Words have different meanings in South Africa. The overlay of specific socio-political senses arising out of a legacy of racial authoritarianism has so overshadowed the ordinary senses in which common words are used elsewhere in the world, that words are as good as lost. Thus location as denoting the “township,” the companion or shadow town accompanying every urban settlement like a leashed pet animal, has reduced the sense meaning simply the place where a thing is to the status of an obscure technical term. People will say, “I am going home to my location tonight,” or, “Conditions are bad in my location.” Ask, “What is the location of Pretoria?” and you will not be given GPS coordinates but instead told that there are three: Atteridgeville to the west, Mamelodi to the east, and Soshanguve/Winterveld to the north ― a classic example of apartheid spatial planning.
So too with the term coloured in South African usage. It had a specific (if incoherent) meaning in law and policy under apartheid: a person, of mixed or indeterminate race, neither white nor black, “none of the above.” In South Africa coloured is not the archaic synonym of black it is elsewhere in the world. Even South Africans born after the demise of official apartheid grew up with the idea that coloured and black are two different and mutually exclusive things. This leads to endless occasions for misinterpretation as, for instance, it becomes hard to shake the idea that the term person of colour as used in Critical Race Theory has something to do specifically with mixed-race people and by some vague implication excludes those who are “blacker.” I have friends in the local anti-racist movement who must spend about an hour every day pointing out that error to people.
With its nationalistic obsession with groups, the apartheid regime inevitably used the term coloured to refer to a specific community, concentrated largely in the Western Cape ― and, just as inevitably, to construct complexes of ideological mythology around it. It is this mythology, and by extension the entire founding mythology of the apartheid state, which Patric Tariq Mellet sets out to explode in his 2020 book, The Lie of 1652: A Decolonised History of Land. To this end he draws on broader recent programmes of research into the history of the Cape of Good Hope, which overwhelmingly support the emerging worldwide repicturing of human prehistory as being characterized by frequent long-distance contact, lively cultural exchange, and widely varied non-linear innovation.
The official version that competes with Mellet’s text is that South Africa began on 6 April 1652, with Jan van Riebeeck arriving in silk stockings at the southern end of Deepest Darkest Africa, Dutch Prinsenvlag1 in hand, to the awestruck amazement of a handful of moribund natives in loin-cloths, scarcely cognizant of a world beyond the Boland Mountains. The back-story given to this tableau was that these little orangeish people, somewhat problematically named the Khoekhoen, represented a racial anomaly; that they were the last survivals of a human strain already then near extinction, one which was distinct, cohesive, and wholly unrelated to the African population alleged then to be marching down from the north-east. This enabled the construction of an “empty-land narrative” in which white people entered a territory, unoccupied but for these discountable outliers, at the exact same time as black people were entering it from the opposite end. That in turn allowed the apartheid regime to square a philosophy based on necessary territorial nationhood ― Blut und Boden in its prosaic version ― with the flagrant appropriation of a huge chunk of the African continent.
That is the Lie of 1652 in a nutshell, and Mellet proceeds to demolish it piece by piece. The most startling revelation, given what we were always taught, is that the arrival of van Riebeeck did not represent any kind of discovery. Nor did it represent the founding of Cape Town, the so-called “Mother City,” for there had been an indigenous settlement roughly where the Grand Parade and City Hall are today, founded by the local ‖Ammaqua or Watermans and centred on an industry bottling the cool fresh water of the Camissa River (alas, today an underground storm sewer) for passing European shipping, for over half a century. The local population had seen it before, they knew enough of the languages to get by, affected European dress as and when the mood took them, travelled far on the European ships, maintained long-term trade relationships, took in more than a few European sailors as neighbours, lovers, husbands.
Mellet shows through van Riebeeck’s own diary how the relationship between van Riebeeck and Autshumao, whose bootmaker’s authority over the water-bottling operations made him a kind of community spokesman for the ‖Ammaqua, gradually deteriorated from precarious mutual respect to open hostility. Autshumao emerges from these accounts as resourceful, enterprising, and mercurial; van Riebeeck seems dull and mediocre, if basically amiable until roused ― for if the diary is to be believed it is possible to pinpoint the exact moment the colonial history of South Africa began as the moment around 1658 when van Riebeeck finally lost his temper with Autshumao and invoked the military might of the Dutch East India Company, or VOC. It was the act of someone who had been outwitted by a superior intellect once too often, the poorer chess player drawing a gun.
This is significant from two sides. Not only does Mellet show that there had been a European presence at the Cape long before van Riebeeck’s arrival, without as much as a hint of colonial conquest; the same also continued, however capriciously, for several years after. There does not seem to be clear evidence of any predatory intent on van Riebeeck’s part in 1652. Indeed the record points instead to the VOC initially not deeming conquest worth the bother, and hoping that a recently-chastened van Riebeeck would do little more than keep the peace. This is important because the possibility of tracing colonial conquest to a definite first act of aggression backed by institutional force provides a strong alternative anti-colonial narrative to the simplistic ethnic-essentialist one, in which colonial conquest begins with a white foot ― an invasive species, a sin against Blut und Boden ― on African soil.
