February 17th 2017. Adriaan van Dis, a well respected intellectual TV personality and author, took part in a Dutch talk show (De Wereld Draait Door) to give an announcement on an exhibition kicking off on the relationship between the Netherlands and South Africa since 1600.
‘What happens when a bunch of white people invade other people’s land with the purpose of settling a so-called East Indian Company ‘’drain station’’? They stole fresh water and livestock, from the KhoiKhoi people, to get ready for their trip back to the Netherlands from Asia. Then the indigenous people would take back their livestock, which wasn’t appreciated and then the white people were like ‘hey, we don’t know these people – chop of that head’…So, the relationship started with misery. And there has been a lot of misery ever since…’
This, and other historical descriptions were given by van Dis. It gave a bit more nuance to what is predominantly used as a rightwing nationalist rhetoric: the theory of the empty land. The theory has been used by the European colonizers in the nineteenth century as a method to support and legitimize their claim and right to the land. However, this ain’t a theory – no. It’s a first class myth of madness and that can be backed up by two solid arguments on the basis of historical and archaeological evidence:
- Evidently, research has shown that the presence of the first Bantu’s in the east, of what we know as South Africa today, migrated from up north (which is Zimbabwe nowadays) 3 centuries A.D. Here, the population grew and they spread nomadically over the country.
- Moreover, there has been historical evidence from Jan van Riebeeck’s journal – a Dutch man and official of the Dutch East Indian Company (VOC) who founded the first colony. In his journal he kept track of the contact he had with the natives, how he made sure their land was taken for farms and subsequently how the KhoiKhoi were further dispossessed, exterminated and enslaved (in line with the Forced Work Model).
So, I was content to hear Adriaan van Dis addressing the complexity and colonial nature of the relation between the Dutch and South Africans. Ultimately, I was excited to visit the exhibition.
‘…How active numerous Dutch activist groups organized themselves to boycott South Africa.’
With an open mind and sincere curiosity, I entered the exhibition. At first, I felt a warm wave of nostalgia overtaking me. It seemed as a direct reminder of my stay in that beautiful piece of land and missing its warm people – read more about it. South Africa is very dear to me and I do care deeply about it. Therefore, I continuously educate myself on further understanding it. A lot of what was exhibited seemed familiar to me, having been to four museums in South Africa myself. But I have also learned more about how active numerous Dutch activist groups organized themselves to boycott South Africa. It was impressive to see how much was initiated.
After the exhibition visit it got me thinking and evaluating with accompanied friends. ‘I am already happy that there was an exhibition on South Africa to begin with’ was my response to critique on that there was a lot lacking. In retrospect, and comparing this exhibition with for instance District Six, Slave and Apartheid museums in South Africa, I think that there could have been a more inclusive and holistic approach to it.
How Jan van Riebeeck arrived, how he negotiated and what easily turned into forced labour and slavery after (as mentioned in the introduction above) did not seem to be part of the exhibition. This has been extremely crucial and the exhibition holds an assumption that its audience would know all of that by default.
Within 50 years after van Riebeeck’s arrival, the majority of the KhoiKhoi population was dispossessed of their lands, under dehumanizing conditions. However, the VOC needed labour power on the farms they established on the stolen land from the KhoiKhoi, so slaves were brought in to do the work. In 1658 the first immigrant who were made into slaves were imported into South Africa from present-day Angola (when they were on their way to Brazil, captured by a Portuguese slaver) and shortly after from Ghana (SA history, accessed on June 10th 2017).
‘This system perceived slaves as pure property.’
Then another source of people made into slaves arrived – this time from the east Indian area, more specifically from the VOC return fleets. In short, between 1652 and 1807 a number of 60.000 slaves have been imported, making the Cape an entire fully fledged slave society. From a legal point of view, the slaves did not have anything to be backed up by, as the Dutch legal system approved slavery (SA history, accessed on June 12th, 2017). In fact, this system perceived slaves as pure property. This, in combination with an entire economic system built on slavery, could not have functioned without slaves.
As addressed before, the exhibition seemed to have had an underlying assumption i.e. that its audience is aware of what the system of oppression, apartheid, is and how it works. In 1948 the National Party (NP) introduced the apartheid regime. Apartheid, literally translated from Dutch and Afrikaans stands for apartness.
