15 April 2021: Growing up coloured in South Africa – an interview with Clinton Keet

‘The first time I heard the South African anthem was at funerals, and if the police heard you singing it they would fall on you.

‘Eleven years ago I sang the full South African anthem on South African soil for the first time. It was at a school soccer game in a Johannesburg school gym, and I felt immense pride. Now every South African knows the words.’

Clinton Keet, now a teacher at the very same school he first sang that anthem, says he cannot help smiling when he sees a sporting team representing South Africa and everyone in the stadium stands and sings the national anthem together.

Clinton Keet. (Photo: Simon Brown)

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Clinton started life in a divided Cape Town, living in a district set aside for non-white South Africans. Through hard study, hard work and the support of his family, he became a teacher, and then an international teacher working in countries as diverse as Vietnam, Italy and China before returning to his native country, now freed from apartheid.

‘I was born in District 6, about the ten minutes walk from the centre of Cape Town. I don’t remember a lot about it – we were forced out of the district when I was about five years old. I remember it was very urban, mainly concrete and tar, and the only grassy area was the fringe around the TB clinic across the road.

‘It was a busy area, so if my parents and grandmother were out working I was put in the care of our neighbour; if she was housecleaning I had to sit on a small spot on the front porch and not move. There was a local gangster on the street corner 30 metres away who made sure I wouldn’t wander.’

Gangsters were locals who belonged to territorial gangs and dealt mainly with illicit drugs and alcohol. They rarely troubled civilians, but were strict about who could cross into their territory.

‘Sometimes gangsters would use us kids to help make a stack of bricks they could use against other gangs crossing the line.’

Destroying homes in District 6 – ‘The regime didn’t like the fact that District 6 was a bit of a melting pot, what they called a “grey area” … ‘ (Photo: courtesy of Creative Commons, photographer unknown)

In 1970 the government forcibly moved Clinton and his family to Penlyn Estate, a district set aside for coloured people in an area called Cape Flats.

‘The apartheid regime didn’t like the fact that District 6 was a bit of a melting pot, what they called a “grey area”, where coloured, Indian and black South Africans mixed freely and made families together. Keeping the different groups apart made us easier to control.

‘On the day we ordered to leave, government workers came about midmorning and piled our stuff into the back of a truck with a tarpaulin over it. The rest of us piled into our uncle’s old Hillman and drove off as the neighbours watched.

‘Most of District 6 was emptied pretty quickly, but some people hung on to the outskirts; it took a long time to clear out the whole area.’

Clinton admits the name Penlyn Estate sounds wonderful, but when they arrived the streets were still all gravel.

‘In the months before we moved, my dad took me there every few weeks and we’d stop by an empty field and stand there for a bit. But slowly a house was built on the land, and all the plots nearby. It was like a giant Meccano set.’

Clinton recalls that after moving in he and other children used to play on the sites still going up, despite warnings from parents to stay away from them.

‘There were small brass rings on the light switch fittings I used to put on my fingers; sometimes they’d get stuck and I had to run to my grandmother to help me get it off. So of course she’d know I’d been playing where I wasn’t supposed to go.’

He also remembers the area was pretty wild at first. They were robbed a few times.

‘The estate bordered on a really dodgy area called Hanover Park, an area with high unemployment and rife with gangsters. It was another coloured area, but poorer. Much of the housing was what the regime called “sub-economic”: flats and apartments.

‘I was personally threatened a couple of times. Once when some friends and I were crossing the canal that ran through the middle of our estate on the way to football, with our soccer boots hanging around our necks by their laces, an older guy appeared and demanded money. We told him we didn’t have any so he told us to hand over our football boots. One of my friends, Bones – a small kid who never stood back from a fight, hit the guy with his boots instead.

‘Another time someone wanted a friend’s new tennis outfit. We threw rocks at him until he drew a knife and then we ran away.’

Clinton says the policing was not very good in coloured areas.

