Cupid’s clues and the salt army

At Malmesbury Museum we interview Trevor Ringqvist whilst the museum’s curator translates between English and Afrikaans. Trevor remembers the Beinart shop but he doesn’t recall the salt pans in detail. He tells us about a man who’s father used to drive one of the trucks for the ‘Darling Salt Pans and Produce Co.’ His name is Cupid Peterson, and the curator calls him for us, to ask if he remembers which salt pans the company used. She is on the phone for a while, speaking in Afrikaans. Cupid tells her that he used to ride in the truck with his father, and they would visit many of the farms in the area – including Koekiespan and Burgerspan – to pick up salt harvested from the pans. But he said that the farm the Beinarts owned was called Vredefort and is further north, near to Berg River station.

We head out to Darling again, early on Friday morning. We visit the Bassons at Kiekoevlei and Bea kindly takes us out in the Landrover, to traverse the bumpy tracks between the farms. We revisit Koekiespan, and then go on to Burgerspan, where we see an even larger salt pan where hand-harvesting is still active. There are small mounds of salt lined up across the pan, like a marching army frozen under a spell. The place is beautiful, and we immediately feel that this is the location we want to use for our film. Katy uses a medium format camera to take a series of photographs for the installation we’re planning.

Bea takes us to visit the farmer at Burgerspan, who has found some old photo albums in the attic. Amongst collected portraits of Shirley Temple, and various family holiday snaps, these include a few pages of photographs of the working salt pans from 1943. They are amazing images: the dry crust of salt being broken up with shovels, a line of men barrowing it across the pan, and using a wooden contraption with a ramp to drop the salt down into large sacks. There’s a horse drawn cart, and white men in suits standing proudly in front of a large pile of salt. It’s unlikely that these are our ancestors, but it’s fascinating to see the harvesting process they used at that time.

Looking at the pictures later, I wonder how many people worked for the salt pan business. The working conditions look hard: being out in the glaring sun of the white pans all day and hauling heavy salt around. What effect does salt have on your skin if you are handling it every day? I wonder if Woolf and his partners actually had much to do with these physical sites. We meet up with Gail again and she is pleased that we’ve discovered the name of the farm that she’d been struggling to remember. She tells us that for her father, the salt business was really a sideline – the store was his main source of income. Over the past century, salt has fallen in price dramatically, as it has become increasingly mass-produced.

But here the aesthetic pull of the pans overwhelms faithfulness to history. We have become fixated on the salt pans as a site for our work, and they somehow seem to hold the key to the search we’ve been on. Perhaps it’s because they are at once very specific to our family’s story, but also places that belong to nobody, that feel timeless and untouchable. The salt pans constantly renew themselves, growing a new skin that erases clues from the past.

Rebecca Beinart


Ancestor Rituals

We visit the Jewish cemetery in Malmesbury, and wander among the headstones, finding our great-grandparents Woolf and Gittel’s graves covered in dust and fallen bark from the bluegums which tower overhead. We collect bark, twigs, earth and weeds from the grave; a plant is growing that is reminiscent of tarragon, a herb that originates from Southern Russia. I imagine the bodies of my ancestors containing seeds from their homeland, growing up through the red African earth. It is bakingly hot, and I shelter in a small derelict building at the entrance to the site and notice a line of stones which lead to the graves. I have a distant memory of being about 4, sitting in a hut in rural Transkei, and staring out at piles of white stones which marked the burial places of the village ancestors.

In the Suku of south-western Congo, ancestors are appealed to at times of crisis. The elder men go to sit on the graves at night, or at a crossroads. “The old men ‘feed’ the dead certain foods considered to be their favourite: particular kinds of forest mushroom and wild roots, palm wine, and sometimes even manioc, the Suku staple. A small hole is dug in the ground and the food is put into it. Communication with the dead takes the form of a conversational monologue, patterned but not stereotyped, and devoid of repetitive formulae. One speaks the way one speaks to living people: ‘You, [such and such], your junior is ill. We do not know why, we do not know who is responsible. If it is you, if you are angry, we ask for forgiveness. If we have done wrong, pardon us. Do not let him die. Other lineages are prospering and our people are dying. Why are you doing this? Why do you not look after us properly?’ The words typically combine complaints, scolding, sometimes even anger, and at the same time appeals for forgiveness.1

Looking for traces of our family, I am reminded of Hilary Mantel writing about ghosts: “for some years I lived in Botswana and people there used to say that to see ghosts, you need to look out of the corners of your eyes”. 2 At Trevor’s house in Malmesbury, surrounded by the possessions of his long-dead ancestors, I feel the presence of ghosts, as if they are holding him to ransom. I think about collecting, about our need to keep hold of artefacts as justifications of our own identity. In ‘On Collecting’, Susan Pearce writes that “heirloom material..is a kind of ancestor worship, where part of the point is to participate in the power which can flow from the mighty dead of one’s own kin and partly, in a more limited sense, to enjoy the prestige which accrues from having ancestors at all”3

Perhaps the material objects are unnecessary, they are merely a conduit, a channel to keep the lines of communication with our ancestors open. Ghosts don’t respond to the direct approach.

