The Summerton story – a story of love, pain and a proud part of my Heritage
I come from a heritage of storytellers, people who used every opportunity to teach, to admonish, to inspire, to preach, to express emotions and to tell history through story telling. These stories, passed from generation to generation, gave us an identity, a sense of belonging. These stories were about who we are, where we come from and where we should be going.
I have carried on this tradition and told my children of the story of my father’s people, the Malis. But my late father had always taught me that my family and heritage includes, in equal measure, his side and my mother’s side of the family. It is time for me to tell the remarkable story of the Summerton family and convey its lessons to my children. I hope those who read this story, my children included, will find a deeper meaning in their own living heritage beyond Heritage Day.
Love conquers divisions
My Dear Children
Part of my heritage is a beautiful love story – a story that way transcends the notion of racial difference – and even the notion of racial tolerance. One that shows that determined people who love one another could break the bonds of the cultures of their time to create their own culture – a culture of devotion, respect, dignity and determination.
My great-grandfather – your great-great-grandfather – John Godfrey (JG) Summerton, was one of six children born to Thomas Summerton and his wife, Sarah, who were some of the first settlers in Hogsback, near Alice in the Eastern Cape.
JG met the love of his life in unusual circumstances. He first saw Harriet (Sareti) Matye, a beautiful young Xhosa maiden, carrying a stone on her back. Fascinated by her personality, beauty, rural naivety and elegance, he struck up a conversation with her and vowed to get her a real doll. This he did, later commenting to his grandchildren on how her eyes shone when she saw that doll.
Despite seemingly insurmountable differences in culture, socialisation, race and level of sophistication, their love blossomed and they finally decided to get married in Hogsback in what must be one of the first registered interracial marriages in South Africa. Can you imagine the scandal that unleashed? Maybe, as city kids, and as children growing up in a democracy, you can’t really, but take it from me – in a small community, it must have been akin to detonating an atom bomb! This was unheard of a marriage between an Englishman from a prominent settler family to a Xhosa woman from Tyume village!
Despite the permanently raised eyebrows and downright nastiness their marriage unleashed, they settled on a farm in the area called Siberia. JG was shunned by his family and ostracised by his community because of his love for Harriet.
But that was not the end of it all. Albert Richard Summerton (AR), younger brother to JG visited JG at his farm. There he met and fell in love with Violet (Aunt Tu) Matye, Harriet’s sister. They got married and settled on Cherry Orchard, the original family farm in Hogsback. Two tall handsome young English settler farmers had married two beautiful and elegant Xhosa women in the early 1900’s. Ours is a heritage of a love that went beyond the colonial societal boundaries towards a common humanity.
Love endures through the hatred and prejudice
These two couples founded a remarkable Summerton dynasty. Which is not to say they had it easy. Far from it! These four lovebirds faced strong opposition and people gave them and their children a very hard time. Both JG and AR were shunned by many of the people they grew up with.
It may seem hard to understand, but people reacted with disgust to these four people’s honourable and loving decision to build a life with the ones they adored. And as the laws became ever more harsher and discriminatory in South Africa, things got even harder.
This was brought home to me at a great event in December 2010, when our extended family gathered to celebrate the 100th birthday of my great-aunt Ida Summerton, the first born child and only daughter of JG and Harriet’s eight children.
When the local newspaper, The Daily Dispatch interviewed Ida just before this big celebration, she spoke about the hardships of those times as they tried to live a normal life on the farms, “We played with other children all the time, but knew to run away and hide when ‘they’ came around. Even our mothers had to hide, because living with white men was ‘wrong’.”
She also said the memories of sometimes opting to stay indoors rather than going out to play still haunt her.“ It was frightening, not knowing what they would do to us or our mothers, but it made us more cautious, more aware of who we were and where we lived.
“As coloured children, we developed strength and the determination to be part of the society we lived in, and because of this we thrived and became responsible people.”
Ours is a heritage of resilience, tenacity, firmness in resolve and a remarkable quiet dignity in facing any adversity
We are Africans
As the repression and harassment intensified, the family decided that some members of the family should leave South Africa to settle in the newly independent Zambia in 1964. Two of AR and Violet’s ’s sons, Alfred and Nelson Summerton, and the youngest of JG and Harriet’s children, Albert Summerton and their families made the trip to Zambia.
