Cape Town - When slaves were brought to the Cape, they were given new names by their owners, often after the months of the year. That’s why many Capetonians have surnames such as April or Augustus.
Brand activation company Geometry Global sought out elders in each of these families and interviewed them about their family heritage. Geometry produced a “Slave Calendar”, which features 12 Capetonians whose surnames – one for each of the calendar months – hark back to this practice. It was recently awarded a gold Loerie and will be exhibited at the Iziko Slave Lodge Museum.
In the lead-up to Heritage Day, the Cape Argus will be featuring each of the 12 interviewees. Here’s the ninth instalment in the series:
Meet Mr September
My surname doesn’t mean I’m still a slave, says Mark September
He carries a surname that has been handed down for generations since his forebears were enslaved, but Mark September said he feels truly free.
“My surname doesn’t mean that today I’m still a slave,” he said. “I strongly feel free to say what I want and do whatever I want to do within the parameters of the law.”
September said his understanding was that his slave ancestors were named after the month in which they were sold.
“Because of the slavery we basically, as coloureds, are here today, and I see myself as coming from that,” September said.
Being named after a calendar month is odd for him, but nothing to be embarrassed about.
“For me the surname is strange, but I cannot be embarrassed because it came from a slave origin,” he said. “Any calendar surname is uncommon because one would ask yourself where does it come from, how is it that you have that surname - and you will notice that it’s 99 percent non-whites.”
September says his surname has inspired him to be good towards other people, because to an extent he can understand the suffering of the past.
“I think you as a human being, coming from that background, should actually strive to make things better, to try where you can to help others, because you know exactly what the suffering was about,” he said.
September has never been able to trace his family history back because of difficult relationships on his father’s side.
“My father and his mother were brought up to believe that they were brother and sister,” he said. “I think he was already 50 years old when he discovered that his sister was actually his mother. He’s about 80 years old now, and up until today he doesn’t know who his father is.”
September’s knowledge of his family heritage ends there, and he has no desire to seek out information about his mystery grandfather.
“I wouldn’t want to go and find out; it could stir feelings within oneself to behave differently to people,” he said.
“We go to Grabouw often, to the farm. Sometimes people say I’m from the farm,” Augustus said laughing. “We don’t really have family here now, so we go to Grabouw.”
There was a deep divide between the September siblings and their paternal relatives because of economic circumstances.
“When I grew up, I totally ignored my father’s family side because there was this disparity. They had more than we did,” he said.
“We lived on the Cape Flats and they lived in a more affluent suburb, so there was already that discrimination between them and us.”
The class divide kept the relatives apart.
“Because of that, I kept to myself and the rest of us brothers and sisters kept to ourselves. We didn’t really bother about them and who they were because of those discrepancies.”
But today, September doesn’t feel as if the estrangement from his cousins has left a hole in his life or in his understanding of his heritage.
“Today I’m happy,” he said. “I have my parents and I have my own family that I’m taking care of. I share love with them now, and I make them feel good and I make them happy. That’s how I live today.”