“A man with the name of Jan van Riebeeck arrived in the Cape on 6 April 1652… What followed were numerous struggles and wars and deaths and the seizure of land and the deprivation of the indigenous peoples’ political and economic power.” The arrival of Van Riebeeck “disrupted South Africa’s social cohesion, repressed people and caused wars.”
The charges have since been repeated by a sangoma – who exorcised the ANC conference venue of the ‘spirit of Jan van Riebeeck’ – and Marius Fransman – the ANC’s Cape leader – who would not exist if the Dutch had not colonized the Cape in 1652.
What the ANC’s campaign against Van Riebeeck is actually saying is that the arrival of whites in Southern Africa was a disaster for the indigenous population of the region. After all, Van Riebeeck had strict instructions not to colonise the Cape and stayed for only 10 years before moving on to his next post in the Dutch East India Company.
There is nevertheless some truth in the charges: the expansion of European influence in Southern Africa did lead to the subjugation of the once independent peoples of the region. By 1879, after nine bitter wars, the territories of Xhosa peoples of the Eastern Cape were annexed by Britain. The same year – after an unprovoked war of aggression – the once mighty Zulu Kingdom was swallowed up by the British Empire.
There is more than enough reason for bitterness: the shameful murder of Hintsa; the humiliation of Maqoma by Harry Smith; the tragedy of the cattle killing; Cetshwayo’s imprisonment on Robben Island; the exclusion of black political rights in the Union of South Africa; the Land Act of 1913; and the subsequent decades of segregation and apartheid.
But history is never quite so simple as it sometimes appears:
- Might the San – who once occupied the whole of South Africa – not also be able to complain that the arrival of blacks in South Africa was a disaster for them?
- It is not true that whites introduced warfare and social disintegration into the sub-continent. By far the worst conflict that ever afflicted South Africa was the Mfecane – the wars that were unleashed by the President’s own people under their great King Shaka. The wars led to the devastation and depopulation of vast tracts of the country and to migrations to places as far away as Malawi and Zimbabwe. As many as a million people may have died.
- Neither were blacks the only peoples who were subjugated by European imperialists. The Afrikaners fought by far the greatest anti-colonial war in the history of Africa.
However, had it not been for the British, there would have been no Union of South Africa in 1910 – and the ANC would probably not have been founded two years later. It is very unlikely that, 105 years later, a Zulu President would have been hosting a Gala Dinner for the ANC in Cape Town. Come to think of it, without Jan van Riebeeck and white settlers, would there have been a Cape Town – or any of our other great cities?
Possibly – but without the intervention of Western technology and capital, they would have been unrecognisably different. Ethiopia and Liberia – the only African states that were not colonised – are also among the most backward on the continent – occupying respectively 173rd and 175th positions out of 187 countries in the UNDP’s Human Development Index.
The fact is that, 21 years ago, the ANC took over the governance of by far the most developed country in Africa. There were far more kilometers of railways and highways than in any country in Africa; we (then) generated more electricity than the rest of the continent combined; we had developed sophisticated industries and world-class businesses. Despite apartheid, the black population of South Africa was in many respects more advanced than any other people in Africa. How much of this would have existed without the contribution that white South Africans made to the development of the country?
The anti-Jan van Riebeeck campaign is yet another example of the disturbing and increasingly overt anti-white posture of the President and the ANC. Indeed, the ANC’s core programme, its “National Democratic Revolution”, is the continuation and completion of its ‘liberation’ struggle against white South Africans whom it views as “antagonists”.
Three years ago at the ANC’s 8 January celebrations in Bloemfontein, President Zuma sang the “Shoot the Boer” song to a stadium full of ANC supporters. It is on YouTube for all to see. The words are as follows:
“We are going to shoot them, they are going to run;
We are going to shoot them, with the machine gun;
They are going to run. You are a white man –
We are going to hit them – and you are going to run!
Shoot the Boer!
….We are going to hit them – they are going to run!
The Cabinet will shoot them with the machine gun!
The Cabinet will shoot them with the machine gun!
Shoot the Boer!”
The reference to the Cabinet disproves the notion that this is simply a nostalgic old liberation song. Can one imagine the leader of any respectable country in the world expressing such deplorable views about a national minority?
History is what it is: the past – with all its conflict, injustice and complexity – cannot be changed. As Omar Khayyam puts it: “Nor all thy piety nor wit can lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy tears wash out a word of it”.
Our unique contribution to the story of mankind is that 25 years ago we showed that we were able to overcome our history of bitterness and division and build a new society based on human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights. All of us – blacks, whites, coloureds and Asians – and not just the ANC – played an indispensable role in creating our new society. All of us – and especially those who have been privileged by past and present advantage – must continue to work together to achieve the vision in our Constitution.
The opening lines of our Constitution quite rightly “recognise the injustices of the past and honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land.” However, they also require us to “respect those who have worked to develop and build our country” and to affirm “that South Africa belongs to all those who live in it, united in our diversity.” In this spirit we commit ourselves to “heal the divisions of the past…”
We respectfully call on President Zuma to remember that he is the President of all South Africans and to pay a little more attention to healing – rather than deepening – the divisions of the past.
By Dave Steward, Executive Director
Photo credit: Celso Flores / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)