Friday, February 1, 2019

#Cliftongate, the real legacy of Cape Town's Clifton beach

The pristine sands of Cifton. Courtesy flickr.
#CLIFTONGATE – or whatever one wishes to call it – provided us with our guaranteed year-end dose of racial drama. Every year, it seems, crowds at our beaches set off the nation’s racist trolls. Come Christmas, and like the Grinch, the Penny Sparrows of this world rush out to play.

#Cliftongate occurred on a balmy late December evening when the Secretary General of a prominent political party – the one that doesn’t support Israel – was asked to leave the beach by a private security company, the one that allegedly has links to the Cape underworld.

Exact reasons for this distinctly apartheid-style forced removal are fuzzy. Some reports say that there was an issue with crime, and that for unspecified ‘safety reasons’ the beach had to be cleared by 8 pm. The central question is why this was done by a private company, and exactly on whose authority.

Another political group – say ‘red designer overalls’ – protested a day or so later, as did another grouping, which ritually slaughtered a sheep on the beach in a traditional cleansing ceremony. Matters became Kafkaesque when counter protests centred on animal rights, ignoring the principal issue, human rights.

It underlined that Clifton, originally called Skoenmaker’s Gat (after a 17th century Dutch East Company deserter), is a sign of our post-apartheid disorder of historical ignorance, amnesia and privileged arrogance. An absolute postcard of a beach, Clifton is hugged by the sandstone and granite cliffs of the Twelve Apostles, or the Hoerikwaggo range.   

Clifton’s Riviera profile belies the fact that it was originally where the Goringhaiqua Khoe of Camissa, or Table Bay, gathered shellfish, collected fresh water and sheltered in the caves above Second Beach. This was part of a route via the established Camps Bay and Oudekraal settlements (destroyed by the Dutch in the 1659 Khoe war) to Hout Bay, where the Gorachoqua lived.

The runaway slaves, who rallied around the Sufi masters, Tuan Sayyid Jaffer and Shaykh Nurul Mubeen in the 17th and 18th centuries, would have been informed by the Khoe of this passage to their former Oudekraal pasturage, where its rocky terrain, deep gullies and thick fynbos would have made it difficult for Dutch officials to capture them.

There is little institutional memory of this, other than hundreds of scattered graves on the mountain slopes and the well-known tombs of Tuan Sayyid Jaffer and Shaykh Nurul Mubeen. There are no plaques, or any other attempts at the commemoration, of what Clifton and the whole area once signified.

Today, the coastal strip from Sea Point to Hout Bay enjoys a ‘Peter Stuyvesant’ imprint of wealthy mansions and Top-Billing sunsets, where any sense of history and heritage is as meaningful as the last sipped Campari. 

Historically, then, Clifton is a gloomy narrative of colonial land theft and socio-economic disempowerment, the signature forgotten event being the wrecking of a Portuguese slaver, the Sao Jose Paquette, on its pristine shores on 27 December 1794.

The ship had returned from a slaving expedition in central Mozambique. It had over 400 slaves chained in its hold as it embarked on its four month journey to Brazil. When the Sao Jose rounded the Cape after 24 days, it found itself facing a raging south-east gale. As it beat around the Maiden’s Cove headland, and made for the wind shadow of Clifton, it struck a rock and started to sink.

The Sao Jose was only 100 metres from the shore. But with over 400 slaves cowering in its dank hold, there was a problem. The ship was going down fast. The crew and captain had to hasten to liberate its human cargo. This was not chivalry. It was business. Living slaves were precious capital, dead slaves were not.

By the time the Sao Jose finally sank under the icy Atlantic, there were still 211 people shackled to the bottom of the ship. Two days later, the surviving slaves were sold to the highest bidders under the trees on the Grand Parade.

All of this would have been known to the community of the time. Indeed, the sadness at the treatment of the Mozambican slaves at Skoenmaker’s Gat would have reverberated throughout the underclass of Cape Town.

Indeed, our people would have understood well European flippancy on the value of their lives. The fiscal Denaus, a company agent, had frequently raided their homes. A thoroughly spiteful character, research reveals that he had confiscated a letter from General Craig authorising Tuan Guru to build Cape Town’s first mosque.

The colonial authorities had condoned it, but clearly the Penny Sparrows in the streets of 18th century Cape Town had not, and Tuan Guru would have to perform the Friday prayers in the Chiappini Street quarry as a protest, the mosque only officially opening years later.

#Cliftongate, the saga of the Sao Jose and the gentrification of the Bo Kaap are all related. They are designed to bury our history and our heritage – a socio-economic airbrushing – where the ignorant and moneyed can pleasure themselves to death at our expense.