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A Ghost Ship That tells a tale of misery

South Africa’s Cape was a player in the transatlantic slave trade, which saw 12 million Africans transported to the Americas. The discovery of a shipwreck is bringing this shameful history back to life.

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The São José-Paquete de Africa had been at sea for over three weeks when, just off Cape Town’s treacherous coastline, it was overcome by a bellowing storm. As gusty winds yanked at its sails, storey-high waves pushed the vessel closer to shore.

Captain Manuel João from Portugal refused to give in, after all was just a few sea miles away from Table Bay. The plan was to anchor there, stock up on food, water and other supplies, and sail on to Brazil to offload his precious cargo: 500 men, women and children from southeast Africa, packed like sardines in the dank belly of his ship. After delivering his load, João would return to Mozambique for a fresh shipment.

Mother Nature decided otherwise. On December 27, 1794, the São José smashed against razor-sharp rocks, 100 meters off present-day Clifton, an affluent suburb of Cape Town. The vessel disintegrated into matchwood and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic – taking 212 slaves with it. Those who survived were captured and sold into bondage in the Cape, possibly to recoup the damages.

The São José was soon to be forgotten, until sports divers stumbled upon her remains in the 1980s – after which the ship ended up in the archives as the Van Schuylenberg. This Dutch merchant vessel had gone down off the Cape coast in the 1750s.

In 2011, South African marine archaeologist, Jaco Boshoff, came across an account by João, in which he described how the ship had left Lisbon on April 27, 1794, to purchase slaves from Mozambique. On the 24th day of the voyage to Table Bay, for an interim supply stop before crossing the Atlantic, the ship was overcome by bad weather and sank.

More information has since emerged from the archives in Portugal and Mozambique, as well as the bottom of the Atlantic, which suggested that the wreck off Clifton was everything except a Dutch merchant vessel. So, in 2014, the partners of the Slave Wrecks Projects – which includes Iziko Museums of South Africa, the South African Heritage Resources Agency, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC – began unearthing what was left of the wreckage.

“We found iron ballast blocks, which were often used to stabilize slave ships. Human cargo tends to move around and is therefore more unstable than dead weight, hence the blocks,” says Paul Tichmann, curator of the Iziko Slave Lodge, a museum in Cape Town.

He adds that Portuguese archival documents confirmed that the São José had loaded iron ballast before departing for Mozambique.

“We also found slave shackles, copper nails, and sheathing,” he says. “Tests have indicated that these date back to the 1790s. The timber remains we have found, was proven to be a type of Mozambican hardwood, also dating back to that particular time.”

Unearthing whatever was left of the São José was not easy.

“It is a very difficult area for diving. The waters are very turbulent, with strong currents. One of the divers described it as working in a washing machine. There were times, they could only dive three days per month,” says Tichmann.

The discovery of the ship – which was announced in June – has been hailed as an extraordinary find, making headlines around the world. It is one the few transatlantic slave ship wrecks ever recovered.

The São José’s significance goes beyond that, says Patrick Harries, who has been studying the role of the Cape of Good Hope in the transatlantic slave trade for decades. The wreck, he says, has once again proven that the Cape – generally known as a refreshment stop for ordinary merchant ships – was an important service spot for slave vessels en route to the Americas.

“It served as such from the mid-1700s to 1834, when the trading and owning of slaves was abolished in all British territories,” he says, adding that slave ships anchoring in Table Bay were transporting slaves who had embarked in Mozambique, southern Tanzania, and Madagascar.

“Many were brought to the coast after being captured in the deep interior, for instance where Zambia and Malawi are now,” Harries says.

“They were then loaded onto ships in Mozambique, which would then sail to Table Bay to refuel prior to sailing on to their final destination. Close to half a million slaves were taken from southeast Africa.”

While supplying slave ships with wood, food and water, thus making a profit out of the transatlantic trade, Cape Town also absorbed some of these slaves.

“Generally speaking, a ship owner would sell 10 percent of his slaves in Table Bay to pay for the fuel and supplies,” Harries says. “They would end up working on farms.”

While the Dutch shipped East Africans into the Cape, they didn’t play much of a role in the transatlantic slave trade. The trade in humans from southeast Africa to the New World started under the French in the 1770s.

