In April last year I went to look for Jan van Riebeeck during a two-month stay in Amsterdam. After the first month there I struggled to find any sign in memory of the man fingered for all South Africa’s modern day ills – the father of colonialism in South Africa. Yet in the Netherlands for the most part it is seemingly as if he never existed, as if he has been erased from collective Dutch memory.
So I took the train to Culemborg to the house where Van Riebeeck spent part of his childhood. The house has been turned into a small museum in celebration of the man whose countrymen everywhere else seemingly choose to forget. A scant reference is made to Krotoa, or Eva as the Dutch called her, in the museum’s multimedia offering. Krotoa was a Khoi child from the Goringhaicona who populated the Table Bay area and who ended up as a child servant in the Van Riebeeck household. She later played an instrumental role as translator between the Dutch and the locals of the time. I was determined to be angry as I went to look for the villain Van Riebeeck but found a garden at the back of the museum that smelled like the Cape, like home. I left Culemborg confused and feeling cheated somehow. How Van Riebeeck was celebrated is not how I choose to remember history.
Fast-forward to August. I went to see the movie Krotoa in which Van Riebeeck showed up again. I went in with curious optimism and hope that an important element of our South African story finally made it to the big screen. A movie that set out to celebrate the life of a Khoi heroine (taking the scriptwriters on their word) turned into what some labelled a “whitewash” of Krotoa’s history and “a glorification” of Van Riebeeck as seen through the lens of the white settler. Like many others I too left angry, shocked, deflated and again cheated out of how I remember history.
The thing is, everyone remembers and interprets history in their own way.
So others have displayed indifference and in some corners people were saying: “What’s the fuss, it’s just a movie.”
But is it really?
Identity politics is an uncomfortable and messy business and often not easy to navigate. In South Africa, where the dominant discourse is along binaries of black and white and where hierarchies of (apartheid) suffering has been firmly established, there is a hotbed of coloured disillusion and unresolved historical pain of a people feeling unseen – a people seemingly robbed of what they consider their place in history.It is real and simmering. And it should, in the interest of our collective nation building project, be acknowledged and not dismissed.
Dr Zimitri Erasmus in her book Coloured by History, Shaped by Place is among those who valiantly tries to make sense of this complexity when she calls for “acknowledgement of coloured identity as part of the shifting texture of a broader black experience”.
In the absence of this, I fear it may explode into a rage which will become increasingly difficult to manage amid an already fragile attempt to heal the divisions of the past. The public hearings on the controversial Traditional and Khoi-San Leaders Bill a few months ago gave a glimpse into this simmering rage and now more recently the backlash over the movie Krotoa. One of the main objects of the Bill is to recognise official traditional authorities for the Khoi and San yet in the process critical questions came from the community over the recognition of the Khoi as the first people, which has interesting implications for the land ownership question in South Africa. So this simmering rage and how it manifests speaks of a people identifying as coloured and Khoi descendants trying to reassert themselves amid feelings of being diminished by or written out of history time after time – forgotten. Krotoa and the uproar over the movie can be framed within this context.
The movie was a rare and precious opportunity for healing and instilling pride over a key figure in South Africa’s history, someone who serves as a reminder of place and belonging in the minds of those who consider themselves coloured and descendants of the Khoi.
Through telling Krotoa’s story it could have played a bigger role in understanding the complexity of the coloured experience in South African history. But it failed. It was grossly flawed in historical facts (especially the relationship between Van Riebeeck and Krotoa) and sparse on much-needed cultural sensitivity.
Some expressed anger over shameless “cultural appropriation” and proceeded to box the right over who can and cannot tell stories claimed as essential to coloured identity.
But perhaps this is short-sighted?
Perhaps we are so fixated on who should not be telling these stories that we are not asking the more pertinent question: How am I telling the story of the coloured and Khoi experience in an attempt to not just make sense of a historical trauma still affecting us today but also to celebrate those we consider our ancestors? How am I keeping the proud memory alive of Krotoa and ancestors from the likes of the Khoi resistance leader Doman or Anna de Koningh, the slave who later became the first female owner of the farm Groot Constantia? How am I writing plays, making movies or simply just educating myself (as well as old and new generations) about these phenomenal historical figures who give me and many others a sense of place and a cause to celebrate my heritage?
It has always been easier to look for villains rather than taking personal responsibility – whether the villains are a Van Riebeeck or those who now stand accused of “historical rape” and insulting the memory of Krotoa. Anger and outrage, however warranted, can only take us so far. It literally took me to Jan van Riebeeck’s doorstep and yet I still left feeling lost, trying to navigate my way through “place” and “belonging” and identity.
Anger is often not the best compass. But action is. While so many of us are outraged over the misrepresentation of Krotoa and Van Riebeeck in this movie, and justifiably so, there are many who are telling the stories and trying to rewrite a history in which people who identify as coloured and Khoi descendants can rightfully claim our space on our own terms.
Two young Cape Town girls, Sarah Summers and Kelly-Eve Koopman, started a web series, Coloured Mentality, that is stirring a much-needed dialogue on coloured identity. There are cultural activists like Lucelle Campbell who got tired of mainstream and a predominantly Eurocentric portrayal of Cape Town’s history so she started Transcending History Tours to tell the story of Cape Town from the perspectives of our slave and Khoi ancestors.
If anything, and however flawed, the movie Krotoa triggered a necessary and critical engagement of history and how people choose to remember. It showed us there is still a lot of work to be done in reclaiming our place through telling our own stories in a way that celebrates who we are and where we come from – how we choose to remember the past – on our own terms. DM
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