there was Sasha, waiting for me at the door, and Loveous beside her. He told me she had absolutely insisted, No, we must go! Come! Until she was at the right door to wait for me. We had a good laugh and I was very grateful for his sweet good humour.

On the Thursday the City of Cape Town still said it had no unwritten agreement with any private security company about Clifton.

We went walking around Kirstenbosch and a man who had his two young daughters with him, asked where the fairy tree was. My friend Jean pointed and advised them to sit very quietly under it and maybe the fairies would come. He thanked us seriously, and we all went on our way.

On the Friday I was walking in Pick n Pay when a member of the staff wished me an early Happy New Year. She saw that I was quite willing to give her a hug, and we both loved the exchange of goodwill.

That was the day a sheep was sacrificed on Clifton to ask for purification. I’m glad I didn’t see it, although I understand how intensely they were provoked by behaviour reminiscent of the methods of centuries of slavery, oppression and apartheid. My point is, on 2 June 2015 there had already been a solemn spiritual ceremony on Clifton Beach, a cleansing and healing ceremony that involved no shock tactics or slaughter. (See It was to honour the memory of the two hundred slaves who drowned there, when a slaver ship, the São José Paquete d’Africa, sank on 27 December 1794. Three hundred slaves survived, and were sold off to “free burghers”. Those 300 Masbiekers, from Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Mozambique, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Swaziland and KZN, are an integral part the African heritage of people still classified by the Apartheid terms ‘Black’ and ‘Coloured’.

 I just hope all the prayers for cleansing and an end to racism are answered. As my experiences this week, and those of thousands of other ordinary South Africans show, South Africans know how to do it if they are given half a chance. And a word of advice to the animal activists who were so concerned for that sheep: before you say another word about it, do investigate the conditions at your local abattoir. Do it before you have your next rack of lamb or leg of mutton with mint sauce.

[Thanks as always to Tariq, who shares his knowledge so generously on his Facebook page: ]

CAPE TOWN: Build a city that reflects our history

This is my opinion piece, which appeared in the Cape Times this morning.

Dear WhatsApp Security Group

When I arrived at Simon’s Town, I imagined that I would enjoy friendly neighbourliness. Instead, our WhatsApp security group has brought out the worst in us.

The first time I saw a post about passing “vagrants” I was horrified, because they were not given the benefit of the doubt, even for a moment. They were not men, not homeless people, just a menace. When I dared to post something about not losing our humanity, a neighbour nearly bit my head off. If I “needed to be perceived as” liberal, why didn’t I buy them tickets back to the Eastern Cape? I was apparently starting a ghetto.

Actually, one of the men told me he came from a Boland farm and during the drought he regretted it, because now he was often thirsty. He said that the Grootbaas, pointing to heaven, must know what he was doing, but he didn’t understand it. He was like a child.

I remember my Cape Town childhood, with the flower-sellers in Adderley Street and vendors selling fruit and fish from their horse-carts. I remember District Six alive, and how easy it was to exchange banter in the streets. What bitter irony, now that apartheid has gone, that our city is moving towards more perfect apartheid – and by design. I would have expected far more happy integration by now, with skin colour becoming ever less important.

Instead, I am assaulted by images of families weeping for homes they are losing; still being evicted. Hang your head in shame, Cape Town. What monster could conceive of a place like Wolwerivier, while at the same time the powerful are assisted? It is an open secret that the present authorities have a plan: Cape Town is to become a city for the rich.

Salt River and Woodstock are the District Sixes of the DA. Quaint and beautiful semi-detached homes of working class people are a hallmark of that area, and should be protected for their historical interest. But then, incredibly, not even the Bo-Kaap, our beautiful little Malaysia, was granted heritage status.

Further evidence of the nefarious plan to gentrify the whole of Cape Town is the neglect of the established areas for people of colour.  The on-again off-again promises to develop the hopelessly over-populated Masiphumele is a case in point – it has been dragging on for 15 years since the first promises were made!

On Heritage Day I heard Felicity Purchase talk to people in St Francis Church, Simon’s Town. Most of the people in the packed church had been bussed in from Gugulethu to commemorate the forced removals about 50 years ago. She said, “We should never lose the love we have for each other, even if you have been moved far away.” It was breath-taking hypocrisy. She said that apartheid had been “indefensible” but did not offer a shred of comfort or recompense from the present powers-that-be. She was prepared to exploit the generosity of spirit of the people and not prepared to examine her own behaviour for what was indefensible or lacking in love.