“The French had been using African slave labour since the early 1700s to keep the sugar plantations on Reunion Island and Mauritius going. They started transporting East Africans across the Atlantic upon realizing that they were worth more in Saint-Domingue than in Reunion,” says Harries.

Situated in the Caribbean, Saint-Domingue used to be the sugar capital of the world.

“Sugar was the petrol of those days, making it the jewel of the French empire,” says Harries.

The tide turned in 1791, when slaves in Saint-Domingue staged an uprising and took control, renaming the region Haiti. This put an end to the French East African slave trade.

Like their French counterparts, Portuguese and Brazilian slave ships stopped in Table Bay for supplies before crossing the Atlantic.

“Particularly the months between October and March, known as the slave season, were busy. There could be as many as three ships in Table Bay, each carrying 300 to 400 slaves,” says Harries.

Cape Town continued to service slave ships until December 1, 1834, the year the trading and owning of slaves was outlawed. This prohibited any slave ship from anchoring in Table Bay and put an end to the Cape’s transatlantic slavery role. This didn’t end the influx of cheap African labor into the Cape.

“In 1834, the Brits had granted themselves the right to hunt down any slave ship within their waters. The slaves on board these captured vessels were brought to British controlled territories, the Cape included. Here, these so-called ‘Prize Negroes’ were sold on as apprentices, for up to 14 years,” says Tichmann.

The ‘Prize Negroes’ were often worse off than slaves.

“Apprentices were a prized and expensive commodity. Those who bought apprentices felt they had to get the most out of them as long as they could legally have them. Conditions were therefore very harsh. They would not get paid. It was another form of slavery, really. This happened until the 1880s if I am not mistaken,” says Tichmann.

Records show that 3,000 to 4,000 ‘Prize Negroes’ were imported into the Cape, on top of the previously mentioned 63,000 African, Asian and Indian slaves.

Both Tichmann and Harries hope that the São José discovery will trigger a greater level of awareness around Cape Town’s role in the slave trade.

“South Africa always thought it was safe from that particular history, but in fact, the transatlantic trade in Africans is very much part of it,” Harries says. “It is important that people in the Western Cape acknowledge this. A large part of its population, after all, are descendents from these African slaves. Their ancestors survived a month in a slave ship, and experienced the most awful conditions imaginable. We need to remember,” says Harries.

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Ghana Hopes To Benefit From Hosting Africa’s Free Trade Area Secretariat

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Ghana has been chosen by the African Union (AU) to host the secretariat of the African Continental Free Trade Area. It beat other competing countries including Egypt, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar and Senegal to win the bid.

As a free trade area, member countries have come together and agreed not to impose tariffs, quotas and other trade barriers on goods and services. The agreement is expected to enlarge markets and diversify exports, particularly manufactured goods.

According to US-based think tank the Brookings Institute, intra-African trade stands at about 14%, while the share of manufactured goods to the rest of the world stands at 18%. Trade among Asian countries is much higher – at 59% – and even higher among European countries at 69%. The hope is that the African free trade area will boost trade across the continent by 52% by 2022 .

READ MORE | IN PICTURES | Ghana Earning Its Stars And Stripes Through Tourism

The core mandate of the secretariat will be to implement the free trade agreement, which has been ratified by 25 out of 54 countries. Once all have ratified the deal, it will create the world’s largest free trade area since the formation of the World Trade Organisation in 1995.

Africa’s free trade area will cover a market of 1.2 billion people with a combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of US$2.5 trillion.

The secretariat’s job will be to recruit personnel, train them, and develop organisational capability. The secretariat will also have to implement policies handed down by the governing body, keep the media informed, organise conferences and identify potential funding sources. It will also monitor and evaluate the progress of policies and programmes.

This is a first for Ghana which has not hosted a continental secretariat. The hope is that it can emulate the success of other African capitals that have befitted from hosting the AU and the United Nations.

Addis Ababa is home to the AU headquarters while Nairobi hosts two of the UN’s biggest bodies. For its part, South Africa hosts the Pan-African Parliament.

The presence of the AU in Addis Ababa has been credited with an increase in property valuations as well as job creation.

In making its bid, Ghana took advantage of its strategic geographical location in West Africa. It has put a great deal of effort into making the country a gateway and a trade hub in West Africa.

Hosting the free trade area secretariat will come with costs and benefits – direct and indirect.

