Does Krotoa whitewash Khoi history?

Who was krotoa? Critics of the film say Jan van Riebeeck’s cruelty towards Krotoa is grossly underplayed, creating a selective view of history
Who was krotoa? Critics of the film say Jan van Riebeeck’s cruelty towards Krotoa is grossly underplayed, creating a selective view of history

The film Krotoa tells the story of the most famous Khoi woman in history – a translator to the Dutch settlers, and later their fierce enemy. But there’s been an outcry from some viewers, who say history is once again being told through white eyes. Here are two sides of the argument.

Kaye Ann Williams

It bothers me when people say the film distorts history by showing Krotoa’s story through a white lens. Director Roberta Durrant has received multiple awards for transforming the industry. I wrote the script with Margaret Goldsmid, but the story choices were mine. The visual execution did not steer away from the script. So, am I the white perspective? I grew up in the Bishop Lavis and Elsie’s River townships in Cape Town, and I do not identify as white.

I knew starting this journey that the story would evoke, strong and varied opinions from people (both coloured and white). As a storyteller, I think it’s important to sculpt well-rounded characters, not one-dimensional ones. So, in earlier versions of the script, Jan van Riebeeck was quite villainous and Krotoa was cerebral, but not tangible enough as a character that people would be able to identify with. (Obviously I was working through my own anger around these issues.) So, my process became practical – what kind of emotional responses would they have to each other considering the uniqueness of the era? He was her guardian and in some ways mentored her – so how would that kind of relationship play out? In doing that I found their flaws and their complexities as characters and not just a bland, austere perspective.

This is a fictional account of Krotoa’s life. I’m not claiming it to be the “gospel truth” – just inspired by the facts available. I did a comprehensive documentary on Krotoa before I wrote the film, where I presented all views on the matter. For the film, however, I have 100 minutes to tell a story that has so many layers. My focus was Krotoa’s journey and, as much as I idolise her, I had to make her relatable and human with strengths and weaknesses. I think its difficult for critics such as Sylvia Vollenhoven to accept that Krotoa was human with flaws.

I was much inspired by Margaret Atwood’s book, The Handmaid’s Tale. The idea of a woman with no options, trapped in a man’s world.

As for my reducing the power of Khoi figures, the Khoi men were enterprising and strong but, as history indicates, were overwhelmed by the arrival of the Dutch. The first Khoi-Boer war ended in disaster for the Khoi because of Dutch weaponry. The Dutch brought smallpox to the country, infecting the Khoi to the point of near extinction. The Dutch were a disease that nearly wiped out the Khoi people. Douman was the most militant Khoi, but historically died of injuries suffered during the war. I believe the Khoi are portrayed as complex characters who had to cope with the unique situation in which they found themselves.

And how is Krotoa’s agency removed? At every turning point she makes her own decisions. However, that is counterpointed with the fact that she is wedged between two cultures. History tells us that she was abandoned by both the Dutch and the Khoi.

The reason for the credits mentioning white Afrikaner men is because white South Africans long denied their mixed heritage. The coloured people of this country do not deny this. We needed to make a point – we are all interlinked. We are all connected. Even those who would deny their Khoi lineage can no longer do so.

I interviewed Patric Tariq Mellett for the documentary as a white descendant of Krotoa. He was most helpful and aided and guided me. For the film, however, I was guided by the historical writings I studied and the historians I interviewed. If you read his post very carefully and critically, he uses phrases like “must have” and “would have” in his deductions of Krotoa’s life. There is no absolute account of her life. I feel that he is also quite emotional because he is of her bloodline and he has idolised her. So, any “real” portrayal of a flawed but brilliant woman might not be that acceptable to him.

I want to add that my intent with the film was to stimulate discourse and discussion. I am really proud that this has occurred and am open to any debate or discussion around the film, but my ultimate goal was to highlight this incredible woman who is so deeply entrenched in our history, but has gone unacknowledged for so many, many years.

- Williams in one of the Krotoa scriptwriters

Sylvia Vollenhoven

‘Krotoa (her name was !Goro/gõas, and it means ‘the ward’) ... found that she had to pay a huge and unbearable personal price for being an outspoken black woman, an indigene, an intellectual – in a European colonial world of men, whose minds were trapped in a belief in their own fallible supremacy,” writes historian Patric Tariq Mellett in response to the film Krotoa. “Director Roberta Durrant and scriptwriters Margaret Goldsmid and Kaye Ann Williams let down the story badly.”

In truth, the Krotoa story is about a young child taken away from her people, who was possibly abused and traumatised. Growing up, she uses a combination of her sharp mind, engaging personality and instincts to do way more than just survive. But the odds are stacked against her by the hostile culture that entraps her. She descends into alcoholism and, some claim, insanity.

The movie, however, foregrounds a weird and cheesy love affair between Krotoa and benevolent colonial administrator Jan van Riebeeck. Alongside the sin of a puzzling historic distortion to serve a pseudo-romantic, post-colonial lens, this film takes a dynamic truth and turns it into an extremely boring fantasy. Then it throws in a few cheap thrills, modern insults heaped upon historic injury.

If you are acquainted with this fascinating story, watching the film is like having booked for dinner at a Michelin Star restaurant that turns out to be a fast-food joint in a seedy part of town.

Mellett, a heritage activist whose meticulous research is freely available, writes: “The movie projects Krotoa as being solely shaped by the Van Riebeecks ... it was not about Krotoa. The third and most devastating decade of her life is a sanitisation of the cruelty she was put through by the Europeans and the torment she underwent. Avoided too is the dominant paradigm in all three decades, of being a child, teen and woman of great substance and independence.”

This team could not write a high-status Krotoa because they remained trapped in their own 21st century bigotry. For the same reason, all the Khoi characters, even the chiefs such as Autshumao and Nommoa or Douman, whose true stories are fascinating, are little more than blundering cardboard cut-outs. The message: The best we can aim for here is noble savage.

But I am not angry with Durrant and her creatives. I am angry with myself. Why are we still allowing this to happen today? They made this film this way because we still tolerate white people and their collaborators trampling on our sacred things.

They do it because the forces that were at work in the minds of the colonial riff-raff have hardly abated. We still relegate the descendants of the indigenous people to the bottom of the social hierarchy, a place with no agency.

Durrant and those like her have been shaped by apartheid privilege. They play the same game they’ve been playing since they took Krotoa from her family centuries ago, played Pygmalion in a dusty fort and cast her out when she no longer served their purpose.

Script writers like Williams enter this world as junior partners, forever at a disadvantage. Williams is so far the only Krotoa creative to respond to the outpouring of hurt, trauma and anger.

Mellett, himself descended from Krotoa, writes: “Van Riebeeck gave daily rations of tobacco and alcohol to pacify … children, this contributed to their high death rate. Is this how he also pacified Krotoa and the other slave children in his household? It is likely that both her alcoholism and a legacy of abuse happened to start while the … girls were quite young and while sedated with liquor. The movie projects a false and groundless trajectory instead of these facts that we know.”

The credits give a final glimpse into the world of the film makers. It mentions only three of Krotoa’s descendants, all white Afrikaner men.

I am angry because, once more, they failed to truly see her, constantly fail to see all the Krotoas then and now. And, all the while, an ancient hurt growls around beneath the surface of a people struggling to become a nation.

- Vollenhoven is a film maker, playwright and author of The Keeper of the Kumm, a memoir that traces the crisis of identity caused by South Africa’s hidden and distorted histories


Have you seen the film, Krotoa? Do you agree that it fails to portray her realistically?

SMS us on 35697 using the keyword KHOI. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50

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