The Camissa Museum tells the stories of the peopling of the Cape and through historical characters it peels away distortion after distortion of colonial history. It reveals the rich and complex history of Camissa Africans, those classified as ‘Coloured,’ who have been portrayed by others for centuries but never by themselves. This history and these stories, that have been buried and hidden for centuries, are now told for the first time.
The museum is a place of memory and restoration; it uncovers a hidden ancestral and cultural past, crucial for communities to understand themselves and for a common understanding among different communities in South Africa and also to a world groomed for centuries on a European or white take on local history.
Those of us that worked on the Online Camissa Museum and now on the physical museum believe that knowledge of our history and origins builds vital self-understanding that fosters that important sense of belonging and connection to place. We believe that a people who know their history and origins are better able to navigate their present and future.
Bringing these stories of the Cape, and its people, to life will bring healing, affirmation, and restoration of human dignity, after centuries of suffering colonialism, slavery, forced removals, restrictions on freedom of movement and imposition of the first pass laws, nineteen wars of dispossession, ethnocide, genocide, de-Africanisation, and Apartheid.
The Camissa Museum invites people to take a journey with us to explore the emergence and progress of Camissa Africans from the year 1600 to the present, by tracking seven broad tributaries of peoples brought together from over 195 roots of origin, by forced migrations. These peoples faced great adversities together, but their collective story is of a people who rose above adversity and thrived.
The Camissa Museum Online was launched as a resource for schoolchildren and students, teachers, and lecturers as a unique multi-media resource for learning. The physical Museum is a work in progress at The Castle of Good Hope national heritage site in Cape Town. This is the story of how this initiative came about.
After returning from exile the late veteran and stalwart of the struggle, Reg September (1923 – 2013) who cut his political teeth in the National Liberation League in the early 1940s and was one of O. R. Tambo’s right-hand men in exile, together with Professor Jakes Gerwel and others, initiated a series of Special Strategy Sessions starting in 1992 on challenges facing those classified as “Coloured” and how the label and identity issues may be dealt with.
Initially much of these discussions were constrained by operating within the ANC, but a decision was taken to free up this vitally important discussion by moving it into the open civil society space. Reg September formed the Roots & Visions Forum and established a Steering Committee and Trust into which he drew several people that he had been working with for a few decades, including Patric Tariq Mellet who had worked with him for 14 years in exile.
The focus was to bring together a cross-section of people classified as “Coloured” including community leaders, social commentators, academics, cultural artists, religious leaders, politicians, NGO leaders, historians, cultural artists, trades unionists and business leaders. This was the start of 28 years of consultations and public participation on the subject of building African Consciousness within communities classified as ‘Coloured’ to counter the enforced de-Africanisation that began in the early 20th century.
The initiative was dedicated to forging understanding and consciousness about a positive place for those classified as “Coloured” as Africans in South Africa, in keeping with the fact that over 70% of our ancestral and cultural roots is African. Reg wanted to revive an understanding of the first organisations to adopt the name “AFRICAN” – the Kimberley African League of 1880 and the African Peoples Organisation in 1902. These organisations were predominantly made up of membership who would be classified as “Coloured” from 1911 when Africans from around 100 societies were divided by colonial ethnographers and the census committee as “natives” belonging to ten ringfenced linguistic nations on the one hand, and “coloureds” who came from around 42 root societies who spoke languages other than the “Bantu” family of languages.
The APO was inspired by the pioneering work of Alice Alexander Kinloch from Kimberley who had teamed up in London with Trinidadian Advocate Henry Sylvester Williams (the first black advocate to serve at the Cape Bar) to form the first Pan-African Association in 1898. The definition of an AFRICAN by the Pan-African Movement at that time was that any person with at least one forbear indigenous to Africa was an African. This is very different from the Apartheid and colonial definition of an African ‘native’ as being persons of pure Sub-Saharan ancestry and who spoke any of the over 700 Bantu languages. Africans from Egypt down to Cape Town and throughout the diaspora were recognised to be diverse communities of people rooted in ancestry and cultures that go back to the many African civilisations that emerged over 12 000 years to the present.
Thus, any person today who can identify that they have at least one ancestor indigenous to Africa and embraces an African Consciousness is an African.
