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

The Sixth Voice in the Heritage of Simon’s Town: Mary Kingsley

Mary Kingsley
by Melanie Steyn

My mother cocooned herself in a darkened room
The doctor my father flitted to London to serve
The Earl of Pembroke, and I was left to digest
The library, a caterpillar of books.

West Africa called when I was free at last.
My entrée was my trading and my stock,
So I could learn about their faith and land
And nurse the Fang and study vegetation.

I was told I discovered the Karkola River no white
Had seen. I laughed off their impertinence.
When England began a war for diamonds and gold
I came to nurse the Boers in Simon’s Town.

My coffin rolls its legacy of love,
Forever, my friends, in your cerulean seas.


Mary Kingsley was an exceptional woman, quite unlike Victorian women generally. However, she refused to wear anything but socially acceptable Victorian clothing throughout her travels in Africa. This illustrates that she was used to accommodating contradictions in her mind. Her parents’ marriage, for instance, was a paradox in itself. Her father was a successful doctor, who married his servant four days before their child, Mary, was born. Her mother was unwilling or unable to adjust to her new status and became a life-long invalid, who preferred to remain in her room with her shutters closed.

Her father got her a German tutor, because German was the dominant language in medicine at the time, and he thought she might one day be of professional assistance to him. He also encouraged her to enjoy the extensive library in his country home. Mary loved both of her parents and was heartbroken when they died within a short time of each other. Her frail younger brother tried to persuade her to become his house-keeper, but she was attending lectures and developing a taste for adventure.

She had educated herself broadly and was astonishingly progressive. For example, she believed in the Almighty, but used the name Allah quite as often as she used God. She also made contributions for instance to the fields of botany and anthropology. She travelled to West Africa and got to know the Fang, who were cannibals at that stage. This was long before the concept of field work was established. She found that they considered her untrustworthy when she approached them directly and asked to do research, so she bought stock, hired helpers, and went as a trader. The Fang learnt to trust her, and her intervention even saved one of her companions from being killed and eaten by them. She also studied their religion objectively and helped them with her medical knowledge.

She opposed the British war effort in South Africa and went there specifically to nurse Boer prisoners of war. She worked in the Palace Barracks in Simon’s Town, converted to a temporary hospital in 1900. Unfortunately, she caught the enteric fever that killed so many of the prisoners and died at the age of 37.  She had asked to be buried at sea and she was given a military funeral with full honours. She had wasted away so much that her coffin was too light to sink when she was committed to the ocean near Cape Point. It had to be pulled back on board to have an anchor attached to it.

She is generally considered to have been a modifying influence on the racist and chauvinistic attitudes of her society at the time.



New World Encyclopedia: