Rehashing Van Riebeeck

2015-03-16 12:00

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Reinterpreting historical facts about the early days of SA does not make all whites bad and all blacks good. Adjusting to a grossly distorted version of history ignores the value of 150 years of indigenous resistance

Pieter Mulder

It is a historical fact that Jan van Riebeeck arrived in Table Bay in the Western Cape on April 6 1652 and found Autshumato and his people.

It is also a fact that Van Riebeeck had strict instructions to build good relations with the Khoisan to trade cattle with them.

Then on October 19 1653, Autshumato and his followers stole nearly all the cattle from the Company and murdered the herdsman, David Janz.

Later, many of the Khoisan were killed in punitive expeditions and in the great smallpox epidemics of that time.

If these are the facts, why do people often disagree about history?

Because people interpret historical facts differently.

Also, because some people abuse history to mobilise others in the present time. Then we choose historical facts that suit us and leave out other uncomfortable facts.

With this we create historical myths that are partially true – but do not portray history in a balanced way.In Rwanda, the Hutu leaders created historical myths that found a way to blame the country’s troubles on the Tutsis.

When the problems did not go away, the ordinary Hutus started calling the Tutsis “cockroaches” and up to a million Tutsis were murdered in 100 days.

Dan Brown writes in his book The Da Vinci Code: “History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books – books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe.”

Currently, South African history is again being analysed from new angles and rewritten, especially by the ANC, which sees itself as the victor after 1994.

What I find to be a pity is that exactly the same mistakes of the past are being made now. In the new version of history, the Afrikaners and whites are always just bad, while those who are black, brown and Khoisan are always good and innocent.

But the history of that period is much more complex, with good and bad people on both sides.

The final balanced history of that time will still have to be written. It will lie somewhere between the Khoisan and Dutch perspectives. It will explain how two different cultural approaches clashed in the Cape.

The Dutch came from Europe, where individual and private property rights to land were the custom – as opposed to the Khoisan, who believed the land belonged to everyone for their use.

The Khoisan kept cattle only for their own use, as opposed to the Dutch, who traded to make a profit and provide the huge Dutch navy with meat.

When this is written about from today’s perspective, the question of whether South Africa would be a better place if Van Riebeeck had never come to the Cape has to be asked.

Would the highways have been broader and the hospitals bigger without Van Riebeeck and his descendants’ contributions? The descendants of Autshumato also make use of those hospitals, roads and cellular phone networks.

Mulder is leader of the Freedom Front Plus

Zubeida Jaffer

When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books. Who should rather in justice give way: the rightful owner or the foreign intruder?

Jan van Riebeeck arrived in South Africa in 1652 – it was drilled into my generation’s minds at primary school. Who did he find at the Cape? The great leader Autshumato and his people – today referred to as the Khoisan – who had lived there for thousands of years.

Slowly, a mutual animosity developed over access to pastures.

The first substantial threat came after five years – in 1657, when Van Riebeeck released nine men from their contracts and, by royal decree, granted them title deeds to land along the Liesbeek River.

Each was granted 15 morgen of land in what is now known as Bishopscourt.

Autshumato did not take this lightly – and so began a 150-year resistance.In that same year, Van Riebeeck’s company imported the first slaves from the Indonesian islands and India, bringing the skill and labour that built the Cape.

In 1659, Van Riebeeck instructed the slaves to build a wooden fence, with watchtowers, from the mouth of the Salt River through Rondebosch to Kirstenbosch, using the deeper parts of the Liesbeek River as part of the barrier.

To finish the barrier quickly, a hedge of indigenous wild almond trees and thorny shrubs was planted along the section between the river and Kirstenbosch.

This further locked out the natives from their grazing land and denied them access to the rivers.

Van Riebeeck recorded an encounter where they confronted him about land rights and asked him, “Who should rather in justice give way: the rightful owner or the foreign intruder?” Efforts to protect the hedge began as soon as it was planted.

Van Riebeeck issued a plakaat (a posted law) forbidding everyone “not only from making passage through?...?the said hedge, but not even to break off from it the smallest twig, no matter what the reason is supposed to be, on pain of being banished in chains for three years”.

After bringing major disruption to this part of the world, Van Riebeeck continues to be presented as someone we should value.

His statue occupies centre stage on the main street in the city of Cape Town. He spent eight years of his life on these shores and we hold him up as an example to our children – who know nothing about Autshumato, the great Khoisan leader.

Van Riebeeck was an employee of a marauding company not known for fair trade outside Europe.

It was not very different from some companies today, who parachute into our country, strip us of our resources and then fly back from whence they came. It is unfortunate that the city of Cape Town chooses not to teach us to value Autshumato and others like him, who have done us no harm.

Instead it gives pride of place to those who have done us great harm.

The city seems determined to help us adjust to a version of history that can only be described as a gross distortion.

Failure to interrogate this attitude will only leave most citizens unsupported in making sense of their past and their present experiences.

Jaffer is writer in residence at the University of the Free State. These are edited versions of both articles, which appeared in The Journalist (, a website where ‘context and history matter’

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