Cape Town was inhabited by the Khoena when Europeans arrived, and its history is one of streams of arrival: from Europe, from further north in Africa, from India, from West Africa and Madagascar, from St Helena, from Indonesia and Malaysia, and all these streams of diverse people, whether they came as servants of a commercial company, slaves or free men and women, built up the city we know today.  Who are we of this generation to decide that it will now be a playground-cum-dormitory for the wealthy of the world? Every one of the groups that were thrown together here should have a space, and our city should be helping them all, but especially those who need it most. Let us build a city that reflects our history, and our post-apartheid heart.

Melanie Steyn
Lecturer, Cornerstone Institute


The Tenth Voice: Simon’s Town Heritage. Camissa. For Patric Tariq Mellet.

   for Patric Tariq Mellet
                    by Melanie Steyn

Martello Tower sparkles white. The gull
that perches there can see our past:
A bird’s eye view of all the streams that flowed
To reach this very minute. Come and fly
We’ll navigate the streams. After all,
We’ve seamen and sailors enough to help.
No knot too hard to tie: the blends and splices,
Whatever we need to secure the ties that bind.

And now, with Roman rock astern, we swoop
More distant years away to see the lXam,
The Khoi, both kinds of saints, and friends
Like Mary Kingsley.   Africa, Europe,
The East, all fed the waters that carry us.
We have a fleet of figureheads to choose.
Our strength is in diversity, the streams
That flow across our water-challenged land.

Our gull can see the future too. It looks
Ahead but has no voice to give advice.
Is it our albatross, and will it live,
Or die? Our diverse rivers can save its life
If they recognise their strength and run
Together, converge, become a flowing force,
A new Camissa, that hitches our hearts in a knot
To weather all storms, a blessing of Sweet Waters.

Today Patric Tariq Mellet calls himself a “heritage whisperer.” He has been fighting for equity and justice in South Africa since his early teens and spent many years in exile as a cadre of the ANC. Remaining true to his liberationist calling, he is aggrieved at the poor state of governance, endemic corruption and lack of adherence to the goals of rolling back poverty and improving the advancement of those trapped in hopelessness by the Political Estate in 21st century South Africa.

He does research into the peopling of South Africa and pays special attention to the “Coloured” group – a label that he rejects. His argument is that the group is African and heterogeneous, with many strands enriching its identity. His shares the fruits of his research generously a visit to his blog, Camissa People,, is highly rewarding.


You can read about him on the SA History Online site:

Ninth Voice: Simon’s Town Heritage. Klawer Valley.

forced removals ruin

 Klawer Valley
                   by Melanie Steyn

Remember once we lived in paradise.
We were a perfect, live, community.
It’s not that life was easy. It was joy,
That quiet joy that means your home is yours,
That you can manage your daily work, and sleep
A sleep much like your children’s, sweet and deep.

Remember once we lived in paradise,
In Klawer Valley near the naval base.
We ran between the fiery aloes to see
A neighbour half a mile away, to take
Some milk, and we’d come home with fruit or meat.
Oh yes, it was like that in paradise.

Remember once we lived in paradise.
Remember edible mushrooms came out after rain,
The pink klipblom, and sometimes a sweet red disa.
My favourites were the protea pincushions, gold in
The golden light.   Oh yes, it got cold and dry,
And just like anywhere else, there were problems and fights.

But don’t forget that once we lived in paradise.
They came and told us they needed that land for a dam,
Evicted us and dumped us in the dust.
When we commemorate our homes each year
We see no dam. Each visit shows our homes
More derelict, more desolate.

Some tiny violet fynbos grows where once
We laid our heads, with yellow Cape weed at the door.
The parent rocks are claiming our stone-built homes.
These haunted ruins, broken like our hearts,
Will soon become a hill, no more, but we
Remember once we lived in paradise.

Simon’s Town was declared a white area on 1 September 1967. Forced removals had started two years before, with residents of Luyolo (a township established in the early 1900s for workers from the Eastern Cape who were extending the rail line from Simon’s Town to Kalk Bay) were removed to Gugulethu in 1965. About 1500 people had been living there at the time.
Other families affected by the forced removals were from Red Hill, Dido Valley, Glencairn, the Kloof, the Kraal, Seaforth, Goede Gift and Simon’s Town central, as well as Noordhoek, Sunnydale and surrounds. They were forced to move to Ocean View, Retreat, Heathfield and Grassy Park.
The ruins on Red Hill in a beautiful area called Klawer Valley, en route to the Lewis Gay Dam, are particularly poignant as the land was never used for anything else and the families return every year to commemorate what they had and what they lost.  As in so many cases. They are still fighting for restitution.



News 24 City Press: (2017)

The Eighth Voice in the Simon’s Town Heritage: The Saints

The Saints
by Melanie Steyn

I’m one of the saints, my name John Cotton,
From Tristan da Cunha we came to fish.
We came in our numbers to flee collapse:
The economy they said was bust.

