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Moederland: Nine Daughters of South Africa review – my ancestors’ role in the horror of apartheid

Moederland: Nine Daughters of South Africa review – my ancestors’ role in the horror of apartheid

On 29 May this year, South Africans will go to the polls to vote in their seventh democratic general election. Thirty years ago, the country’s first free and fair election saw the formal end of apartheid when, as Cato Pedder writes, “all night, all that day, all the next day, 19.5 million people, 85% of the electorate, queue[d] peacefully outside polling stations across the country … And each of them, as they receive[d] their ballot paper … [felt] this ritual [was] somehow holy.” With Nelson Mandela as the president of the new South Africa, the country was full of hope, but the ensuing decades have been troubled by blatant government corruption, nepotism, water and electricity crises, vast unemployment and social unrest. This year a record 27.72 million citizens are registered to vote (19,525 of those in London), a jump of almost 1 million since 2019. This increase suggests people’s frustrations; their desire to question those in power. Many new voters are women, and women make up the majority of registered voters (55.24%). However, analyses after previous elections have shown that women are often kept from voting by domestic duties, which is likely to occur again in May.

It is women and their role in South Africa’s past that form the subject of Moederland and through which Pedder attempts to understand herself and where or how she belongs. She lives in England, yet her name and blood irrevocably connect her to South Africa and a culture “freighted with shame”. Named after her grandmother, she has spent her life explaining that Cato is not pronounced “Kate-o” but “Cuh-too. It’s Afrikaans, short for Catharina”. Her great-grandfather was Jan Smuts, twice prime minister of South Africa, a man so revered by the British that a statue of him still stands in Parliament Square. Smuts is the only person in the world to have signed the peace treaties after both world wars; he was central to the creation of the League of Nations, and drafted the preamble to the UN charter. He was also a white supremacist who supported racial segregation and was involved in writing and promulgating the laws that paved the way to apartheid. Pedder struggles with her “place in all this”, her great-grandfather tying her “to the white male power that continues to saturate South Africa and further afield”.

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Jan Smuts’s wife, Isie, in 1886. ‘She was appalled by the thought of white women voting or having seats in parliament, let alone men of colour or, heaven forbid, women of colour’View image in fullscreen

It is no secret that women are often absent from history books, with historians blaming a lack of recorded information. But, as Pedder finds, the South African archives are full of the letters and journals of women, as well as opgaafrolle (tax censuses), the transcribing and analysing of which my own colleagues at Stellenbosch University are engaged in; revealing data about women, enslaved people and indigenous Khoikhoi people who were often forced into servitude. This data conveys details such as what they owned, where they lived, and family groupings. The information is there: it only has to be looked for.

Informed by impressively thorough research, Pedder follows nine of her female ancestors (family trees are included at the start of the book), from the 17th century when the Dutch first landed at the Cape, and moving through the centuries, via the “great trek” of settlers into the interior, the atrocities of the Boer war, and the shame and horror of apartheid. Exploring the past, bringing it to vivid life with wonderful prose, she intersects the lives of her ancestors with her own thoughts and experiences.

But this is not another whinging apologia by a white author. Pedder writes with perspicacity and sensitivityand is able to articulate her dismay at having laboured under “the misapprehension that in retelling the long-forgotten stories of women, [she would be] striking a righteous blow” not only for her own female ancestors but for women generally, such as her proto-Afrikaans forebear and seventh great-grandmother, Anna Siek, whose place in history books has been little more than “a footnote”. In reality, Pedder realises, writing about white women means writing about how they have participated in white domination. White and black women have had very different experiences, so while Pedder is horrified at her proximity in the family tree to a slave-owning torturer – Michiel Otto, second husband of Siek – she must also acknowledge the role his wife (and the wives of other white men) played in oppression. Or even someone like Isie, wife of Smuts, who was appalled by the thought of white women voting or having seats in parliament, let alone men of colour, or, heaven forbid, women of colour.

The first of the nine women in Moederland is a Khoikhoi girl whose real name we do not know, though she has become famous in South African history. The Dutch adopted her as a pet, a translator, a creature to civilise, and named her Eva (after the biblical first woman). Her Khoikhoi name is recorded by them as Krotoa, and so she has become known to us. Her role in the history of South Africa, her life caught between the Dutch and her own people, her eventual partial banishment to Robben Island with her white husband and mixed-race children, her alcoholism and death, have been revisited and imbued with various isms and significances in recent decades – she is part of colonialism, racism, post-colonialism, feminism, post-apartheid reparations, and historical rewriting and reclamation. Pedder is aware of the way Krotoa has been exploited over the centuries for various ends, and also that she represents a true connection to South Africa prior to the ill-effects of colonisation. Her own desire to find a connection with Krotoa does not sit comfortably with her, yet it is there, a wish to find some link that will legitimate her sense of belonging to South Africa. But what role can DNA really play, she asks. Does having a connection to Indigenous people remove you from guilt and responsibility? What percentage is enough to belong fully and wipe the slate clean? Her DNA results show that she is “European, but there are matches to another community, partial incomplete”. Yes, she is a colonialist, but she is also South African.

In fact, Moederland provides more questions than answers, but that is not a flaw. It is the questioning that makes this book valuable, just as it is questioning that must become part of all our lives on a path to understanding ourselves and others today when too often cancel culture wants to delete and deny. Research enables us to explore, and it fuels our ability to interrogate ourselves, our pasts, our presents and futures. We need more books like this, we need more detailed research, more people allowing themselves to be uncomfortable and to question.

Crooked Seeds by Karen Jennings (Holland House Books, £14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

  • Moederland: Nine Daughters of South Africa by Cato Pedder is published by John Murray (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Source: theguardian.com