Katy Beinart

1. Igor Kopytoff, Ancestors as Elders in Africa, 1971


2. Hilary Mantel, Ghost Writing, 28th July 2007, The Guardian Newspaper.

3. Susan Pearce, On Collecting, 1995, Routledge


Sweet Home

In a junk shop in Observatory I find a painting which proclaims “Home Sweet Home”. I purchase it and take it back to furnish my room. I am starting to feel at home here, and its got me thinking about how you make a home, and whether a home begins to make you as well.

“Home..is supposedly a vessel for the identity of its occupants, a container for, and mirror of, the self”1 As migrants make home, they are also forming themselves, their new chosen identities, consciously using their home to reflect what they have chosen to keep, or leave behind, of their past homes. Daniel Miller writes about home as a process, a writing and rewriting of our personal narrative or biography.2

I notice the names of the informal settlements at the edges of town, on the front of the buses. Lost City, Panorama, and Sweet Home. I try to find out more about Sweet Home and discover:

“Sweet Home is an informal settlement that was originally a rubble dump in the Philippi farm area and is now home to approximately 12 000 people, with around ten people per home. It is still largely undeveloped in terms of access to water and electricity. Half of the community have no proper toilets and the other half share six families per toilet unit. Community leaders estimate that the unemployment rate is a shocking 70% and malnutrition and other social ills that go with poverty, pervade. Sweet Home is a community facing many social evils and although only a few kilometres from the wealth of the suburbs and city centre, most of the people who live there will never see the ‘other side’ of Cape Town.”3

The optimism of the name astounds me.

I ask Adelaide, our cleaner, about where she lives, and she describes her shack in Philippi as being about the size of our kitchen, 2 rooms for her and her 2 boys. It cost 4000R (about £400)she says, but she doesn’t own the land.

We make another research trip to Malmesbury, and meet Trevor Ringqvist, who recalls our family’s shop and says he has a photograph of the Darling Salt Pans and Produce Company delivery truck. We drive to his home, a dilapidated wonderland of overgrown jungle and two houses stuffed full with antiques. He lives alone amongst the relics of his family, the last one left. He sorts through piles of old photographs and pulls out a blurry image of a man standing by a truck, the logo clearly visible.

He tells us as he offers us a pomegranate from his tree that he can’t manage the place any more, its too much to keep up.

I think about immigrants arriving in a new place with nothing, gradually making home, acquiring, accumulating. I wonder how many possessions in the average shack and how many possessions in Trevor’s house. His house feels like a museum. The social action of ghosts creating an atmosphere of lost memories.

Katy Beinart

1Jonathan Hill (2009), Immaterial Architecture. Routledge

2Daniel Miller, Accomodating, in Colin Painter (2002), Contemporary art and the home, Berg Publishers

3 http://www.warehouse.org.za/progshf

picture credit: Resource Access cc. http://www.capetown.gov.za/en/stats/CityReports/Documents/Informal%20Settlements/Annexure_2C__Sweet_Home_Photos_2722006122351_359.pdf


Tiervlei, Lwandle and a bed called Home

Tuesday 26th January: Katy and I drive out to the N1 City Mall, a sprawling metropolis of warehouse buildings housing chain stores and fast food restaurants, next to the highway. I have boycotted MacDonald’s for my whole adult life, but today we enter the dreaded golden arches for, of all things, a community arts meeting. The oddness of the setting begins to make sense as Edwina and Sheila explain their project. The whole area where the mall now presides used to be called Tiervlei, but the ‘coloured’ residents were moved off this land by the Apartheid government in the resettlements of the 1950s. The area their community lives in is now called Ravensmead, but the older folk still call it Tiervlei. Edwina and Sheila are setting up a cultural centre in an attempt to keep the history of this place alive, and provide much needed space and activities for young people in the area. They give us a tour, pointing out a few old houses that still remain, and the course of the buried river and marshlands that people had to build on. They show us how the highway cuts the community in half, and tell us about the riots in the 1980s, when this was the main route from the airport to the rich white neighbourhoods. It’s a fascinating place, and a classic example of the systematic division imposed on people by apartheid. We have been invited by Edwina & Sheila to run creative workshops with different generations in Tiervlei, to make some artwork to help launch their centre in an old school building.

The following week, we go to the township of Lwandle, to visit the Migrant Labour Museum. This museum documents the migrant labour system and the hostels that started here in the 1950s, to house workers coming mostly from the Eastern Cape. The hostels permitted only employed men over 18 years of age, and their work meant that they would only go home for a few weeks per year. We are shown round by the curator, Lunga Smile. He is a fantastic guide, and he talks us through the displays, telling stories of overcrowding, divided families, and the dehumanising laws of the Apartheid system. We see some incredible photographs: David Goldblatt’s haunting images of workers queuing for the bus at 3am, to begin their 18 hour day; an image of a whole family occupying a bunk with another family on the bunk below them; a newspaper clipping from the 1980s showing a man proudly standing in his shack, smiling, accompanied by a derogatory article suggesting that the township bred disease. Lunga asked us to think carefully about how we represent Lwandle and it’s inhabitants in our own photographs.