Why Ghana

In establishing its credentials to host the secretariat, the Ghanaian government would have set out the country’s most notable achievements.

These would have included the fact that it’s been an exemplary member of the AU. For example, in 2007 it was among the first countries to be reviewed by the African Peer Review Mechanism – the self-assessment mechanism used to measure good governance.

The fact that it put its hand up sent a signal to other countries that the peer review process was credible.

READ MORE | ‘Stolen’ Tutankhamun Bust Puts Britain’s Museums And Auctioneers Back Under the Spotlight

Other factors that would have played in Ghana’s favour are that the country’s economy has been showing strong growth.

It is one of the fastest growing economies in the world with an averageGDP growth of about 6%. In addition, it comes second to Cape Verde in West Africa in terms of the United Nations Human Development index.

In one of the most unstable sub regions in the world, Ghana also has a tradition of relative peace and security, a key parameter for hosting a secretariat.

In addition, Ghana has had the advantage of learning about trade collaboration through its membership of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).

Costs and benefits

Ghana has been part of the 15-member Ecowas since its formation in 1990. The regional body introduced a common external tariff in 2015 .

While Ghana has enjoyed benefits from the arrangement, like many other West African States, it has not been able to harness its full potential. For example, border controls remain cumbersome, delaying transits due to the numerous check points, huge unofficial payments at the borders.

The most direct cost to the country will be the $10 million pledged by President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo to support setting up the secretariat. The AU is also expected to contribute funds and appeals have been made to international funding agencies.

Ghana’s hope is that hosting the secretariat will boost the hospitality sector – and more broadly the services sector – and generate increased international exposure.

There should also be a boost for job creation as the secretariat hires staff; ranging from economists to translators, administrators and technicians.

There is no clear deadline on when the secretariat is expected to be up and running. The AU itself still has to clear a number of hurdles, including adopting a structure, staff rules and regulations, and the secretariat’s budget.

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Archive Documents Reveal The US And UK’s Role In The Dying Days Of Apartheid

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It is a quarter of a century since the end of apartheid in South Africa. But it’s easy to forget how complex, difficult and violent the birth of full democracy really was. This was particularly true in KwaZulu-Natal, where battles between the African National Congress (ANC) and the mainly Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) claimed the lives of as many as 20,000 in the decade between 1984 and 1994.

In the three months before the first elections in April 1994 an estimated 1 000 people were killed. The British and Americans were becoming increasingly concerned. The conflict between Inkatha and the ANC was just one crisis: another was developing with far right white extremists, who were threatening to resort to violence.

The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reported that there was an:

eight in 10 chance that violence will surge immediately before and during the election, when emotions are at their highest.

The agency also warned of the threat of a right wing coup, although it considered this “unlikely”. (This CIA report is available in hard copy only.)

As the situation grew increasingly tense, Britain’s Prime Minister John Major and the US’s President Bill Clinton became personally involved. Their interventions are shown in documents just released by the UK National Archives.

The cover page of the CIA document. Author provided

The documents reveal just what a close-run thing the first truly democratic election was, and how much time and effort Britain and the USA spent ensuring that the voting went ahead.

Desperate times

Prime Minister Major took a phone call from Nelson Mandela on 22 February, in which the ANC leader described the situation as “very difficult.” Major briefed Mandela on a meeting between the British ambassador and the Inkatha leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi. He gave Mandela a full account of the conversation, which he warmly welcomed.

On 24 February there is the first indication of a joint Anglo-American mediation effort to resolve the crisis. This arose during planning for a visit to Washington by Major three days later.

Our starting point is that the situation has now deteriorated to the point where it seems very unlikely that left to themselves the South Africans will reach an agreement that will enable to participate in the elections. The consequences are likely to be very serious.

The British suggested that Major and Clinton might “offer their joint help to the transition process”.

The following day – having held discussions with Mandela, Buthelezi and President Frederik de Klerk – the British ambassador in Pretoria, Sir Anthony Reeve, was able to report that all three were prepared to go along with the Anglo-American initiative, although with some reservations. The ambassador concluded:

These responses do, I think, give us the green light to consult the Americans in detail on our thinking.