We came with our knowledge, our trek-fishing skills,
We worked till we dropped, then worked some more.
And land skippers help us to this day
Locating the shoals we trawl with nets.

The waiting and hope, the pain and sweat,
And oh the sweet joy when we beach the cod end
The silver katonkel and yellowtail
That give us our supper, our cash, our life.

We sell our whole catch to human sharks
And these days the plastic harvest is good
But bring down our boats, let’s try our luck,
This fishing is in our blood and hearts.

St Helena island and its two dependencies Ascension and Tristan da Cunha islands feature in the history of the Western Cape. St Helena island was unpopulated when the Portuguese landed there 1502. From 1588 the British began to use St Helena as a port of call for all of their vessels travelling to the East. Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth at the time, granted the British East India Company a charter to govern St Helena as though it were part of England.

In 1795 as a result of the conflict in Europe involving England, France and Holland, Governor Brookes and his Council of War in St Helena, assembled a St Helena Force of 600 settlers and slaves to attack the Cape using ships of United East India Company, as it was now called. The British Crown had also assembled an invasion fleet and the St Helena Corps joined the force and took part in the Battle of Muizenberg in August 1796. The first ‘Saints’ to stay on in the Cape probably go back to the time of this invasion.

The largest group of ‘Saints’ to arrive in the Cape were those that became unemployed as a result of the economic pressures caused by the changeover from UEIC rule to direct Crown rule in 1836.




Camissa People: Cape Slavery and Indigene Heritage. PT Mellet.

The Seventh Voice in the Heritage of Simon’s Town: A Boer Prisoner of War


Boer Prisoner of War
                           by Melanie Steyn

Dolf de Wet at your service, Sir.
Queen Victoria? No, not at hers.
I’m a bittereinder! No, I won’t sign.
Her men, her orders burnt my farm
Caught my wife like an animal
Fenced her in with my kids to starve.

Jan my friend is a hensopper
I won’t hold it against him – not much –
He can stay in your camp at Bellevue
He’ll make toys, and can play rugby too.
Take me from this prisoner ship
I’ll play cricket in Sri Lanka, thanks.

Greed and cruelty, politics played,
This is your legacy – never forget –
Racism deep in my blood and yours
Grows, a seed with a system of roots,
Grows, a scourge, and a curse on our land.
Christian gentlemen? Well, we may be,
But toxic tendrils ensnare both our souls.

Boer prisoners of war were initially held on ships in Simon’s Bay, but a camp called Bellevue was later established. Prisoners who would not sign an oath of allegiance to the Empire, were called “bittereinders” and shipped to other British colonies like St Helena, Sri Lanka and India. Those who signed were called “hensoppers” and stayed in the camp.

The British officers taught the prisoners to play rugby and encouraged matches. The prisoners also produced artefacts. There were young boys and a few black men among them.

The first concentration camps were established by the British during this war. When the British entered Pretoria in June 1900, they thought the war was over, and expected the Boer republics to surrender. Instead, they conducted guerrilla warfare, using small raiding parties and disrupting supply lines, for instance. The British felt they would never win the war because the Boer soldiers would go home between raids to rest, eat and convalesce, hidden by the womenfolk. So, they adopted the scorched earth policy and burnt down the homesteads on the farms. They placed the women and children who were rendered homeless in concentration camps. Conditions became appalling and during the first eighteen months that the camps were in operation the mortality rate reached a total of 26,370, of whom 24,000 were infants and children under 16. About 50 children died every day. The final death toll was 40,000, of whom about a third were people of colour.

The heroic Englishwoman, Emily Hobhouse, a welfare activist, visited the camps and campaigned for better treatment. Her reports caused an uproar when they were published in England, but the British government never treated her with anything but contempt. The suffering of the women and children played a big part in the Boer decision to surrender in the end.


Here I must tell two stories from my family.  First, my mother’s mother, Catherina van Rooyen, was a prisoner in a Free State camp. She said only one thing to me about it, which reflected her beautiful and generous spirit. She said that she felt sorry for “those English boys” because she could see that they hated to see the women and children suffering and dying, but they had to carry out orders. She was ten years old at the time but looked at the English soldiers, her captors, with the eyes of a wise old soul.

The second story is about my grandfather, Marthinus Hendrik Steyn. He was a prisoner of war, a bittereinder, who was sent to India. The officers there also organised sports teams, and soon discovered that he was an excellent all-round cricketer. He had refused to sign a pledge to be loyal to the British Empire, but he did accept an offer to become an honorary British officer and tour India playing for the enemy side! His last words to my father were, “The umpire has given me out, and I’m taking a slow walk back to the pavilion.”




Simon’s Town Museum.
New World Encyclopedia:
Personal reminiscences: Melanie Steyn