Inspiring people behind the quest for a place of memory and understanding
Part of the approach of the ROOTS & VISIONS FORUM established by Reg September was to establish a place of memory and understanding at the Castle of Good Hope that would expose the hidden histories of those classified “Coloured” – particularly the Cape indigenous African roots (San, Khoe, Gqunukhwebe, Xhosa, Thembu, Tswana and Sotho) and the African-Asian roots in Cape Slavery including West Africans, East Africans, Indians, Southeast Asians and Chinese. He believed that for ‘African Consciousness’ to take root, people needed to understand their ancestral-cultural origins and that we are born of a people who faced adversity (Crimes Against Humanity) but rose above that adversity and still we rise.
Reg September, Tariq Mellet and the small steering committee of the Roots & Visions Forum chose the Castle as the potential home for a museum focused on the forum mission, because it was built by slave labour and although it was the seat of colonial authority it needed to be cleansed, repurposed and transformed.
It was also understood that over 70 000 children from communities classified as “Coloured” and “Black” from the Cape Flats, together with their teachers visited the Castle annually. It was the perfect place to influence both the teachers and young minds to explore their roots. It was also a place of visitation, for local, national, and international tourists who could learn a decolonised history of South Africa. As much as the envisaged focus was on building African Consciousness in communities classified as “Coloured” and present a positive Camissa African sense of identity free of race and colourist tagging, the project was also envisaged as underlining the ‘ties that bind us’ in our African diversity or cousin connections.
It was out of this process that the project of building a place of memory and understanding in the form of a museum on the history and heritage of Africans with a Camissa ancestral-cultural heritage was born, and the Castle of Good Hope identified as the location it should be based.
On the passing of Reg September in 2013, Patric Tariq Mellet took on this mission to produce a new decolonial history book – The Lie of 1652 – A decolonised history of land, and a biography on Reg September’s lifelong struggle – A Man Called September: Coloured by Decree, Liberated African by Heritage, as well as the envisaged museum project – the Camissa Museum.
The conceptualisation of the Camissa Museum transcended the various political divides, and also drew inspiration from the late Dr Neville Alexander (1936 – 2012) particularly his thinking around the analogy of rivers and identity formation in South Africa. In a similar vein to explaining Camissa African ancestral and cultural heritage, Dr Neville Alexander spoke of the coming together of various tributaries of peoples in events around the Kai !Gariep River and used the river as an analogy for human identity development. He said: “The Gariep River is one of the major geographical features of this country. It traverses the whole of South Africa and its tributaries have their catchment areas in all parts of the country. It is also a dynamic metaphor, which gets us away from the sense of unchanging, eternal, and God-given identities… It accommodates the fact that at certain times of our history, any one tributary might flow more strongly than the others, that new streamlets and springs come into being and add their drops to this or that tributary, even as others dry up and disappear; above all, it represents the decisive notion that the mainstream is constituted by the confluence of all the tributaries, i.e. that no single current dominates, that all the tributaries in their ever-changing forms continue to exist as such, even as they continue to constitute and reconstitute the mainstream.”
The Gariep and Camissa analogies pose an antithesis to narrow ethno-nationalism, singular ethnicities, tribalism, and notions of ‘race’ or ‘ethnic purity’.
An affinity with the Camissa River (ǁKhamis sa River) that runs through Cape Town with its many tributaries resonates with Dr Alexander’s explanation of identity formation. The Camissa had a further lesson in that, as the colonial city of Cape Town developed, the Camissa River was forced underground, away from sight – hidden similarly to the history of the black people of the Cape Colony.
Camissa (ǁKhamis sa) means “Sweet Water for All” and without water there is no life. When the term “Coloured” along with race-classification was introduced in 1911 the colonial authorities assimilated over 42 African and African-Asian Creole identities resulting from the slavery system into one. Today we recognise that six African peoples forced under the term, “Coloured” exist and have the right to reject the umbrella term “Coloured” – the San, Cape Khoe, Nama, Korana, Griqua and Camissa Africans. The latter have 7 ancestral-cultural tributaries and over 195 roots of origin in Africa and Asia through slavery, and with some non-Conformist European admixture. The museum tells this story and much, much more. The Cape Khoe too have a number of societies under that term.