‘Just like today, really, it’s the wealthier areas that get the most patrols and the most police stations instead of the areas that really needed them.

‘But the dads at Penlyn Estate got together and arranged a duty roster to keep residents safe. They were factory workers and had grown up rough. They kept the estate safe from when residents returned from work and through the night until residents left for work the next day. They worked in three shifts over 12 hours. When someone was caught stealing they might be beaten up in the process of being apprehended. Then the police were called to take them away.

‘After a year Penlyn Estate was known for not taking any crap. Houses and cars were no longer broken into.’

Clinton loved growing up in Penlyn Estate.

Cape Flats, which includes Penlyn Estate. ‘ … the area was pretty wild at first.’ (Photo: courtesy of Creative Commons, photographer unknown)

‘I didn’t know any better. Under apartheid communities were separated from each other by 4-lane highways, railway lines, industrial estates and barbed wire.’

Penlyn Estate was a coloured area.

‘We had our own schools and clinics. Even the ambulance to hospital had to be one designated for coloureds; if there wasn’t one available you might have to wait for three or four hours.’

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Clinton remembers it wasn’t until he was about 13 years old that he became aware that things were different elsewhere.

‘Our next door neighbour was a student activist with a massive Afro. He was a well-known DJ, and known to the security police. One day he rushed into our house and asked my mum to cut his hair.

‘While his hair was being cut he asked me to rush next door and find the black bags filled with paper under his bed. “Dig a hole in my back yard and throw in the bags.”

‘I did as he asked, but looked at some of the papers. They were Roneo documents, banned pamphlets about the African National Congress in exile, for example. I became more aware about what it all meant after talking to my mum about it afterwards.

‘It was also about this time, when I was starting middle school, that people started burning tyres in the middle of the street, and we could hear shots in the distance. Police were always driving through the neighbourhood.’

Clinton says the locals burned tyres to attract the police so they could have an altercation.

‘People were getting a bit bolshie. They wanted to show they controlled their own lives in their own space. The actions weren’t organised or strategic as they later became in the 1980s when the plan was to help make the country ungovernable by stopping economic traffic. In the 1970s it was sporadic and unplanned.’

Clinton recalls the African National Congress later claiming they were there to give structure to the demonstrations, but in fact it was just sporadic action by locals.

He became more political in 1980, at the age of 15. ‘During the 1970s I was on the sideline, but what was happening all around me inculcated me with what needed to be done in the future.

‘I went to Harold Cressey High School, situated opposite Cape Town’s oldest prison and just up the street from the parliament. You had to pass an entrance exam to get into it; there was a long waiting list.’

One of his teachers was Mr Farrel. ‘He was a great person, very down to earth. He taught geography, English and social studies, and when he talked about the world he took you there with him.

‘He was held in high esteem as a man of great integrity. As well, he was a cricket umpire who umpired all of Cape Town’s top games.

‘He was one of those responsible for starting a teachers organisation. It wasn’t an official trade union – the regime kept strict control over the creation and running of “official” unions – but more of an intellectual organisation. Meetings were used to discuss the politics of the time. Many members ended up being barred as teachers and many belonged to the Unity Movement, which unfortunately never had the mass following of the African National Congress or Pan-African Congress. It did end up being in South Africa’s first open election in 1994 as the New Unity Movement.’

Clinton says his political wakening was due partly to his teachers, who often spoke about politics and society, and why it was structured the way it was.

‘It was so sad, but Mr Farrel ended up managing a restaurant.’

Clinton stresses his mother was important in his political awakening. ‘She was almost a Trotskyist and surreptitiously used to leave political pamphlets and writings on my desk. Over time I took on my mum’s political leanings.

‘She ran monthly meetings in the lounge room that were attended by prominent politicians and community leaders such as school principals; I would listen in while doing my homework. I gained a lot of political insight from what was said at those meetings.’

