TALKING POINT | Songs of kinship - how I found my black identity

Ideas

TALKING POINT | Songs of kinship - how I found my black identity

Artscape CEO Marlene le Roux describes what it was like being coloured growing up, but identifying as black

Artscape Theatre Centre CEO
CEO of Artscape and activist for the empowerment of disadvantaged groups Dr Marlene le Roux.
IDENTIFIED CEO of Artscape and activist for the empowerment of disadvantaged groups Dr Marlene le Roux.
Image: Supplied

Is the official use of apartheid-era racial categories a human rights violation? As the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) grapples with the question, Sunday Times Daily explores different views on the race row involving Western Cape teacher Glen Snyman, of Oudtshoorn, who faced disciplinary action and was charged with fraud by the Western Cape education department after identifying himself as “African” instead of “coloured” in a job application. This is the second in a series of four features. Read the first here.

I was always aware of issues of identity, even when I did not understand it as a young child.

In Wellington[in the Western Cape], where I grew up, I was surrounded by a very segregated community. White people one side of the town, coloured people on the other and, on the outskirts, Mbekweni township, for black people.

Then, as a coloured person, you were also speaking Afrikaans, a shared language with your white counterparts, but that is where the similarity ended. So the question was always, where do I fit in?

As a child I did not know the answers. In fact, I did not even know the questions, I just knew that something felt wrong. Over time the questions and confusion started. As children we were often made to work alongside our mothers or aunts, as they did seasonal work on the many farms cradling the town.

I often went with my grandmother. As children we had no choice. It is important to understand how this fed into me finally identifying as black, because I began to understand how cruel apartheid was and how it reduced us all to nothing.

It also showed the great divide between what I thought was my hardship as a coloured child and how that was amplified in black townships.

This, in the end, is where my kinship formed, fuelled by a resistance to discrimination and me also identifying as being black.

That awareness was cemented when I went to study at the University of Cape Town, sharing a room with an isiXhosa-Afrikaans-speaking woman from Blikkiesdorp in Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape.

We did not see colour and until today we are sisters. 

Everything I had thought until then of being poor and disadvantaged as a coloured person became moot, as she was 10 times poorer. Ten times more disadvantaged because of the colour of her skin.

That struck a chord with me that would stay with me my whole life. Thinking back now, I remember the first time I had an opportunity to move out of my, until then, very compartmentalised community.

I was singing in our church’s children’s choir and our choir leader took us to sing in Mbekweni. I will never forget that feeling of belonging, of wanting to stay there. Of never wanting to leave. Back home there was the reality check though.

When I asked if we could go back, the grootmense (adults) said no, that is not how it works. Us and them, but I felt more like them.

Still today, one street separates the VGK (traditional coloured) and NG Moederkerk (traditional white) churches in town.

As a person with a disability, it became more pronounced, that question of fitting in, of finding that space where you comfortably exist.

Our children’s choir was often invited to the Moederkerk to perform, but we were made to wait at the back door until it was time to do our songs. Then immediately after the performance we were herded out the same door. Good enough to perform at the behest of others, not good enough to join in worship.

That separation cut deep, even more so when you grow older and you begin to understand more.

We really bore the brunt of apartheid when our mothers and grans were reduced to shrivelling women with downcast eyes in the kitchens where they worked.

As a person with a disability, it became more pronounced, that question of fitting in, of finding that space where you comfortably exist.

I had to go to hospital often (I had polio as a child), but my mother, Christine le Roux (Tietie), was never asked her opinion by the doctors. There was never engagement because she had to understand her place.

With only primary school education, her dedication as a mother was no match for the clever, white doctors who made her understand exactly where in the pecking order she was. So all the things she knew and understood about my condition were those that unkind system would allow her to know.

I still struggle with the images of women so strong and dignified in our home, who would turn into objects that could be so easily dismissed in that other, white world, where they stood with downcast eyes, bowed heads, even before children.

To remember their humiliation, that still cuts deep. The journey of understanding exactly what has been niggling got more form in high school, but in a strange way brought more confusion.

I loved to read, so I literally read myself into different worlds. But then I would also see a community where the aspiration was to be white because it was considered better, where you were treated like a princess if you were light-skinned, with straight hair. A dark skin meant you were treated as a lesser person.

Being a woman with a disability I lived that same discrimination, though in a different way.

It would also play out in the cruellest way. I applied to UCT to study opera and passed the audition. The professor turned to my mother and said: “I don’t know what I can do with a crippled singer. There is no future for her. Anyway, she is coloured, so she will need a permit to be here.”

It was 1986, I was 18 years old and my world fell apart. My mother helped pick the pieces, picked up our dignity from the floor and enrolled me at the University of the Western Cape.

That was the best thing we could have done. That was meant to be.

I will always remember that time as the miracle in my life. As I manoeuvred being coloured, but identifying as black, I also straddled religious denominations — as member of the VGK and the Anglican Church.

The time as member of the Anglican National Student Association gave me the vocabulary to speak up against injustice and discrimination, and to say never again will someone else decide for me.

We were all comrades in a common resistance against a discriminatory system, one that told us in which corner to go and sit and shut up.

People like Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu would be there leading the protests. One day, when we had to run, he said, “Ousie can you run today”.

I can remember telling him, “You have a cloak on, I can still run faster than you!”

It was the unity of ideal that kept us going. And colour really became secondary as our fight for dignity and recognition grew stronger.

Now, in 2020, for the first time I am being put back in that corner of being a coloured woman that speaks Afrikaans by people who have no idea about my convictions or what I stand for.

Who tells me I have to choose a side. My greatest concern is that I am forced to make that decision, while all I want is to choose that we have the best policies to ensure every kid, even in a poor rural community, has access to quality education, health care and opportunity.

The only choice I want to make is to make sure that we have food security and that people’s lives really change for the better.

It is important to work towards shared identities, and look at what makes us South and Africans.

We need to become active citizens of hope and change agents.

• Dr Marlene le Roux, CEO of Artscape in Cape Town, was recognised in 2018 by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II with the fifth Commonwealth Point of Light in honour of her exceptional voluntary service promoting disability rights in SA. She has won numerous other awards for activism.