Recognising our heritage

By Craig Nudelman

2023 is a big year in Australian politics everyone is speaking about the Voice

If you don’t know what the Voice is, that’s understandable; not many people understand what it is in Australia; and why should you care about something that’s thousands of kilometres away when you have your own issues?

A referendum will be held later this year (between October and December) which will speak to an alteration to Australia’s constitution, creating a ‘voice’ for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. The grouping will represent indigenous Australians in parliament and will consult the federal government on indigenous affairs. If I were a citizen of Australia I would definitely support the Voice – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders should be able to represent themselves and hold the Australian government accountable for centuries of marginalisation. 

I’ve chosen to write about the Voice this month because I believe we should have something similar for the indigenous people of South Africa. The Khoi and San people in South Africa have been subjected to violence, dispossession, and lack of recognition by the ANC-led government over the past 30 years. In fact, in post-apartheid South Africa, the Khoisan (an umbrella term for the San, Griqua, Khoi, Nama, and Korana peoples) have continued to be marginalised, their languages not being recognised in the Constitution (where 12 others have been). Since Khoisan were classified as Coloured in apartheid South Africa, they have not benefited from affirmative action and other forms of social empowerment in the ‘new’ South Africa. Besides the cursory platitude – the South African coat of arms has the /Xam people’s language as its motto: ! ke e: /xarra //ke, which means ‘Diverse people unite’ – Khoisan protests about recognition of their status as the first nation people of South Africa have been ignored. They have been protesting at the Union Buildings for the past five years.

Their demands are not difficult for the South African government to concede and accept. They have four demands:

1. To recognise the KhoiSan people as the First Nation of South Africa

2. To recognise the language of the KhoiSan as official

3. To fight for their land rights as aboriginal people

4. For the word ‘Coloured’ to be removed from government documents and for them to be referred to as Aboriginal People.

Those of us who belong to the global Jewish community have an opportunity to look at this issue through our lens as Jews. After all, we were also an unrecognised people, our culture, language, and heritage either ignored or persecuted. We too were a landless diasporic nation until the establishment of Israel. We too are subjected to discrimination; antisemitism has been acknowledged as racism, but it is still rife, often in the guise of anti-Zionism. We should see it as our duty to fight for the rights of those whose struggles mirror those in Jewish history.

When I was at the Cape SAJBD I went to many interfaith events. One of the participants was KhoiSan activist, Zebada Railoun January, who always welcomed us to Country: the traditional and sacred land of her ancestors that we walked on. Her welcome was the following, “I honour, I respect, the diversity I see today, so no matter what your religion, your heritage, your spirituality, your culture, your identity, your gender orientation, we are all connected to this land… to sacred Khoi land, the true original custodians of this land which we have the privilege of gathering on today.”

This is similar to what Australians say when they are at events, where they acknowledge the land of the traditional custodians, and their elders, past and present. Gabi says it at the beginning of her lectures and tutorials. When I spoke to another representative of the KhoiSan last December, Zelda Ann Hintsa, at an interfaith event, I told her about Australia’s acknowledgement of country and asked if she would interpret it as purely symbolic or a true act of recognition. She said she would appreciate it immensely.

We should educate ourselves about the indigenous peoples of South Africa and recognise that they were the country’s first inhabitants. The Dutch took their land and basically annihilated them, infecting them with smallpox. The survivors then became slaves and migrated to the Northern Cape, away from their beloved and sacred mountain, Hoerikwaggo, what we call Table Mountain today.

Recognition and acknowledgement are the first steps in a long walk to acceptance in South African society. We, as Jews, know what it feels like to be a lost people. Your interest in the cause of the KhoiSan can be to the benefit of South Africa as a whole.

A former Capetonian, Craig Nudelman is now based in Sydney, where he has settled into Australian life with his wife Gabi, and two daughters, Jessica and Livi. He works for the Jewish Communal Appeal and enjoys singing as a member of Sydney’s Central Synagogue choir and the Sydney Philharmonia Choir. The Cape Jewish Chronicle is privileged to continue to receive regular articles written by Craig.

• Published in the August 2023 issue – Click here to start reading.

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