The township that has developed around the old hostels now houses around 80,000 people, in converted hostels, houses and shacks. Conditions aren’t exactly luxurious, but there are no longer four families sharing one tiny room. Lunga takes us to see Hostel 33 – the one hostel that has been left in its original form, and we stand inside, trying to imagine how so many people lived together in this space. I am struck by what a luxury it is to have space and privacy. Mine and Katy’s concerns about having to share a room pale into insignificance.

Lunga asks each of us what ‘home’ means to us, and where it is. We discuss this for a while, thinking about the homes we grew up in, and the various places we call home now. He tells us about a book, ‘A Bed Called Home’ and ponders on whether the cramped bunks of the hostels were ever truly home for their occupants. For some people, Lwandle was never home, but always a temporary dwelling – a necessary but unwelcomed place. For others the hostels and then the township became home, and their children and grandchildren were born here. I think about the elderly people in Tiervlei, who will always remember the homes lost to them when they were forced to move. South Africa is scarred with memories of injustice, of forced ‘resettlement’ and appalling conditions for people of colour. But people in places like Lwandle and Tiervlei are proudly keeping their histories alive, not wanting the younger generations to forget how they came to be here, and the rights they have won through years of struggle.

Rebecca Beinart

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Holy Coke

Friday 29th January.

We go up to the University of Cape Town, where two generations of Beinarts have worked or studied, to visit the Kaplan Centre for Jewish studies. The campus is beautiful, up on the side of the mountain with Ivy-clad buildings and a panoramic view of the city and the sea. We are greeted by Milton Shain, a historian who remembers Granddad Ben and our Dad. He is very helpful and takes us down to the library where we look through books and documents relating to Jewish migration into S.A. We read an interview with Ziporah Beinart, who married Koppel Beinart, describing life in Malmesbury in the 1920s. We see extracts from a Yiddish cook-book and another book in Yiddish which contains some pictures of Rakishok (Rokiskis) – the Lithuanian town we believe our ancestors came from.

In the archives, I look at photos of Cape Town docks from the 1890s and 1900s, and try to get an idea of what Woolf, Gittel and their contemporaries might have seen on their first arrival. The librarian working there remembers our aunt Helen, from her student days. It sometimes feels like ‘Beinart’ is a magic word here – it allows us access into the South African Jewish community, and people are very friendly and willing to help.

In the evening, we have been invited for Friday night supper, Shabbat, at the home of another relative. Hilary Joffe is the Granddaughter of Chana Beinart, who was Woolf’s sister. The dinner is at her son, Ivor’s flat. Ivor is a Cantor at the local Shul, and officiates at weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. I find myself stumbling over the terminology connected to the Jewish faith – we have been bought up with none of this in our lives, and I feel ignorant about Jewish customs and beliefs. The family are very welcoming. Ivor’s sister Peta is also there, and Hilary’s mother, husband, cousin Cynthia and her husband. There is much talk before supper of who’s related to whom and how, of facial characteristics and pondering over the family tree. Then Grandmother lights the candles and we sit down at the table. I am a little nervous – I’m not sure exactly what will happen and how I should behave. Ivor fills up the silver cup with special kosher wine and says the Kiddush prayer, to which the others occasionally respond. He fills up small cups for each of us with the blessed wine. Then something very strange happens – he pops open a can of Coca-Cola and fills the holy silver cup with that, repeating the prayer to bless the brown fizzy liquid. He gives the holy coke to his grandmother, explaining that she doesn’t drink alcohol. I ask if that’s traditional and they laugh. Next, Hilary’s husband cuts the challah, the plaited bread, and sprinkles it with salt before passing us each a piece. Katy and I are fascinated by this – it seems our bread and salt obsession is still relevant to Jewish culture. After that, we are served a feast of soup, followed by fish and vegetables, and finally cake. Before we leave, this generous family invites us to their other daughter’s wedding. We say we’ll come – perhaps this will be the only Jewish wedding we’re ever invited to.

The following week we have lunch with Gail, another Beinart. Her father was Abe, Woolf’s youngest son, and she tells us the story of how he ran away to join the army when he was seventeen. As soon as the train pulled out of Malmesbury station and his strict father was out of sight, the young man threw his prayer shawl and cap out of the train window. But in the end he married a woman from an orthodox family, so he didn’t reject Jewish customs entirely. I am struck by the way that one generation holds tightly to their traditional culture, whilst their children reject it, and their grandchildren search for it. That seems to be a typical pattern in migratory families. I find myself confused as to whether I am trying to understand Judaism as a culture or a religion, and whether the two can be separated. But at least the centrality of abundant shared meals in our lives has remained.