Clinton says he became more political in his last two years at school, boycotting classes and entering debates and discussions with other students from his school as well as others.

‘We’d talk about how to get things done despite obstacles such as principals collaborating with the regime or teachers preventing students from leaving classes to attend meetings.

‘The police would raid the school when there was any demonstration or boycott. They used tear gas and dogs because our school was in the city and they didn’t want trouble spilling out onto the streets. The police often reacted violently, and although they were often of mixed colour, it was white officers, usually speaking Afrikaans, on the megaphones delivering the ultimatum, threatening the use of tear gas or rubber bullets and even live rounds. As far as the apartheid regime was concerned it was open season on anyone in the way, students or teachers.’

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Clinton says he was not raised with a coloured identity.

‘I was raised just as Clinton, although I understood myself not to be white when I was in other communities. The apartheid regime did a great job of dividing and conquering non-white communities – just like Donald Trump did in the US when he was president. But a coloured identity is something that really only developed after 1994, to some extent filtering down from the earlier black empowerment movement. Some coloured people are still struggling with the idea of identity, still driving the bus, but “coloured” culture is probably the big driver today, expressed in everything from popular music to slogans on T-shirts.

‘There are serious divisions among non-whites in parts of South Africa, if not so much in Cape Town. For example, Penlyn Estate was right next to an Indian designated section called Rylands, an Indian district. We went to school, to church and played sport with Indian South Africans; the division was very porous.

‘But Cape Town was regarded as a preferred coloured employment area, and we were sometimes seen as Uncle Toms. This was aggravated by the apartheid regime’s creation of the Tricameral Parliament in the 1970s, which allowed political parties for white, coloured and Indian South Africans, but not for black South Africans. This is an example of the regime producing a government that excluded blacks and divided the coloured people between Indian and others.’

Clinton’s father, Reggie, was designated coloured. ‘I’m not certain what his ancestry was: some Javanese, Filipino … his great-grandfather was German.  There’s no paperwork to find out these things; births and deaths weren’t registered back then. I’ve seen a photograph of my great-grandfather, and it shows a tall, light-skinned man with a Schwarzenegger hairdo. His dad was so light-skinned he could get into a whites-only queue at a Cape Town fish shop by faking a British accent.’

He laughs when he remembers he once attempted pulling the same trick once. ‘I tried getting cold beer at a place in Knysna by faking a cockney accent. We got the cold beer, but I didn’t fool anyone.’

Reggie was a freehand cutter at a leather factory, specialising in exotic skins such as elephant and crocodile hide to make bags and other luggage.

‘But that job ended when he lost his cool with a young administrator straight from the parent company in Germany who was telling Reggie and others their productivity was too low. My dad asked for the ledger the administrator was quoting from and smacked him in the head with it, then walked out. After that he worked at a spray-painting company.’

Clinton’s mum, Rosie, was at least part-Khoisan.

‘It wasn’t until the 1990s that anyone celebrated their ancestry. Being Khoisan to some degree could be a shameful thing. Being called a “Bushman” was the equivalent of being called “nigger”.’

Besides being a teacher she supplemented the family income with hairdressing and needle work, making things like wedding dresses.’

When he was a child, Clinton didn’t feel that apartheid was particularly repressive.

‘The first time I was made to feel powerless I was about 14 years old. I was on a train to school when some white boys threw dirty water over me and my friends. One of those friends retaliated the next day by slapping one of the white boys across the side of the head with a T-square. When we got off the train we were accosted by one of the white passengers. It really caused us to think of ourselves as different, and was the first time where I was involved in an altercation where race was the issue.’

Clinton says he always moved in a coloured area and so felt cocooned. ‘There were subtle reminders of apartheid, like which beach I could go to, but I became more aware of the whole situation as I got older.’

Clinton remembers he became very serious about apartheid in high school. ‘I was a very serious young man. With the example set by others in what we called ‘The Struggle’  – family and friends – I felt the need to help overthrow apartheid, that had a role to play as well as a student organiser and activist.

