A life’s work to heal centuries of grave injustice

In the final article in a four-part series on gender-based violence and grassroots activism, Lucelle Campbell discusses addressing the intergenerational trauma that persists in her community.

Lucelle Campbell, 63, confronts the violence of colonisation through projects in which she can use her expertise and insight as a museum and heritage educator, activist and indigenous knowledge practitioner. 

Campbell is a proud !Xam woman who describes herself as a descendant of “the people who were here in the beginning” and later enslaved. She is passionate about the healing of women affected by the intergenerational trauma caused by colonisation, the genocide of the Cape’s first people, and the violence of apartheid and forced removals.

This trauma manifests today in the Cape Flats, where she lives, in drug addiction, gender-based violence and gangsterism. The “dop system” colonists used from the 1600s until well past the advent of democracy in 1994, whereby farm workers were partly paid with tots of mostly cheap wine, shows up in today’s statistics of deaths from alcohol and domestic violence, she says.

16 January 2022: Lucelle Campbell is an indigenous knowledge practitioner and her garden is a treasure chest of local medicinal plants.

“The people who were here in the beginning have never recovered from the genocide. We have never recovered from slavery and from what was done to us after the so-called emancipation of slaves in 1834,” says Campbell. Cape slaves were never compensated after being “freed” in 1834, and without any property or funds many were forced to continue working for their former enslavers as poorly paid labourers.

“Our trauma comes from when we were hunted down like animals, from when we were measured. Indigenous women were the first to feel colonialism, forced to become concubines to colonisers. Our ancestors’ human remains are still in museums as specimens. Therapists don’t speak to intergenerational trauma. For us to heal, the stories must come out into the open,” she says.

Campbell is a strong advocate of reparations for the descendants of colonialism’s victims. But when she talks about intergenerational trauma, she gets strong resistance in some quarters and is told to forgive and forget. This happened to her last year at Spier, an upmarket vineyard built on land “appropriated with brute force” from the Khoe in the 17th century, where she was invited to give a seminar on indigenous knowledge and slavery in the Cape.

Breaking the silence 

In trying to silence her, the stories of many Cape Flats women are also disregarded. That is why she feels it’s important for her to speak up. Campbell was sexually abused as a young child during a time when her family was being forcibly removed and says she has met many similarly abused women.

“It is not easy to tell your story, but mine has become live because many other women sit with the same story. The only reason I am coming out is because I know who I am. I blamed myself and my parents, but now I know it is not my fault. I can still be here and tell the story and know that my story is continuing,” she says.

Part of the reason Cape Town’s descendants of the first people blame themselves for the intergenerational trauma is because the city misinterprets their history, she says. Cape Town is full of monuments to the architects of colonialism and apartheid, and they have never been reinterpreted to clarify that they are monuments to racist perpetrators of terrible crimes against the area’s first inhabitants. 

16 January 2022: Herbs drying in Lucelle Campbell’s home.

As the founder of Transcending History Tours, which hosts walking tours to cultural slave heritage sites and discusses the real-life stories of slaves in the Cape between the 16th and 18th centuries, Campbell has always believed that these monuments must be taken down.

“Their stance and their poses are so invasive. The Castle of Good Hope, too, is a very manly structure, stretching in all directions. On the tours, I speak about the castle with contempt as a prison where indigenous people were tortured. Slaves were incarcerated there and hung, but that place is not interpreted as a place of execution and so the memory is being erased.

“The crazy thing is that white people revere the castle as their architecture,” says Campbell, noting the example of the cannons on Signal Hill that have been fired every day at noon since 1806, a dreadful colonial period. 

The Cape Town Tourism website describes the noon gun as the “one constant in Cape Town’s colourful and ever-changing history, with the tradition surviving colonial occupations, wars, and apartheid”. But Campbell views the cannons as a symbol of the continuing whiteness of the city and “as penises – highly hierarchical and a highly militarised reflection of how whites put Cape Town together”.

16 January 2022: Granadilla, broad beans and kruidjie-roer-my-nie seeds from Lucelle Campbell’s garden.

Women as warriors 

In trying to heal the memories of colonial violence against women, she is preoccupied with promoting what she calls “a warrior-like woman”. As she puts it: “A woman who is going to say, ‘fuck you’. A woman who is going to say, ‘I don’t like what you are doing and I am moving forward.’”

For Campbell, it is pivotal for the descendants of the first people, particularly women, to internalise the anti-colonial Nama sayings “ha da ge a (we are still here)” and “sa tama xue hoa ets ni huga llkhaellna ti l xui ao sao (you must bring back everything which is not yours)”.

As such, she does not support some first people’s movements that are hierarchical, homophobic, xenophobic and anti-Black. “We are not in that politic. That is exactly not who we are. The racism and xenophobia comes from the colony, it doesn’t come from us,” she says.

After many years of working in trade unions and for Iziko Museums, Campbell and her wife, Melissa Britz, founded Oppie Yaart (on the yard). It is an indigenous medicinal plant and seed project they run in their backyard in Elsies River in the Cape Flats.

16 January 2022: Lucelle Campbell smells wilde als, otherwise known as African wormwood or Artemisia afra, which is commonly used for coughs and colds.

Britz is a writer and also a soil health advocate. Soil health is essential in the Cape Flats, which was established on infertile sand by the apartheid government in the 1960s as a dumping ground for people it forcibly removed from District Six, Claremont, Rondebosch, Mowbray and other central Cape Town suburbs that were seized for whites only.

Along with two friends, the pair develop organic compost, which they give away to anyone wanting to start their own garden. In their own mini food forest, Britz and Campbell grow herbs such as wild rosemary, wild dagga, sage, borage, mint, acacia (for its bark), wild geranium and kruidjie-roer-my-nie, along with celery, spinach, kale, granadilla, tomatoes, potatoes, peas, guava, figs and spekboom.

Since they started the project, they have worked with the Triangle Project, the District Six Museum Huiskombuis project, which highlights the traditional recipes used by the 60 000 District Six residents before their forced removal in the 1970s, and a local Elsies River recycling project called Recycle First. 

16 January 2022: Lucelle Campbell sits at her laptop where she works on virtual tours now that Covid-19 has disrupted the Cape Town heritage walking tours she normally does.

They view their garden as the first step in a process to turn the impoverished Cape Flats into a place of life and renewal. “There is a huge drug situation in Cape Town. We wake up in the morning with gunshots going off, so we are very concerned. You need a radical approach to change this and we reject Western approaches,” Campbell says.

The activists now plan to take over empty corners of marginal land in Elsies River and plant more communal gardens involving and benefiting the whole community. “The healing comes when you put your finger on that sore, when you acknowledge that intergenerational trauma is happening. We are going to continue spreading the love, the green, the knowledge, and say, we are still here,” says Campbell.

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