Moving away from the lie of 1652
The Camissa Museum also breaks with the over-emphasis on 1652 and Jan van Riebeeck which is falsely cited as the genesis of the port of Cape Town and of South African history. Through meticulous research in the Huygens database of all shipping from the Netherlands via the Cape to India, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia shipping records attest to 885 Dutch ships going East via the Cape. Maritime researchers Gaastra and Bruijn at Leiden university also show 442 ships from England, Portugal, France, and Denmark going East – ie: 1,327 Ships travelling via the Cape to Asia from 1600 – 1652. Only 31 of the Dutch ships are verified as not stopping at the Cape, while 339 ships are verified as stopping over for an average of 26 days (though at least two records show stayovers due to being wrecked. Of 4 months and 9 months respectively). There are 515 ship’s records still being researched, but it is a likely hypothesis that 413 of these also stopped over at the Cape. If we add the verified 339 Dutch ships which stopped over to the 442 other European ships which stopped over, and consult Gaastra and Bruijn’s maritime history on the number of people on these vessels we can conservatively deduce that at least 120 000 foreigners from Europe, other parts of Africa and the East, came to Table Bay before Jan van Riebeeck and engaged in pre-colonial trade with indigenous people. If the other ships subject to further research were added, the figure may well be over 200 000 visitors. While colonial historians deny mass visitation to Table Bay before 1652 and project theories about the very few stopovers only occurring during three short window periods of each year, both the Huygens database of dates of stopovers and the work of maritime historians at Leiden University show that while these high visitation periods existed there was nonetheless sea traffic all year round. It is astounding that South Africa writers have gotten away with their distortions for so long.
The impact of such visitation and engagement with indigenous Africans at the Cape must be greater than historian have so far acknowledged. The Camissa Museum breaks the mould in looking at South Africa’s multi-ethnic rooted peoples not just between 1600 and 1652, but also way back over the last 2500 years, to show how all South African societies have multi-ethnic roots through various migratory drifts and engaging around fresh-water rivers.
Transforming the Castle of Good Hope
The home of the Camissa Museum is the Castle of Good Hope, a Cape Town landmark which was the seat of colonial power for 200 years and which was built using the exploited labour of the enslaved. This project is one of a basket of projects emerging at the Castle as part of a process of transformation and restorative memory. Without restorative memory it is difficult to fashion the necessary restoration and transformation required across the broader South African social landscape. Restorative Memory is required to fashion Restorative Justice, Reparation and Restitution.
Decoloniality starts with memory.
Without Restorative Memory and knowing what it is that must be transformed, one cannot transform. It is when there is a poor understanding of what constituted colonial oppression that one does not get transformational legislation – one gets neo-colonial law-making and cultures which get embedded is so-called post-colonial societies. Decoloniality challenges the mechanistic approach of dividing the past into pre-colonial, them colonial and post-colonial segments.
Decoloniality is all about looking at our past with new eyes and saying that the colonisers’ imperialist paradigm is not ours. We look at her story, his story, our story sans frontier and we search for the hidden, and we factor in the immortal intangible along with the tangible, and we dare to examine the contradictions and the interpretations of the writings of those who came from Europe to Africa and made the same clouded judgements on Africans then as they still do today.
The Camissa Museum Journey
The visitor to the online version of the museum and to the physical museum is presented firstly with the jarring question of “Who do you think you are?” From this provocative question it elaborates on how Apartheid and colonialism answer this question for us and imposed a system of race classification and colourist tags of identity on us. Thereafter the visitor is either able to navigate online, or walk through in the physical museum, seven tributaries to Cape Identities, each with many sub-tributaries involving collectively over 195 roots of origin. With each tributary the stories are told of a basket of five or six personalities lives at the Cape to illustrate their roots and to look at their experience and struggles at the Cape. Local Indigenous Africans; the African-Asian enslaved; Free Blacks; Non-conformist Europeans; Maroons and Drosters; Exiles and Refugees; Indentures, sailors; and other black migrants from across the globe are all in the history and heritage told by the Camissa Museum. Muted stories of the Chinese enforced exiles; the Caribbean and African American migrants, the Australian Aborigine trackers abandoned by the Australian armed forces after the Anglo-Boer War, and the Oromo child slaves who were schooled at Lovedale Mission are just some of the cameo stories captured.
As one navigates through this deep look at all that is in our ancestral and cultural heritage every person can find themselves in the seven tributary matrix, either in one, two or more and even in cases all of those tributaries. So whereas there is a focus on the history and heritage of those classified as “coloured”, it does so in a non-exclusivist manner, and speaks too to a focus on the “Ties that Bind Us”.
