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Sylvia Vollenhoven

Growing up in the ’50s, award-winning journalist, filmmaker and writer Sylvia Vollenhoven at first was unaware of herself as a coloured person. But in the ’70s, she embraced black consciousness and recently she’s been delving into her Khoisan heritage and identity, producing a book, a documentary and a dance/drama about it. By Andrea Vinassa

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Some of my best memories are of listening to my grandmother’s stories – she was a great storyteller. She spoke a deep, rural Afrikaans. She came from Swellendam, populated historically by a mixture of indigenous people and slaves from all backgrounds who had fled Cape Town. By the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, most people living there were of mixed heritage – black, white and Khoisan.

Writing about my early childhood now has been delightful. After 20 years in Johannesburg and a number of years in West Africa, I am living in Plumstead, where I lived as a pre-schooler. I am so happy to be within a few blocks of many of the places I remember from my childhood. Wynberg was a genteel place in those days. My mum was not married at the time and I grew up with my grandmother, who was a domestic worker for a Dutch family.


One of my formative memories is an incident at the park a short walk down the road. My grandmother and I would go there with the white children of the family and the nanny from next door. We had a separate entrance in the yard, but I identified with the white kids. I didn’t think I was different. One day a group of white children started shouting at us to leave the park. That is when I started to become aware of the differences.

The incident was upsetting, but only later did it sink in that I did not belong; their daughter Alma went to school and I assumed I would go to school with her. I was looking forward to wearing the same green ribbons in my hair. I only realised I belonged to another world when we moved to the townships so I could go to school.

Looking back now, I would comfort that little girl by saying: “The white school with the green ribbons cannot give you the magical experiences you will have at township schools – experiences that will help you cope and thrive much better than those children.”

My family were extremely religious, fundamentalist Seventh Day Adventists. I was really embarrassed walking down the road to church on a Saturday wearing a hat. I wished I was Catholic so I could just wear a mantilla and put it in my handbag. We were forbidden from going to movies, from dancing, eating meat and drinking coffee. It taught me the joy of breaking the rules. Oh, bacon, crayfish and prawns taste so lovely when they are forbidden!

As a teenager I gravitated towards things I could not do. I chose friends who were worldly and exciting, and I became enamoured with drinking and parties. Journalism was the perfect job for me. Before I went to the Argus Cadet Journalism School, I worked at a small black newspaper where drinking was the passport to acceptance. If you didn’t drink, you didn’t fit in.

If only I could reassure that disconnected young woman I was then that the true story of who I am and where I come from, not alcohol, would one day soothe my soul. I got my wake-up call only in the ’90s when working at the SABC. The environment was so abusive and traumatising that if you added drink, you were going to die. I looked at my colleagues and I did not want to end up that way – cynical, and not fulfilling the job of a public broadcaster. I turned my life around, delving deeper into myself.

Sylvia interviewing Nelson Mandela in Sweden during his first overseas trip in 1990

Fast forward to me experiencing a health crisis that had me bedridden for several years. While holed up in a friend’s cottage in Betty’s Bay in 2011, I took some boxes out of storage and found I had collected several books about a 19th century visionary. These were books based on the work of a German philologist, Dr Wilhelm Bleek, and his researcher, Lucy Lloyd. In the late 1800s they documented the lives of the indigenous peoples from the Northern Cape, mostly the /Xam. Their aim was to record dying languages. Their main informant and teacher was a storyteller, visionary, poet, hunter and shaman called //Kabbo, nicknamed Jantjie Tooren by the colonials.

Digging into the archive was the trigger that led me to my own story. The reason I started writing was because I was so ill, I could not work. After spending a fortune on conventional medicine I went to see a sangoma, who said I was ill because my ancestors were trying to get my attention. Only after I went to meet the sangoma did I realise that I had dreamt of the exact location of his house.

Taking notes during a tense situation in the 1980s – Archbishop Desmond Tutu was trying to calm down the crowds during an incident in Cape Town’s townships

I started working with herbs and rituals and slowly recovered my health. I was told to simply start writing. This was a request, a “calling”, from my ancestors. That is how I came full circle to //Kabbo. I was told that he was standing over me and that he wanted me to write my personal story, the story of my ancestors, which is also the story of the encounters of the Khoisan with colonialism. My research led me to the archive compiled by Bleek and Lloyd with the help of //Kabbo and the other /Xam informants.

Researching //Kabbo’s story has filled in the missing pieces in my own life. Finally I can reach out to the child in me and show her where she belongs. During the day my grandmother was a strait-laced Seventh Day Adventist, but late at night she would tell me stories of the ancestors. She constantly conversed with the spiritual realm. I grew up being comfortable with things that could not be seen. She was fond of listening to my favourite dream in which I floated down Ottery Road, Wynberg, and met up with a group of glowing pink energies – she would say, “These are the angels that look after us”.

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