Circumstances recently brought me into contact, after 20-odd years, with an old business associate, now chairman of his family’s group of companies, and we enjoyed a pleasant lunch together.
After the usual pleasantries and enquiries about the status of our respective businesses and the health and welfare of our families, he suddenly said “I’m classified as black, you know.”
Now I should explain that this is a man who is not just pigmentally challenged: he is melanin-deficient. So I had to stifle my immediate response of, “sure, and I’m an Eskimo”, opting, rather for a less-sarcastic raising on one quizzical eyebrow and a bland “Oh, how so?”
Apparently, on a nostalgic visit to his mother’s birthplace, a long-established Cape provincial town, he had a chance discussion with a local history-buff which piqued his interest in his family’s origins.
So he set to searching geaneology sites on the internet. And soon discovered that his mother was descended from a Batavian slave-girl imported to the Cape not many years after Jan van Riebeeck had set up shop.
Soon after her arrival, she had the good fortune to be sold for 60 Rixdollars to a German baker who had arrived in the fledgling settlement looking for new challenges. But of course, slaves in those days were no more than commodities, with no greater status than livestock. They could thus be bought and sold at will, and treated not much better than livestock, too.
Moreover, as my friend explained, female slaves were much in demand at the Cape in those early years, not so much for their cooking and housekeeping skills but more for their horizontal abilities after hours. In short, they were sex slaves. Soon, our Batavian slave girl was in the family way to the baker, bearing him a son. And as was the custom the son, born of a slave, was also deemed to be a slave.
However, shortly after the turn of the 17th century the baker must have had a crisis of conscience and he bought the freedom of his slave girl, and, crucially, his/their son. This was important, because it meant that the former slave girl and her son had to be registered as humans, and thus an official record began of their existence, marriages, births of their offspring, deaths etc.
And in another twist of fortune, in the 1920s the German government decided to trace the lineage of all German citizens living in South Africa, and so it paid the South African government to draw up a record, which it did, and which is available for perusal to this day. And there, of course, was evidence of our Batavian slave-girl who, with a German citizen, produced a child, who was initially also a slave, but whose subsequent lineage through the centuries can be traced to include the mother of my friend, herself a member of a well-respected old Cape family.
My friend, of course, as chairman of a successful ground of companies, has had to deal with the intricacies of the Black Economic Empowerment laws, and racial classifications in the new South Africa. And he thus knew that anybody who can prove that he or she is descended from a slave can be automatically classified as black for the purposes of BEE.
And so it was that my pigmentally challened friend armed himself with the requisite documentary evidence and presented himself before a clerk at his local Home Affairs office with a request that he be reclassified from white to black.
Once can but wonder at the bemusement that must have overcome the Home Affairs clerk when confronted by a St Stithians-educated, English-speaking grey-haired white man asking to be reclassified as black
And then, with his racial classification assured, he filled in all the documents necessary to prove that his group of companies were, indeed, legitimately black owned, thus automatically giving themselves Category 2 BEE status (he explained that he could have got Category 1 – the purest of pure black ownership status – had it not been for the fact that a small shareholding in the business is held for nostalgic reasons by an old (white) business associate of his late father, who founded the group.
And here’s the thing: My friend points out that just about anybody who can trace their lineage back to the earliest days in the Cape is likely to have slave girl blood in them, given the purposes for which slave girls were imported at the time. And that includes all the descendents of old Cape Dutch families. Only problem is that, unless there was German involvement at an early stage, they’ll have a devil of a job to prove it.