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intertwining histories
the context - Van Riebeeck to Big Brother

the Dutch father apartheid? what nonsense

Clare Wyllie interviews Professor Gerrit Schutte

I went to see Professor Gerrit Schutte at the Vrij University in Amsterdam. Professor Schutte has a research interest in South Africa and was chairman of the Dutch South Africa Society through the '80s until 1994. His office is in a part of the university that shares a, now slightly dilapidated, 70s look with several South African universities. Professor Schutte asks if the interview will be conducted in English, Afrikaans or Dutch. I quickly say English, knowing neither my Afrikaans nor my Dutch is up speed. I feel embarrassed by how I usually live so unquestioningly and comfortably in a world of English dominance. I am aware that my British ancestry puts me on a different side in the 'intertwining history'. I asked Professor Schutte his perspective on Dutch-South African intertwining history. This is what he said:

Van Riebeeck and the Dutch East India Company, that is where the relationship began - but this was not really a big affair in the Netherlands. After 1795, with the collapse of the VOC, the Cape was forgotten more or less. The big interest for the 19th century Dutch was the East Indies, although there were still some connections, like a few South Africans studying in the Netherlands, and through the churches. The Great Trek did get a little attention - people knew something was happening in the Cape interior, and some Dutch went out to South Africa to work.

In 1880s the real interest developed, with the Boer rebellion. From then the Dutch began to consider the Boer Republics something like a Dutch colony - not in a political sense but as having a cultural dependency. Many Dutch occupied positions in the Transvaal: the preachers in churches were mostly Dutch, about 20 percent of the administration was Dutch, there were hundreds of Dutch schoolmasters and railways in the Transvaal were run by a Dutch company. The Superintendent of Education was Dutch, as was the Secretary of the Interior and Foreign Affairs. The Transvaal government made the republic attractive for Dutch people. Paul Kruger did not like people from the Cape - he felt they were subjugated by the British, so he encouraged people from the Netherlands to work in the Transvaal as a way to strengthen Boer independence.

The Dutch were very anti-British. At that time the Netherlands was a small nation with an important colony in the Indies, but Britain was the real superpower. Every child in the late 1800s knew the Dutch had been to war with Britain four times. The Dutch, to the last man, were pro-Boer - not only the protestants but also the Roman Catholics and the socialists. There was already a strong socialist movement among the dock workers in Amsterdam and they were keen to strike against the British.

Boer sympathies in the Netherlands were important for at least two or three generations. There were many popular novels, especially for youth, about the Boer war. In Louwrens Penning's books there was the Afrikaner, Louie Vessels, the hero who always did the right thing in any situation and loved his lady. And the real leaders in the Anglo-Boer war were also included, like Kruger, Botha, de la Rey, De Wet, as well as the big battles, like the Battle of Spionkop. The wife of the socialist party leader at that time wrote a book about a Zulu boy and his experience of the Zulu nation in the 19th century, from Shaka and the Mfekana to Isandlwana. This Zulu boy is something of a black hero; he has to leave his kraal because of the dictatorship of Shaka, and he doesn't like Shaka or the British. At the end of the story he becomes a Christian and a peace loving man, gets married and settles down on a farm, has children and lives happily ever after. This book was published in 1900 or 1901 and the last edition in 1955 - it has had seven or eight editions. It was immensely popular. But this book was exceptional. Generally black people did not feature. The Anglo-Boer war was considered a white man's war. There were some black people in the background of Penning's stories, but always within the stereotypes, such as the trusting labourer.

Some American sociologists accuse Abraham Kuyper of being the father of apartheid - but that is bloody nonsense. Kuyper began as a minister and theologian, turned to journalism and started the Vrij University. He moved into politics, leading the anti-revolutionary party and becoming Prime Minister between 1901-1905. He was a leader of pro-Boer agitation in the Netherlands, and mediated between the British and Boers to help obtain the Peace of Vereeniging. He was a Christian Nationalist, but was never in South Africa and had nothing to do with the Afrikaner state.

This Dutch sympathy with the Boers had a double effect in the 60s. Many Dutch could not believe that the Boers were the bad guys - they saw the Afrikaners as further victims of British imperialism. The long history of Dutch involvement with South Africa also stimulated the anti-apartheid movement; the anti-apartheid movement was much stronger here than in other countries. Since 1994 there has not been much attention on South Africa in the Netherlands.

I asked Professor Schutte how his interest in South Africa developed:

It began when I was a student in the 60s. I wanted to be a colonial historian. My professor said it was best to go to the place you are studying, but relations between Indonesia and the Dutch were strained. So my professor told me, 'There is a place which is even more colonial - South Africa'. I went to study at UNISA, in Pretoria, and found this was true. South Africa was a colony under Europe, but in many ways in the contemporary it is still a colony; one can watch the colonial situation before one's eyes.

With knowledge of decolonisation in other places, one can make predictions as to what is going to happen. One problem that occurs in all colonial societies is that there is a strong reaction against the colonial powers, and then segments of the population begin to co-operate with the colonial powers. Like now, there is the ANC against COSATU, the middle class against the working class. The most extreme difficulty in South Africa is that it is too poor to have so many people. While the ANC tries to improve the situation of the poor, it is impossible. The future of South Africa is colour blind, where money, status, power and education are the most important things. In 10 to 20 years, the black and white wealthy will live together - against the mass of poor people.

After I leave I feel regretful that I haven't thanked Professor Schutte for speaking with me in English.

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