By Andre Marais – Amandla Magazine*
DURBAN, Dec 7 – (TerraViva) Cape Town couple Johannes and Jolene Beukes travelled across the country to Durban at their own expense to attend an assembly of the world’s indigenous peoples at the Peoples’ Space, the alternative conference taking place in conjunction with the U.N. Climate Conference.
Dec. 1 had added importance for the Beukes because it marks the day known as Emancipation Day in South Africa – a commemoration of the date in 1834 when slaves in the Western Cape were legally freed from their bondage.
Cape Town was for several centuries a slave port, where the buying and selling of human cargo endured for several centuries. Many people in the Cape can trace their ancestry to this period, when slaves were brought from places like Indonesia, Malaysia, Ceylon, Mauritius, India and Mozambique and mixed with the original nomadic Khoisan herders. These diverse origins can still be seen in the faces and features of most Black Capetonians who were classified as Coloured or “mixed race” under apartheid.
Commemoration of emancipation has recently been revived, mostly thanks to the efforts of people like the Beukes; there is a renewed determination not to let South Africans forget about this shameful chapter of their history. People linked to the District Six Museum (itself marking a major forced removal of some 60,000 Black people from near Cape Town’s city centre beginning in 1966) have organised an annual vigil and night march through the city, despite regulations prohibiting the event in recent years,
“We insist that this march be held at night, because during slavery, slaves were subject to curfews and forbidden to venture out at night,” Jolene Beukes says angrily.
Turning to the question of climate change, Beukes talks about indigenous people as aardmense – people of the soil – with a strong connection to the land and conservation which has often been broken by dispossession in many places around the world.
Many of the solutions to climate change that have been put forward ignore indigenous people or even worse, threaten them with further dispossession, for example by blocking people’s use and access to forests in the name of conservation.
Along with other indigenous people gathered in Durban, Beukes wants to see a restoration of the land and sustainable use of it: an emancipation of the original inhabitants goes hand in hand with an emancipation of ecosystems from destructive development.
But how will you mark Emancipation Day at COP17 – so far away from Cape Town? I ask her.
“By spiritually connecting with others, by talking about the threats to our planet and the remaining indigenous communities in other parts of our country, with people concerned about these issues,” she replies.
“We still live with different kinds of slavery – alienated from our environment, trapped in alcohol and drugs… COP 17 gives me the opportunity to reflect with others about my past and my remarkable ancestry, but also connect with other First Nation indigenous people from around the world who have experienced similar dispossession – the details may be different but the suffering is the same.”
* Community media coverage of COP 17 is being supported by the Media Development & Diversity Agency of South Africa, which is promoting the participation of local journalists through a programme of training and reporting on climate change.