The conditions in Zambia were tough for a displaced family living in a foreign land. The experience, however, brought them closer as a family. They also built strong bonds with people in Zambia. The life of Nelson and Alfred is chronicled in the book, “From fragmentation to wholeness: the Black family under siege” by Keith Appollis. An extract from the book reveals the emotions of Alfred Summerton as he returned back to South Africa, “Upon visiting the site of his former farm in Stutterheim, Alfred found the land vacant with only ruins, and the walls of the homestead he built himself years ago. Inquiry revealed that no one had farmed there since his departure. Why, then, was he forced to move? He could have made it right there at home. Instead, he was a dispossessed farmer, returning home to only memories and stories to tell his grandchildren”
The book concludes with this observation, “The stories he tells his grandchildren bespeak love of family, and respect for the elders, a love for the soil and farming, and insights into the injustices perpetuated against the Blacks of Azania”
Ours is a heritage of dispossession, of the love of the land and being part of the African continent and being Africans in our identity.
Love for education
My Aunt Ida was a family icon, not only because she was the oldest child of JG and Harriet, but also because she has had the most profound impact and influence on the whole family. She instilled in all of us the love for education, advocated excellence in education, and lived a life of purpose and meaning for a remarkable 102 years.
She made her mark, still jumping around teaching Phys Ed at the age of 75, when she was forced to retire from teaching. It was she who gave many of the children in the Summerton family and the Hogsback community the chance to acquire an education. She was a mother to all Summerton family children and was undoubtedly the family matriarch. She remained intellectually bright and interested in current affairs despite her physical frailty, doing a newspaper interview at the age of 100.
Ours is a heritage of the value of a good education, firm principles and strong values of faith, peace and family unity.
The second child of JG and Harriet is my grandfather, Charles Fanele Summerton, born on 1 January 1912. He married my grandmother, Lydia Linda Qona from Seymour. Your great-granddad Charles worked in Stutterheim for years before retiring in Queenstown. He died on 8 January 2000 and Granny Lydia died on 9 May 1999.
My grandmother was the leader of our family. She not only took care of her immediate family, but also was a sounding board, an advisor, a counsellor, a decision maker and the controller of finances for the whole family, from JG and Harriett, to my grandfather, his brothers, their families, and their children and grandchildren.
My mum, your beloved Gogo, and your mum, Sva have followed the same path. They are the firm, solid and immovable rocks upon which my father and myself have built our families.
I’ve written before in my “Conversations with Lincoln” on how I relate to your mother, I learnt a lot about this from observing my father and my grandfather:
“In my career, my family life, my marriage and my role in society, I have truly benefited from the wise counsel, swift reprimand, stern warning, words of support and new ideas from my wife, Sva. Whenever she is in the limelight, I’ve learnt to be in the background; when she speaks, I’ve learnt to be silent and to listen; whenever she is down and frustrated I’ve learnt to be supportive; and whenever she has dreams or ambitions I’ve learnt to share in those dreams. Whenever she has felt wronged, I’ve learnt to apologize and make up. Whenever she gets upset…I’ve learnt to disappear…”
I hope you my daughters will be as strong, independent and assertive in your lives and that my son will treat women with respect and allow women to lead him to be a better man for his family and community.
Ours is a heritage of strong, independent women who lead our families.
Love’s results last
In the 1960s, Hogsback was zoned as an all-white area and the Summerton family, now classified as coloured, was forced to sell up and leave, or to sublet the farms to white farmers as they could not own the farms following the death of JG (1966) and AR (1965). This was the most painful time for our family, being forced off their beloved land because of unjust laws.
It comforts and inspires me to know that those four brave love birds JG and Harriet, Albert and Violet – conquered all that was stacked against them to stay in love with one another and devotedly married until death did them part. The final test of their love and commitment to one another was the tremendous amount of pressure exerted on AR and JG to either divorce their Black wives, or abandon their families in order to retain their “white” status and thus keep all their farms and properties under the notorious Group Areas Act. Their quiet and dignified stance was giving testimony to their fundamental belief that, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder”
It does my heart good to visit their graves in Hogsback. Their graves are a monument to the strength and character to true love, to the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and to the right of anyone to love whoever they please without class, race, culture and sexual orientation as restrictions. In that same grave yard at the original family farm, Cherry Orchard, lies not only JG and Harriet, Albert and Violet, but those of their children and grandchildren –a family ahead of its time, who claimed and won the right to love and live with their loved ones, forever in little piece of their own paradise on earth.
An unfinished story
Despite the sadness of having lost our family land, the heritage of my family remains one of love and tolerance for one another’s differences, one of quiet endurance, dignity and determination. I saw this in the eyes of my beloved Mum, your Gran, and her twin brother, when I took them to visit the family farm they last saw 30 years ago. Although we all had great memories of the times at the farm, and the pain when we had to leave, there was a dignity and strength in how we spent the day sharing stories and memories of those wonderful days spent on that farm.
The story is not finished as there are outstanding land claims by the Summerton families because of actions taken under the Group Areas act on the death of JG and AR Summerton. Beyond the land claims, more people need to hear the story of the Summertons of Hogsback as told by those living in Alice, Hogsback and the Tyume village.