The proposal was discussed between Mandela and Buthelezi at a meeting on March 1 and both leaders agreed to “explore” the possibility of international mediation. Lord Carrington, who had negotiated the end of Rhodesia and its transition to Zimbabwe in 1980, was on a lecture tour of South Africa. He was approached by the ANC’s Thabo Mbeki who asked whether he might act as one of a panel of mediators.

Others suggested were US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Tanzanian head of state Julius Nyerere.

There followed intensive discussions between London and Washington, over how such mediation might work; indeed, Carrington and Kissinger travelled to South Africa. In the end a failure to agree on the terms of reference for the mediators, and South African government fears that the elections might be delayed, put paid to the plan.

It has been claimed the crisis – the most immediate was that Buthelezi was threatening to boycott the poll – was resolved by surprising last minute mediation by Kenyan Professor, John Okumu. Other Commonwealth envoys who had excellent contacts with both the ANC leadership and Buthelezi, including the late Ghanaian diplomat Moses Anafu, doubt this, arguing that forces that led Buthelezi into the election were much bigger.

Indeed, Buthelezi’s brinkmanship had ensured key constitutional concessions. Okumu’s intervention seems then a face-saving device for the IFP leader. A joint statement was agreed between Mandela, Buthelezi and de Klerk on 19 April, which allowed the election to take place just a week later (April 26-28).

Close-run thing

It had been a close-run thing and South Africa’s first truly democratic election almost came to grief. But there were two more potential obstacles.

In the tense run-up to polling day, a report on the role of the apartheid state in stoking internal tension and violence was published. The Commission of Inquiry Regarding the Prevention of Public Violence and Intimidation, led by Justice Richard Goldstone had been established in 1991: its report was published on 21 April 1994.

Judge Goldstone’s investigations revealed that sections of the South African Police had armed Inkatha, and pointed to attempts by senior police officers to subvert the work of his enquiry.

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The charges were explosive and for a while the judge and his family were clearly at risk from white extremists. With de Klerk’s support and the knowledge of Mandela, Goldstone, his wife and a “key witness” (a former South African police officer) asked whether they might come to Britain. John Major agreed, and they were given temporary asylum and a safe house.

The second obstacle was the South African government’s clandestine chemical and biological weapons programme, known as “Project Coast.”The British Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, contacted Washington about the possibility of issuing a formal public protest unless President de Klerk publicly admitted his government’s involvement in the use of these weapons against ANC and Namibian prisoners.

The British had apparently intervened to prevent the proliferation of these weapons to other rogue states or terrorist groups. On April 11 the US and British ambassadors delivered their protest to President de Klerk – which apparently did the trick.

There was an agreement that all the chemical and biological systems would be destroyed and one of the key South African experts, Wouter Basson, who had travelled to Libya on several occasions, was subsequently prosecuted.

Political triumph

The April 1994 election proved to be a watershed for South Africa. In technical terms, the election was a fiasco, but it was a political triumph, according to the Commonwealth’s leading election official, Carl Dundass. Inkatha’s surprising victory in Natal-KwaZulu strongly suggest Natal “horsetrading” involved overturning an actual ANC victory to manage anticipated post-election violence.

Despite all the violence, tension and drama the election ended apartheid and allowed Major to phone Mandela with his congratulations – a highly satisfactory conclusion to an intense period of international diplomacy.

-Sue Onslow; Reader, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study

-Martin Plaut; Senior Research Fellow, Horn of Africa and Southern Africa, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study

-The Conversation

The Conversation

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‘South Africans Love Martyrs’

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The first 100 days of any presidency are often harshly scrutinized as they set the tone for what citizens expect. South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa is under the magnifying glass as all await his next tactical move.


At the end of May, South Africa’s sixth democratically-elected president, Cyril Ramaphosa, took an oath of office at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria. In his speech, he touched on many issues that resonate with South Africans, including corruption, poverty, equality and youth unemployment.

These burning matters prelude what is to be expected from him in his first 100 days in office.

Ramaphosa’s period at the helm of power (before the elections) has been typified by repeated calls for a ‘New Dawn’. It seems the man who made it to the 2019 Time magazine list of 100 Most Influential in the world has a laundry list of issues to attend to if he is to set the tone for the rest of his presidency.

READ MORE | IN PICTURES | Looking Back At The Vibe Of The South African Elections

The challenge that has deeply affected how South Africans and investors view the country is that of corruption.

