Jan 25, 2022

Reshaping Our History: Gqeberha Is Us, We Are Gqeberha

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The struggle has always been the struggle of the people for the people to change their living conditions for the future, to live better.

FILE PHOTO: It is official, Port Elizabeth has a new name - Gqeberha. PICTURE: Karen van Rooyen

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A project that seeks to reshape and reimagine the benefit of preserving our heritage in post-colonial South Africa, writes Vusumzi Vusie Mba

The decision to rename the city of Port Elizabeth in our indigenous languages isiXhosa, Gqeberha, in Khoi Khabera and also the renaming of Port Elizabeth International Airport after a Khoi political activist and Khoi Chief, Dawid Stuurman is part of the decolonial project.

A project that seeks to reshape and reimagine the benefit of preserving our heritage in post-colonial South Africa. The project seeks to remind us of who we are, where we come from.

Mhlawumbi sizilibele ukuba sizalwa ngobani na (maybe we have forgotten of our roots). The decision to rename the airport after a Khoi Chief reminds some of us of the story of the Khoisan Princess, Krotoa.      

If there is a woman to remind us of our past, it is none other than Princess Krotoa of the Goringhaicona; a translator to the Dutch settlers, negotiating relationships between the settlers and the indigenous population. Also, the first prisoner of Robben Island and a fierce enemy to the Dutch.

Princess Krotoa was born in 1643, in the Cape of Good hope, in the Western Cape Province. She was the niece of Autshumao, a Chief of the Khoisan people. At an early age of 10 years, she had her first real contact with the Dutch settlers when she was taken in by Jan van Riebeek (the first settler) to work as a domestic worker in his House.

She mastered Dutch and soon began to work as an interpreter, trading agent and chief negotiator between the indigenous population, the Dutch, Portuguese, and the English in the Cape.

The Princess was a linguist of note and a courageous woman such that by 1660 she had become the principal interpreter to the Dutch, surpassing her uncle who had been their principal interpreter. 

She possessed an in-depth knowledge of both Khoi and Dutch cultures which enabled her to mediate between the settlers and the indigenous people of South Africa during the early years of colonialism. Her legacy is like an echo that must continue to inspire us to learn, lead and fight.

Krotoa’s legacy is more than a memory of the hardships of colonialism but a footprint that generations will follow to change their lives. Her marriage to Pieter van Meerhof – the Danish Surgeon and explorer became the first interracial marriage recorded in South African history.

The couple got married on the 2nd of June 1664. They were blessed with 3 beautiful children who were also later baptised into Christianity. Her union with Pieter van Meerhof gave birth to the concept of cultural assimilation in South Africa.

A concept that was later developed and articulated by Tata Nelson Mandela as a Rainbow Nation. A society where all can live together, love each other and embrace each other’s cultural differences. 

FILE PHOTO: Krotoa is one of the most written about women in South African history. PICTURE: SA History

In 1662, Princess Krotoa became the first indigenous Southern African to convert into and be baptised into Christianity and by so doing, she made history. She was then given a colonial name, Eva. Her conversion to Christianity and marriage to a settler left the Khoi and San people with so many questions.

Her decision to fall in love with a settler and adopt praises and worship for a ‘foreign God’ made her an outcast that was isolated and marginalised by the Khoi-San people. It also presented her with a challenge as to where her loyalties must lie.

Just like many South African women, Princess Krotoa was a victim of rape by man who use authority, violence and force to have sex with woman who are in lesser position of power in society. Jan van Riebeek is one such man who used his position to rape Krotoa and impregnated her.

Unfortunately, the baby did not live. That same year led to a turn of events when Jan van Riebeek left the Cape. As he was leaving, he recommended the princess to his successor Wagenaer, who later became suspicious of her and accused her of being more loyal to the Khoi-San people.

The events that followed, including the death of her husband, she lost her job, status and dignity in society. She resorted to alcohol abuse and prostitution. Life became tremendously hard for her especially after the death of Chief Autshumao. It is during this time, that she started speaking about the abuse that took place at Jan van Riebeek’s House.

The Princess stood up when standing was not easy, her story of rape reminds me of Khwezi and other rape victims that stood up against all odds and inspired others to stand firm and talk about rape regardless of who has raped them. Her story is not different from many of our township stories of young woman that lost hope due to societal challenges and resorted to alcohol.

Princess Krotoa of the Goringhaicona was a towering figure and remarkable woman that should be part of the decolonised education. An extra-ordinary figure that should inspire young women and the whole country.

Her legacy and contributions should be celebrated on the same level as Winnie Madikizela Mandela, Charlotte Maxeke, Lilian Ngoyi, Queen Nonesi and others.   

In honour of her legacy and contribution, the Khoisan people suggested her name for the name change of Cape Town Airport. Many South Africans were asking themselves who is that? What is she famous for?

The answer is, Princess Krotoa was an activist and candid feminist who defied the societal behaviour and standards of native women during the early days of colonial settlement in the Cape. Her story belongs to the archives of legends.

It is a reminder to us that we have reduced our struggle into hero-worshipping and praising the ANC ideas more than building a rainbow nation. It is a reminder that we have neglected and marginalised the Khoi-San people and minority groups.

It is a cue that we have shifted away from the idea of building a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic society that celebrates its multi-cultural diversity. Not celebrating the contribution of the Indians, Coloureds, Khoisan, and other cultural groups in the struggle for a better South Africa is a reminder that we have narrowed the struggle into Africans in the ANC.

The story of Princess Krotoa of the Goringhaicona should serve as a constant reminder that the struggle is not the ANC, neither the ANC is the struggle. The struggle has always been the struggle of the people for the people to change their living conditions for the future, to live better.

Therefore, all those who served, suffered and sacrificed should be equally honoured, respected and celebrated in the manner that they deserve. The legacy of Krotoa is a true footprint in the sands of time. 

Mba is a researcher for the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders. He is writing in his personal capacity.

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