Passing the baton
So, my children, as I observe Heritage Day with you, I feel strongly called to honour and preserve our heritage by sharing this important story of our past with you. I also hope that, when I share stories and lessons like this one with you, you look at me and see the very things I am trying to impart to you, expressed in my way of life, my relationships and my decisions, day by day.
Just as I am inspired to emulate my dignified, loving and determined ancestors, both on the Summerton side and on the Mali side, I hope you will feel that I am worthy of emulation when you are passing the baton to your children.
To sum up, these are the lessons and values I have gleaned from the lives and teachings of our elders:
- People are created in God’s image, any discrimination on the basis of race, gender, class, sexual orientation or ethnicity is wrong. It only leads to suffering and conflict.
- To know a people, is to know their cultures, their religions, their traditions and their perspectives. That is why I encourage you to build relationships and links beyond your natural community. It’s a great way to grow and broaden your knowledge.
- An unequal society, where fewer people rather than most people are prosperous, is not sustainable. That is why I hope each of you will play your part in improving society. I also hope you will never define yourselves in terms of material riches and will always treat everyone with respect and afford them dignity, no matter what their station in life.
- It is vital to understand, appreciate and know your history, culture and language. Nonetheless, pride in your own culture, language and heritage should never prompt you to undermine or denigrate the culture, language and heritage of anyone else. Instead, take care to be sensitive and accommodate the rights of others.
- If you are involved in a dispute, no matter how heated, or a disagreement, no matter how fundamental, you should never, ever let it degenerate into racial, ethnic, sexist, homophobic or xenophobic slurs – and you should never try to solve it with violence.
- You must always embrace fellow Africans who come to our country as brothers, sisters and fellow travellers on the road towards prosperity.
- Our history is full of pain and injustice, it must serve as a source of knowledge and enlightenment and not a lightning rod for revenge, hatred and bitterness.
A future South Africa
I am inspired by the higher ideal of a fair, equitable, peaceful and democratic non-racial society in South Africa in which you, my children, will grow and prosper.
I have previously outlined my views in a previous article about how we can reach that goal:
“Bound together by a common destiny, glued to one another by a common history and marching in step towards the next 20 years, we must seek a shared prosperity.
As we face the next 20 years, let us regain the great promise we held for the world, let us reclaim the status we had among the nations of the world; let us create a nation that all of us can be proud of. May each one of us find their color in our rainbow, may more of our people find a place at our prosperity table and may all our people see themselves in the picture of the future we are creating.
Our country’s beauty will be enhanced when we share it; its riches will be preserved if more benefit from them and our flag will fly higher when more pay allegiance to it.
South Africa belongs to all who live in it, let us not exclude anyone; let us not leave anyone behind; let us make everyone feel a sense of belonging, pride, love and loyalty.”
I still stand by every one of these words.
For you, I believe that knowing your history and embracing your heritage of love across barriers, places an enormous responsibility on your young shoulders. I hope and pray that you will play your part in making my ideal a reality, by promoting national unity and doing your best to ensure that South Africa and Africa prosper for the good of the majority of their people.
With much love
Why share this?
By now, my patient readers, you may well be wondering why I felt the need to share this story beyond its originally intended audience. This is why:
My unique heritage is something I have learned from and something I honour. I am proud to be the person I am, and the diverse people who united to bequeath me this unique heritage formed a large part of that person.
And what is my heritage, in essence?
My heritage is about people who reached out beyond their community. It is about holding firm to your principles despite adversity. It is a heritage of dignity, integrity, hard work, selflessness, humility, service and honesty. It is about caring for your family and for people beyond that beloved circle in a real and practical way. It is a heritage of promoting peace and stability among South Africans and Africans in general.
I hope that on, Heritage Day, we can all echo, with full understanding, the sentiments of former President Thabo Mbeki, no matter who we number among our ancestors:
“I am an African…I am formed of the migrants who left Europe to find a new home on our native land. Whatever their own actions, they remain still, part of me.
“I am the grandchild of the warrior men and women that Hintsa and Sekhukhune led, the patriots that Cetshwayo and Mphephu took to battle, the soldiers of Moshoeshoe and Ngungunyane, taught never to dishonour the cause of freedom.
“Being part of all these people and in the knowledge that none dare contest the assertion, I shall claim that – I am an African.”
Let us use this Heritage Day to commit ourselves to a living heritage of cultural diversity, religious tolerance and commitment to avoiding acts, words and behaviours that hurt, injure and divide. Doing this every day will build an unmatchable living heritage. I am proudly African…
Happy Heritage Day!!!