When I met Rose Landers at As the Spirit Moves: Connecting Through Art and Conversations, a National Congress of Black Women Event at the downtown campus of SFU on February 20, she was 101 years and three weeks old. She was born on February 1, 1910 in Cape Town, South Africa, right by Table Mountain. To all appearances Rose could be Desmond Tutu’s mother. The right gender, the right age (Rose was 21 when the good Bishop was born in 1931), and the right skin colour, black. Except she’s not black. The first thing she told me was that her ancestors were white, French and Scots, who had immigrated to South Africa in the nineteenth century. It seemed very important to Rose that I understand that she is “coloured,” to use the terminology of her homeland, and that she has no tribal affiliation. This was getting confusing so I was glad that I was there to see the Prologue of “Lost Lesotho Princess” a play based on Rose’s life written by her granddaughter, Marion Landers. In watching the prologue, talking with Rose and Marion and later reading the full script of the play I learned of the life of a remarkable woman.
Rose is not certain what her surname was at birth. It might have been something like “Mulfana” either from her Xhosa father or Lesotho Grandfather. At any rate it was changed to McFarlane, possibly to reflect the Scots part of her grandmother’s heritage. If so, it’s fitting because she was raised by her white grandmother, Rosette. Rosette’s life deserves its own play. When she was born, Rosette “was only as big as a table knife” and nobody expected her to live. This lack of expectation for life led to a certain freedom. She was not sent to school and when she fell in love with a Lesotho shepherd at age 15 her parents let her marry him because they thought she would die anyway. Though interracial marriages might have been frowned upon in some circles this was long before apartheid made the union illegal. Rosette had seven children with the Lesotho shepherd, the youngest being Rose’s mother. When the African died she married a Welshman who helped her raise her mixed-race children as if they were his own.
Practice in raising children came in handy. When it became clear that Rose’s mother had no maternal instinct and after her Xhosa father, a pianist, left the family to return to his homeland it was Grandma to the rescue. Rose recalls that her upbringing by Rosette was “very strict.” Rosette taught her granddaughter to work hard and pulled her out of school at age 13. “She said that I could read and write and that was all the education I needed. It was more than she got. I went to work in a hotel washing dishes and the dishes were stacked higher than me. And then I worked my way up to 2nd cook and I was a waitress.”
The British began passing segregationist laws for the colony of South Africa in the 19th century and Rose grew up in a racist society even though apartheid did not become official policy into 1948. She does not dwell on the pain of racism but it is there. Speaking of her grandmother’s marriage to the African, Rose’s character in the play declares, “…it hurt, it made me black, when I could have been white and had all the privileges that go along with being white!”
At age 18 Rose met her future husband, Joseph Landers, at a dance. As a suitor, Joseph had a lot going for him – all the right dance moves, a good line of patter and he was a light-skinned “Cape Malay”. His grandfather was a Dutch Jew who sailed to Indonesia on a trading ship and married an Indonesian Muslim woman. They moved to Cape Town and became part of the Muslim community there. (Now would be a good time to start making a chart to keep track of the racial, ethnic, religious and cultural influences in Rose’s life.) In South Africa at the time, “coloured” referred to anyone not “pure” black or white – a huge group ranging from very light to very dark-skinned (like Rose) who could prove mixed ancestry. By the senseless bias of racial distinctions life was easier for light-skinned coloured people than the dark-skinned so Rose looked favourably on Joseph as a good bet for fathering a light-skinned child. In 1956 her son, Reuben, arrived with the black skin of his mother.
Two years later, still working in the hotel kitchen, Rose purchased her first property for 10 shillings down. She would probably never have thought of becoming a property owner without the encouragement of two white women: a former tenant of her great aunt and the secretary in a real estate office in the town of Elsie’s River. Once started, Rose took off as a property owner and landlord. As soon as she and Joseph had paid off their first home they bought a second and used the rent to pay the mortgage. Eventually she owned eight houses.
By 1966, at the height of apartheid, Rose had established herself as a woman to be reckoned with by anybody, black or white, with whom she dealt in her development business. And then came activism for civil rights. Cape Town Municipal Councillor Sissy Goul called on Rose to assist her in a campaign to free Nelson Mandela and win full rights for all South Africans. Rallies attracted crowds who risked arrest for just showing up and Rose attracted the attention of the Secret Police. With participation in rallies threatening her personal safety and apartheid threatening her son’s chance for a fulfilling life, it was time to move. Money for the move was no problem. A major aircraft manufacturer had been pressing Rose to sell property for their expansion. Where to go? The options were England, New Zealand, Australia or Canada. Sissy Goul’s niece was in Canada. A place called Vancouver.
Rose, Joseph and their son, Reuben, were able to emigrate to Vancouver without liquidating all of their South African landholdings and they bought a house in Point Grey within a few weeks of arrival. It was a home for her, her husband, their son and her niece’s two daughters. The niece was supposed to follow them but never did and Rose adopted the two young girls.
Joseph died after the family’s arrival in Canada. Rose transferred her financial skills to Vancouver and continued building equity through rental properties. Reuben inherited his grandfather’s musical talent and was a busy jazz pianist in Vancouver throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. He also worked as a BCTV cameraman for twenty years. He and his wife, a woman of Irish descent, had one child, Marion Landers, who would go on to chronicle her grandmothers life.
Reuben Landers died in 2001.
Marion never knew her Irish grandparents and her father had no interest in his African background so grandmother Rose was her only link to her past, a link that is very important to Marion. As a mixed race child Marion felt invisible, not belonging anywhere. Identifying oneself as coloured in South Africa means cutting off both African and European roots. The result can be psychological confusion for mixed race people, a confusion Marion has confronted by immersing herself Rose’s life story.
What a story. What a life. It’s been filled with hardship, hard work, triumph and tragedy. Rose’s character sums it up at the conclusion of the prologue to “Lost Lesotho Princess.”
“I worked myself all the way up until I had 8 properties and I never stopped working to this day. It’s only now that I’m resting a bit because I can’t do anymore. I did it all for my son, so he could have something when he was without work. I chose a light-skinned Muslim man, but my son turned out just as black as me. The African blood is as thick as tar. It’s not very nice to be black in this world. The whites have nothing over for you. Not even a job. They don’t think your children need to eat, too. So I worked very hard to be able to give what I have to my son. My handsome, musical son, who took after my father. Children aren’t supposed to die before their parents. But he did and I wasn’t expecting that. So all I have left is my granddaughter, my son’s only child. And my granddaughter has given me two great-grandsons. She went and made them black like me. Silly girl…not only did (my grandmother) Rosette live, she made it to 97 years old. She raised her children and all of us as well. She didn’t spoil us…We had to work!”
Rose Landers lives in Vancouver with her granddaughter, Marion, her two great-grandsons, Marion’s mother, step-father and half brothers and sisters.