As we navigate the rest of the journey on both the online museum and the physical museum, the visitor is engaged innovatively with genealogy – how to explore your family tree and ancestors. This then moves on to exploring one’s ancient past and lines of connectivity to each other outside of the “race” paradigm by using DNA testing.
The Camissa Museum methodology
Storytelling is the primary means to convey our history from past to present. The Online Museum uses over 31 videos, many unique narratives, photographs, images, stories and testimonies, poetry, sounds and music forms to reach out to young and old as a new type of heritage exploration experience. It tells a very different story to any other museum in South Africa. Today still, most museums present no pre-1652 African social history and after the overblown 1652 story black South Africans are incidental, muted people until suddenly the story of 20th century African Nationalism is the focus. So we get a potted history of Africans being stone-age and early iron-age peoples without a civilisation who violently disrupt the European attempts to civilise and then suddenly become African Nationalists. The new South African histories remain distorted but now with a veneer of spin as neo-colonial narratives become vogue.
The Camissa Museum has sought to attract partnerships with other NGOs, the business community, the Kaaps Initiative, Cape Cultural Collective and others who share the Camissa Museum ethos. We are also creating partnerships and engaging with communities all along the old African, India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, China and Japan – the footprint of the United Dutch East India Company.
The vision of the Camissa Museum is to offer a place of memory and culture dedicated to restorative justice and education focused on uncovering the hidden Camissa Africa history and heritage of the Cape and in doing so, offering descendant communities a means to understand themselves for healing, empowerment, and restoration of human dignity after suffering centuries of colonialism, slavery, de-Africanisation, and Apartheid.
The mission of the Camissa Museum is to establish, constantly improve, and maintain exhibitions, interactive media and educational programmes that highlight heritage covering the seven root tributaries and over one hundred and ninety-five ancestral roots of origin of Camissa African communities, thereby uncovering a hitherto hidden ancestral and cultural past.
As a means for communities to understand themselves, find healing, empowerment, and the restoration of human dignity after years of suffering colonialism, slavery, de-Africanisation, and Apartheid this project seeks to build confidence, hope and a ‘We Can’ attitude by:
telling this untold story to as many people as possible
ensuring that visitors leave with a greater understanding of Camissa history and heritage
introducing visitors to the ties that bind all communities
ensuring that the Camissa youth have a better understanding of who they are
showcasing role-models born of these communities in order to inspire the next generation
giving visitors a means to leave with a new ability and tools to explore their past
ensuring visitors are able to appreciate and respect each other
using the Museum as a means to educate about the dangers posed by racism and xenophobia to social cohesion
ensuring that the Museum builds social solidarity networks across the entire VoC footprint of colonialism and slavery that links the Netherlands, the Cape & Africa, and Asia.
The main project goals are to see mass visitation to both the online museum and the physical museum when completed, positive visitor engagement, and insightful visitor feedback. The success of the programme will be evaluated by recording visitor numbers by groups, such as schoolchildren and teachers, tertiary students, local South African tourists and international tourists. Besides the pure numbers, a visitor’s book could also record comments. This would be monitored by the Project team and the Castle of Good Hope. We will also encourage visitors to engage in family research and to feed this information back to the museum so it can be displayed in family trees, DNA results, and short cameo stories. This direct input will allow people to grow the museum, becoming a part of the ever-evolving story. As such it is envisaged that the museum is a ‘living museum’.
Ultimately the museum seeks to influence national discourse around African identities and South African social cohesion. It is a continuation of the struggle to move away from stereotyping and Apartheid race-classification, which the Rome Statute of the ICC calls a «Crime Against Humanity. The museum further looks at migration as a continuum and will ensure a consciousness of ever new communities of refugees and economic migrants joining us in South Africa and stem the rising manifestations of Afro-Phobia, Asian – Phobia, Sino-Phobia and Xenophobia which has led to violence, loss of life and threat to social cohesion. In this regard Camissa Museum at its core seeks to educate South Africans and be a beacon of opposition to aggressive and life-threatening acts undermining our constitution, bill of rights and social cohesion.
We also particularly want to develop a young population who are proudly African and who can embrace their history, heritage, and culture. This way, they can contribute to building social cohesion and unity, as well as becoming innovators and contributing to the social and economic advancement of South Africa. We believe too that in coming to an understanding of their amazing multifaceted ancestral lineage, young people will become culturally creative and will begin to tell their ancestral story through all sorts of artistic media – writing, film, theatre, and dance, to artwork and craftwork.