“Let us forge a compact for an efficient, capable and ethical state, a state that is free of corruption, for companies that generate social value and propel human development… We must be a society that values excellence, rewards effort and rejects mediocrity,” Ramaphosa said at his inauguration on May 25.

 In the first 100 days, analysts say he needs to demonstrate he is a proactive leader; one who takes decisive action to address the plight of those who live in a society as unequal as South Africa. The gaping chasm between the richest and poorest has widened since the end of apartheid 25 years ago. This information is not lost on citizens whose lived experiences and disenchantment were in evidence during the elections.

A specialist in social economic development and political commentator, Kim Heller, is of the view that Ramaphosa has some way to go to address the resolutions of his party, the African National Congress (ANC).

 “There are critical social maladies that need to be treated with the urgency they deserve… One of the key things people are looking for is a decisive man and decisive leadership,” she says.

Political analyst, Prince Mashele, ventures: “He is yet to act on resolutions because he is navigating complex political infighting in the ANC, which is why he can’t move boldly and faster…”

Economic transformation has been seen to also imply redistribution of the means of production, which currently has been reiterated in the call for land redistribution without compensation. This is among the duties citizens and investors will keep a close eye on as it is a contentious matter.

Leading up to the elections, Ramaphosa said to apprehensive farmers, “the land reform process is something we should never fear. It is going to be done in terms of the constitution”.

Heller says that, “the question of land is unresolved, despite very solid ANC resolutions from branches, and despite extensive consultation”.

The president will to have to choose whether he wants to be investor-friendly or whether he wants the interests of his own political party to find expression in policy.

“The investors have become the supreme branch of the ANC. So Ramaphosa certainly, is spending a lot of time on their concerns rather than ordinary people…,” Heller says.

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Mashele echoes: “He has been a market-friendly president. He has railed against his comrades calling for the nationalization of the [South African] Reserve Bank”.

Another matter influencing investment into the country is red tape that inhibits instead of encouraging business. South Africa dropped from 34 out of 181 countries on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business ranking in 2009 to 82 out of 192 countries last year, leaving the country trailing its African peers, including Mauritius (20), Rwanda (29) and Kenya (61).

In his address to the nation, Ramaphosa continued with the mantra thuma mina (which means ‘send me’) and committed to continue to build South Africa. In his rebuilding, he will have to take a closer look at the factors that infringe on those looking to conduct business while straddling the line in ensuring that (natural) resources are not further depleted while failing to trickle down to those who need it the most.

Heller is of the view that the expectations created by the president serve as a double-edged sword: “Some quarters have built him up to be the Messiah we have all been waiting for. He may have embraced that but it’s actually going to damage him. Because there is no individual who can save this country without looking at doing serious things in terms of economic restructuring… Until we address structural issues in this country, shifting the economy to favor ordinary people, not markets, we actually aren’t very benevolent.”

Also affecting business has been the view that South Africa is amongst the most corrupt on the continent and viewed as one of the murder capitals of the world. The Zondo Commission has illustrated the stark reality of the malfeasance the president will have to address to change these perceptions and in so doing, hold high-profile individuals accountable.

READ MORE | Ticking The Right Boxes: Will The South African Elections Come Down To The Wire?

 In line with building an equal society, the president made mention of the prevalence of violence against women at his inauguration.

“Let us end the dominion that men claim over women, the denial of opportunity, the abuse and the violence, the neglect, and the disregard of each person’s equal rights. Let us build a truly non-racial society, one that belongs to all South Africans, and in which all South Africans belong. Let us build a society that protects and values those who are vulnerable and who for too long have been rendered marginal,” Ramaphosa said.

Leading up to the resolution of the president’s first 100 days in office, the public is watching with bated breath. 

“I pity him. He’s made big promises on housing and unemployment. Those are not going to magically change overnight. The problem with South Africa is that we love martyrs and here we have a president that we have martyred and who is actually going to fall on that. To replace one man with another, is not going to replace problematic policies, poor implementation and poor conceptualization of economic solutions. So I think in the next 100 days, I don’t expect to see anything unless the fundamentals are changed,” Heller says.     

No doubt, it is going to take a concerted effort from all institutions, including those that have been revealed to be compromised. The first 100 days will certainly determine the rest of the president’s term in office.

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