‘Not all my friends in high school felt the same way and I sometimes felt disjointed from them. It wasn’t until later that I realised how much I’d missed out on, but a “normal” teenage life was very difficult because of my activism.’

By the mid-1980s the apartheid regime was under such great internal and external pressure they extended an olive branch by entering into discussions with the ANC.

Clinton went straight to university after school.

‘I got a bursary to the University of Cape Town to study geography and anthropology – Mr Farrell’s influence! – with the intent of becoming a teacher. I became interested in other subjects like environmental studies, but the bursary proved to be a two-edged sword: it paid for my university fees, but restricted what subjects I could do.

‘I didn’t realise how cornered the regime felt until one day while playing cards at  uni, some friends and I made up a political party called the South African Liberation Front to “heal the wounds of the people”. It was done as a kind of Monty Python joke – Salf was the name of a medical ointment at the time. But the next day someone who’d been at our table sprayed the name and the credo in the library elevator, and the police went ape, pulling people into “interviews”.’

University of Cape Town (Photo: courtesy of Creative Commons, photographer unknown)

Clinton learned good manners from his gran, Gussie, who came from a small agricultural town in the Karoo called Ladysmith to take up domestic work in Cape Town.

‘Sometimes I’d go with her to visit Ladysmith. It was a totally different world. No grass anywhere, just gravel. Everyone there played Rugby instead of soccer. As young kids do, I spent a lot of time looking for scorpions and snakes, and I still fondly remember waking up to the smell of bread freshly baked in a woodfired oven.

‘Gussie instilled in me a good work ethic, and taught me the importance of introspection, about thinking before you speak or act. She said people will know in the first minute they meet you by your manners. She often used my uncle as an example of someone with good manners; his nickname was Dennis the Manners.

‘Dennis will strike up a conversation with anyone. He emigrated to Australia and taught art in schools in Kiama, New South Wales. He also helped establish the Kiama Jazz and Blues Festival.

‘From my mum I learned to be serious about work and about politics, and the value of reading. In fact, one of our neighbours, Mrs Kaylor, used to throw the neighbourhood kids into the back of her old Ford Cortina station wagon every weekend and drove us to the library so we could get three new books out to read. Her little effort made a big difference to us.

‘I also got my love of hiking from my mother.

‘From my dad I learned to love sport. He was sternly protective, and I inherited some of that. I also got my love of music from him, especially jazz. I remember when we were still living in District 6, going inside the house when it got dark and the first thing I’d hear would be jazz music coming from the turntable in the loungeroom and finding my dad by the glowing ember at the end of his cigarette.’

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In 2021, Clinton says he feels he is South African, but hard done by. ‘The leadership has sold out by looking after themselves. There is a gulf between the wealthy and everybody else, something created post-apartheid. You can see it now during the current pandemic. We should have had better structures in place to better help those in poverty.

‘We were a country willing to stand up to lose its chains but is now being shackled again. No one’s willing to stand up and say ‘No!’ – this is not right. We allow it to happen. The faces of the new regime we recognise as coming from our community.’

Clinton thinks the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that followed majority rule might have prevented a civil war from happening.

‘There were forces at work who wanted to destabilise the government, to prove that majority rule could not work. But I believe the TRC stopped short of delivering real justice. Many members of the apartheid regime’s police and security police got away with murder and working well beyond the limits of the law.

‘A great deal was swept under the carpet by the TRC, and was proof to some that you could get away with a great deal and not be punished for it. Many of those in power now are as corrupt as those in power during apartheid. The TRC should have established a better precedent.’

Clinton thinks that South Africa needs a change in political will.

‘We need to step forward. The current pandemic, for example, has highlighted the fact that some in government are still trying to line their own pockets despite the suffering of the people.

‘If the pandemic doesn’t change things, I don’t know what will.’

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