There is a lot of interesting detail in The Lie of 1652. Evidence seems to suggest a markedly horizontalistic and non-hierarchical social structure among the ‖Ammaqua, yet that theirs was only one of many structures in use in the region at the time. There is evidence also of long-standing contact between the various Khoekhoe groups and the westernmost Xhosa, so much so that it is impossible to distinguish absolutely between them, soundly discrediting the notion of pristine ethnic separation and therewith the core premise of the empty-land narrative. Mellet describes the introduction into the Cape of the old colonist’s trick of controlling large groups of people by installing a friendly chieftain or ruler, and how this required the creation by the Dutch of an institution of kapteinskap, or “captainship”, where nothing comparable had existed before. Yet even today the ethnic essentialists regard kapteinskap to be characteristically indigenous and thus a sacred locus of near-absolute authority.
Mellet’s account of the process by which the Dutch East India Company installed European settlers on leenplaatsen (loan farms) clearly illustrates the latifundium pattern, which through the institution of slavery resulted in types of agriculture, farming community, and rural settlement patterns which would have been unfamiliar to the settlers. This recalls Hans Fransen’s elaboration, in Old Towns and Villages of the Cape (2006), of the early development of the typical South African small town to perform functions wholly different from those of its European precursors – which does much to explain the characteristically disturbing placelessness of these settlements, the way they seem to consist entirely of outskirts whose centre defies discovery, in which everything points to an ever-present looming elsewhere, even before the introduction of “locations.”
The subsequent history includes a detailed survey of the ongoing frontier wars, taking in such events as Louis van Mauritius’s “Jij” rebellion of 1808. Yet even then the popular culture at the Cape set the stage for a tragically brief approach to a truly non-racial society only a few decades later, around people like Saul Solomon. Mellet catalogues the extremely wide range of people who came to the Cape by choice or by force, from the ancestors of Cape Town’s Chinese community to escaped or freed slaves from the USA, the Mardijkers and other Muslims who very early founded the substantial Cape Muslim community, Malagasy, Philippine, Angolan, Indian, Zanzibari, many, many more ― besides the Dutch, French, Germans, English, Portuguese, and Greeks we’ve always been told about. The American term of “melting pot” cannot be avoided. The picture is one of a profusely fecund cosmopolitanity.
It was not necessary for the apartheid regime to create ex nihilo the theoretical framework to force all this effervescence into the strait-jacket of purportedly necessary Westphalian nation-statehood. Much of that had already been accomplished under the various iterations of British colonial rule, as well as the increasingly racializing Union of South Africa after 1910. The apartheid regime did not invent the term coloured in its specific South African sense; it merely added its own characteristic clumsiness, clunkiness, and stupidity to it. “Too much to list” became effectively “none of the above” by the practical constraints of arranging tick-boxes on a form.
Today, after generations of being taught that humans occur naturally in mutually insular nations, and that they will eventually go mad if they don’t have a sense of national belonging, we face the rise of a curious kind of “Khoi-San” nationalism. We find people who are heirs to the entire world ― if indeed such genetic terms carry any weight at all ― boasting a genetic purity confined to a tiny south-western corner of Africa, and moreover absolute freedom from any contamination by “white blood.” This is unhistorical fabrication.
I have a suspicion that Mellet’s project in The Lie of 1652 began in an effort to rebut this movement in particular, as he has been a vocal critic of it, the complex uniqueness of his own family background giving him ample interest in rebutting it: and the project then by necessity showing a far, far wider applicability. I was keen to read the book because Mellet’s prior – to my mind justified – characterization of certain ethnic essentialists of colour in the present local discourse as “Fascistic” had made an impression on me. Sheer density of data makes it a dry read in places, but I was more than excited by the plethora of its content that supports a radical cosmopolitanist reading of the history.
I was nevertheless disappointed by Mellet’s unwillingness to take that final step. In debunking apartheid’s severance of his own ethnicity from that of the rest of Africa, indeed despite his vocal opposition to ethnic essentialism, he fails to debunk ethnicity as a definitive category as such. He remains eager to claim an “African identity” surrounded by a lot of sticky colonial ideological legacy. This is understandable given the history, especially as Mellet is not, to my knowledge, an anarchist.
To me the data points to freedom from any assigned necessary identity, freedom to make identity as one goes along, to remake it on the spur of any moment. To someone who grew up kicking against the forcible imposition of spurious nationalism, that is freedom indeed. People do not exist in groups; groups exist in people. Rather, a group exists effectively between two persons, as an operative term in the relationship between them, and beyond the need that each hold a reasonably recognizable iteration of the term, the group has no existence. The group is remade, arguably slightly differently, in each person’s relationship with each other person. This is not to say that the term is not informed by objective socio-practical structure, but it does mean that, given a sufficient grasp, persons become free to make, remake, or unmake group terms in relation to other persons. Group identities are cultural content, and as such exist not as facts but as propositions. They invite responses; exist by inviting responses and propagate as responses, which are permeable to our individual creativity.
We are all in a sense “none of the above,” and despite all the hardships to which they have been subject, I almost envy that community who are so graphically “none of the above.” Surely “none of the above” is something to revel in, something to relish?
 The apartheid-era South African flag comprised the Prinsenvlag with the Union Jack, the Transvaal Republic Vierkleur, and the flag of the Orange Free State grouped as a charge in the central band ― which I always thought gave it an appropriately blunt, closed, willfully ignorant facial expression. I was not surprised when, in the course of creating the hyperlink, I discovered that the Prinsenvlag was a thing among the modern extreme right in the Netherlands. I wonder how much of that comes from its association with the flag of the apartheid regime.