The Jan van Riebeeck monument in Adderley Street. File picture: Candice Chaplin

President Zuma and the FF+ revisit the hot political issues of 362 years ago, writes Janet Smith.

Johannesburg - Apartheid history classrooms loved Johan Anthoniszoon van Riebeeck, better known as Jan. He was drummed into us, year after year, as we raised the apartheid flag and practised evacuation procedures in case the communists came roaring through the school gates.

Apparently rather cosmopolitan, Van Riebeeck – who’d been to Batavia in the East Indies, Tonkin in Indochina and Dejima in Japan – was revealed to us as the first person to set foot on Africa’s southern point.

Before he arrived in 1652, there was just air and water and the mountain. Oh, and a few black men in skins who rolled up their straw huts in the morning, and wandered from beach to beach. As we might have guessed, these men weren’t “people”, as such. Only white people were people. These were mere strollers, who must have stared, wide-eyed, when Jan pulled up on the sand under the flapping sails of the Dromedaris, the Reijger and the Goede Hoop, and found the Mother City.

Jan – whose idealised image was on our banknotes, coins and stamps for decades – was positioned as a father of the white nation. Deeply mired in apartheid’s vicious propaganda, who were we, as children, to ask questions? After all, April 6, the day Jan landed, was a public holiday throughout our childhoods.

President Jacob Zuma himself, an elder of a generation or two hence, must have learnt about Jan and his prodigious appetites. But then, there was light.

At last, 340 years later, we were given the chance to grasp at the truth and discover it wasn’t a crime or a sin to reject Van Riebeeck for what he was. With that knowledge, and the excitement of a new nation, most of us easily left him behind.

Then came last week, and the occasion of the ANC’s 103rd birthday. Jovial, defiant in DA territory as the party celebrated its January 8 Statement, Zuma decided to draw up on that sandy beach again, saying Van Riebeeck’s arrival was the beginning of “all the trouble… the numerous struggles, wars and deaths… the grabbing of land and the denial of indigenous people’s political and economic power”.

You might have agreed. But if you thought most would at least have brushed it off as a typically ad hoc Zuma remark, in keeping with the ANC’s theme of the divided city, you would be wrong.

Instead, Van Riebeeck again loomed in the national consciousness this week as the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) laid a charge of hate speech against Zuma with the South African Human Rights Commission (HRC), and everybody started weighing in.

Emotional FF+ MP advocate Anton Alberts described the comments as “polarising on a racial basis”, “grossly insulting” and “unpresidential”.

ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa angrily retorted that Alberts would be better placed to complain about history.

A couple of days into the storm, having filed the party’s papers at the HRC, Alberts was more composed.

“Obviously, the utterances made by the president regarding white people as a whole, places a collective guilt upon them that they are the ones responsible for all problems in South Africa, and obviously, we know that is not historically correct.

“We have a problem with these utterances because, when you are elected president, no matter whether everybody voted for you or not, you are responsible for everyone – regardless.

“In terms of human rights and constitutional issues, he has made himself guilty of hate speech in that he’s made a group of South Africans a scapegoat for everything that has gone wrong.

“But while many of us know that’s not true, he’s created an environment where radical people, who do not think rationally, can decide to take action.

“They’d see it as if they had been given authorisation, by default by the president, for violence and even murder.

“It can only be polarising, and we honestly do not need that right now.”

Kodwa is insulted by the charge laid at the HRC, and hopes the Chapter Nine institution will reject it out of hand.

“The first point is that there’s a danger for any future we want to build together, in Anton and the Freedom Front basing this on us forgetting where we come from.

“That’s dangerous when it comes to building a non-racial, prosperous country like the one envisaged in the Freedom Charter. We must never forget, wherever we go today, we must always remember where we come from, and we must not again make the mistakes of the past.

“The president did not generate new facts: he stated history, unless people want to disagree with that history. We have a colonial history, we have a history of wars in this country.

“But most dominantly, we have a history of exclusion of the majority of black people, yes, also as a result not only of 1652 but also of 1909 and 1912. And that’s the truth.

“What is important is that, every time we have an opportunity to do so, however much we are uncomfortable about that history, we must talk about it so we do not repeat it. Black people were dispossessed of their land.”

Alberts insists it’s not the intention of the charge to forget history.

“As white people, we do very much respect there are a lot of terrible things that happened in the past. Afrikaners do accept that even in the British concentration camps, a similar number of black people – mostly women and children – also died. There were many innocent victims of war.

“We think there is a space to talk about that and, of course, we can’t change history. We can only talk to each other so far as we can say, we say sorry for what’s happened, but please, let’s go on.

“Let’s not get stuck in the past and not go forwards. We must fight the real enemy, which is not people but systems that work against us to sustain poverty. We now need to break that very evil cycle, and we need to work together to do it.”

Kodwa’s view is that “our constitution abhors discrimination by one group against another” and, “if they regret, if they feel so bad about the past, so be it”.

“The very fact that you still have parties organised on the basis of race is primarily the reason we must have a national discourse on race. At the end of the day, the reality is that there are those who benefited when the majority of this country were discriminated against.”

Dr Phil Mtimkulu of Unisa’s School of Governance is of the view that we need more critical thinkers in our country to tackle issues of this weight. He says a better education for our people would help us greatly to deal properly with our big questions.

“I think the entire event is uncalled for. I know Zuma sometimes goes off on a tangent, but anybody who’s serious would not allow these utterances to fuel emotions between black and white.

“What’s important is that the government actually think more about the present and the future, and not concentrate so much on a history which, to be frank, many young people today know nothing about.

“For us to be harking back to colonialism, I don’t know. In most other post-colonial African countries, people do not hark back to that time; they examine and criticise the present state. So, for me, going back to the 1660s to counter the current South Africa is not very useful – on both sides.

“We really must come to some kind of closure. Whites were bad but we can’t allow blacks to sit on their laurels for every wrong that’s happening in the country and say it’s the past. This means blacks will never be able to progress in the same way that a lot of other African countries have because they’re looking forward.

“The fact is, we all really need to up our ante. It is more than time.”

* Janet Smith is executive editor of The Star.

The Star