On paper it basically meant that there should be a separation in terms of development among diverse racial groups. The separation was particularly unequal among those groups, with the majority being in disadvantage as the minority of the ruler’s skin-color was white – and therefore ‘superior’. Before 1948 there was a lot of separation among those races too, however, the main difference is that since 1948 it was part of a legal system, which legitimized crimes in order to maintain the separation (SA history, accessed on June 12th 2017).
And as you have probably noticed: the apartheid regime was established after the world left the racist and discriminating World War II behind her. Yet, countless laws were passed in order to establish a fully fledged apartheid regime. A few articles which made that happen:
- 1949 | Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act.
This law prohibited marriages between ‘Europeans’ and ‘non-Europeans’. Daily Show host Trevor Noah has recently published a book about how it was growing up in an apartheid regime although being a mixed race kid, and therefore a product of a crime (Book title: Born a crime).
- 1950 | Population Registration Act.
Racial classification and registration. The government would check whether people were white (superior), colored, Indian or black. It highly depended on in what race category you were put in how you would be treated. The procedure to check whether you would be categorized as black was, among other things, that government officials would put a pencil in one person’s hair. That person had to then look down or to the side. If the pencil would not fall, then you would be classified as black.
- 1950 | Group Areas Act.
For physical separation between racial groups in public. Beaches, benches, toilets, cinema’s and many other places.
- 1951 | Separate Representation of Voters Act.
This made it impossible for all non-whites to vote and stole people from their political freedom.
Resistance against this dehumanizing madness regime, came from different angles – both national and internationally. From within South Africa, key organizations were for instance the African National Congress (ANC, which was the political party under which Mandela became president), Black Consciousness Movement (founded by Steve Biko – more on him in the vlog below), Natal Indian Congres and many others represented by different racial groups. Internationally, support was given by different countries, also the Netherlands (more on that also in the vlog below).
‘The late 80s were characterized by a giant crisis and the apartheid government felt its power slipping away.’
The ANC was quite communistic in its ideology and had ties with i.a. the Soviet Union – which provided support in many forms, also concerning the ANC’s armed struggle. With the end of the cold war, support from the Soviet Union towards the ANC came to an end too. However, the streets were still unstable as the armed struggle continued. At the same time the UN intervened calling out towards the international community to boycott apartheid South Africa. Thus, the late 80s were characterized by a giant crisis and the apartheid government felt its power slipping away. Eventually, an intervention by political leader De Klerk was to free Nelson Mandela (watch his release from prison here, February 1990). This was a symbolic beginning of the end of the apartheid legal system and regime in South Africa. It took years of negotiating, until 1994, that South Africa was apartheid free – legally.
What about now? C o m p l e x i t y
Legally, exactly. Although there is no apartheid enforced on paper, the socio-economic context and people’s minds are still led by this ideology of separation and superiority. It’s deeply rooted in its system and way of thinking and that’s what makes it such a tough nut to crack. So it will take a lot of critical engagement, movements, political leadership and therefore many years to come for South Africa to be decolonized. A lot is going on and moving forward in small steps (read about recent student grassroot movements here).
Back to the exhibition: opportunities
In this blog, a little bit, fast-forward context has been given in order to understand the history slightly better. In short, I am happy there was an exhibition to begin with, and I offered 3 opportunities in the vlog below to reflect upon. To all the people who can read Dutch, read here an open letter directed to Rijksmuseum (signed by 58 individuals i.a. professors, historians, artists).
An impression has been given in this extended vlog. Notes: this vlog consists of audio without copyrights and therefore is only viewable on a desktop (i.e. not on mobile devices). In addition, it has been officially approved by the Rijksmuseum for online viewing.
- https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2015/05/30/het-oosten-van-zuid-afrika-was-onbewoond-toen-de-1499058-a908112 [accessed June 10th, 2017].
- http://www.sahistory.org.za [accessed June 10th, 2017]
- historytoday.com/shula-marks/south-africa-myth-empty-land [accessed June 10th, 2017].
- http://www.historytoday.com/blog/2012/07/who-rules-south-africa [accessed June 12th, 2017]
- http://www.politicsweb.co.za/news-and-analysis/the-anc-and-the-soviets [accessed June 13th, 2017]