SA’s tumultuous history told through the stories of nine women

Review: Annamia van den Heever

Moederland:  Nine daughters of South Africa, by Cato Pedder (John Murray Press)

To what extent is our present informed by the trauma of South Africa’s various pasts and its people’s very different histories – encompassing colonialism, slavery, racism, GBV and patriarchy?

Perhaps more important: what is our responsibility in creating this tumultuous present?

In this courageous book, which despite its title is in English, poet and former journalist Cato Pedder faces these questions head-on. The great-granddaughter of twice prime minister Jan Smuts explores the turbulent history of South Africa and her own family’s part in it.

Born in California, raised in Hampshire and still living in the UK, she is named Cato after her Afrikaans grandmother. She writes that in doing so, her parents ensured that she was “forever connected to a country 6 000 miles from home, to a culture freighted with shame”.

Pedder reminds us that Smuts was so revered by the British that they erected a statue of him in Parliament Square, London. He was the only person to have signed the peace treaties after both world wars, was central to the creation of the League of Nations and drafted the
preamble to the UN charter.

But he was also a white supremacist who was involved in making
laws that paved the way to apartheid. She struggles with her great-grandfather tying her “to the white male power that continues to
saturate South Africa and further afield”.

In her discomfort, Pedder wonders about women’s stories “not only of our triumphs, but of our crimes, our complicity”.

She asks: “How would it be, I think, if I could excavate the life stories of these women all the way back to the beginning, if I could find their stories to try to understand how we got here. How I got here?”

Through meticulous research Pedder uncovers the stories of nine women in her family tree from 1652 when the Dutch landed at the Cape and proceeded to subjugate the Khoikhoi residents and the slaves they brought with them from the East Indies. With these stories Pedder takes us on a journey through South Africa’s history.

The stories start with those of Krotoa/Eva, niece of a Khoi leader who becomes a translator for the Dutch; entrepreneurial slave Angela van Bengale; and German immigrant Elsje Cloete who arrived aged three, married at 13 and had a child at 15.

We learn about Anna Siek who “through the pattern of her life” at the Vergelegen estate, shapes 18th century Cape society.

Pedder’s narrative moves through the arrival of the Huguenots, the great trek of settlers into the interior, Blood River, the atrocities and suffering of the Anglo-Boer war, the genesis of apartheid and the horror of its implementation.

It covers the stories of farmer Margaretha Retief who resists the abolition of slavery and Anna Retief who loads up an ox wagon and joins the trek to Natal.  The book movingly tells of Isie Krige, Smuts’s wife, who for most of her life remained in the background of his illustrious international career and who emerged as the caring “Ouma of the nation” during World War II.

While studying at Cambridge, Pedder’s grandmother, Cato, meets and later marries Bancroft Clark of the Quaker Clarks shoe family. Her daughter, Petronella Clark, is the ninth woman of the title.  Pedder tells of her move to Africa and eventual marriage across the colour line.

Pedder’s beautifully written exploration of the past is based on thorough research of primary sources, academic articles, family archives and interviews. Where she was unable to find information about individual women’s lives she used contemporary memoir and history to flesh out scenes.  Her own thoughts, experiences and memories enliven the narrative.

Says Pedder:  “Moederland took me 10 years to write, but it took nine women a lifetime to live. This is my tribute to them and an acknowledgement that this is much their book as much as it is mine. This is the fruit of the family tree. None of us are perfect. We all try. We all fail. And the story is not yet over.”

  • Moederland is one of Exclusive Books’s top reads for June.


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