When considering the museum location, the choice of the Castle of Good Hope was axiomatic. Where could be more fitting than this symbol of colonial power built in the 17th century by the sweat of their forebears? A place where their history and identity was first distorted and then virtually erased. There is no better site to begin reclaiming that story and recovering the identity of the Camissa people, and no better way to restore a hope that all the people of South Africa can be equally respected and acknowledged.
The Castle of Good Hope is already a popular site for visits by schoolchildren and teachers and is part of the local education system, but it currently has no exhibitions that speak to the majority black population of South Africa. While its colonial history is told, that of the colonized and enslaved is not. This project is therefore part of a broader transformation programme taking place at the Castle, acknowledging the ‘Black Lives Matter’ story, which is extremely relevant to the 92% majority population of South Africa, and using this as a springboard to expose the stories of marginalisation and the abuses of power which have too long distorted the truth about the Foundation Peoples of the Cape and the foundation of the city. The Castle of Good Hope Board agreed to provide a home space for the museum comprising of four large rooms, rent free.
The Roll-out Phases of the Camissa Museum Project
The roll-out of the museum has a three-stage approach and the first stage is now completed. The entire project is built on voluntarism and philanthropic donor funding, where the team has doubled up as fundraisers – a difficult task under conditions of Covid 19. We are presently in Phase 2.
Phase 1 (2019/20): This is now completed and involved completing a long public participation process, establishing a team, forming a Non-Profit Company with Tax-Exempt Status, establishing a brand, acquiring space at the Castle, coming to a Memorandum of Understanding with the Castle of Good Hope control board, engaging in public communications and producing a video on how the museum has come about, producing a brochure and prospectus, establishing a blog platform, developing a storyboard for museum content, creating and launching an Online Camissa Museum together with a mini-exhibition with a Memory Column as centrepiece in the Castle space.
Phase 2 (2021 – June 2022): This is a focus on developing, building, and installing the centrepiece of the museum exhibition which is a high-tech IT Memory Well at the museum. This also involves creation of the content of the Memory Well, which is like a giant computer around which visitors can come together and by following instructions can literally draw information and experiences from within the well. The information in the form of text narratives and spoken word, as well as imagery, music, poetry, video clips will be developed to appear on the surface of the well and on a large overhead screen. This technology has been successfully developed and used in Australia and our version will be developed locally. Many elements of what we presently have in the Online Camissa Museum will be adapted to be accessed via the Memory Well. The Memory Well content will jointly be developed by the Camissa Museum team in partnership with a Dutch non-governmental organization – Framer-Framed facilitated by a Netherlands Government body known as Dutch-Culture. As the Memory Well is developed, there will be a parallel education programme involving schools in Cape Town and along the old Dutch trade and slavery routes running from the Caribbean, and Cape Town to Southeast Asia.
Phase 3 (April 2022 – April 2023): This will see the completion of the physical museum project with the installation of the Main Planographic Board Exhibition. This consists of developing a composite running narrative, production of imagery, and developing a running board exhibition which will run through the four rooms of the museum space. The flow starts with a “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?” challenge, then a brief introduction to how the Apartheid regime manipulated identity to tell us how we should think about identity. This then moves to unpack the history of how people with 7 tributaries involving over 195 roots of origin came together over time in the Cape Colony, emphasising the historic ties that bind us. The exhibition culminates in exhibits on building family trees and exploring genetic dna. The final part is exposure to a wall of recognition of Camissa Africans who can inspire young generations as achievers under harsh circumstances. The entire exhibition is highly visual in content with just brief composite wording but also with using IT Bar-Code mobile phone camera capture technology that refers back to the detail on the Online Camissa Museum.
Our biggest challenge remains funding, which has been a task alongside developing the project. We have already raised half of what we need to get the museum completed, and are presently engaged in a push to raise the balance of funds.
You are invited to please explore the Camissa Museum Online at www.camissamuseum.co.za
CAMISSA MUSEUM FOUNDING TEAM: Angus Leendertz (Curator); Colin Jones (Museologist); Patric Tariq Mellet (Historian/Conceptualizer); Calvyn Gilfillan (CEO Castle of Good Hope); Linnemore Nefdt (Designer); Elise Fernadez (Project Manager); Robina Marks (Patron); Shepi Mati (Patron)