Think!Fest: Examining South Africa’s contested history

Dr Matlotleng Matlou speaking at the Think!Fest panel "History is in the Eye of Which Beholder?". Photo: Mako Muzenda.

Who has the right to talk about history? Who has the right to claim ownership of a particular narrative and historical event? A Think!Fest debate, titled “History is in the Eye of Which Beholder?”, on the question of ownership in relation to South African history attempted to unpack these heavy questions.

A collaboration between the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the National Arts Festival, the panel discussion focused on the relationship between the Netherlands and South Africa, and how the former’s maritime history links to the enforcement of apartheid.

The four person panel consisted of Dr. Matlotleng Matlou, Martine Gosselink, Calvyn Gilfellan and Simangaliso Sibiya. Gosselink, who is the Head of Rijksmuseum’s Department of History, curated the ‘Good Hope’ exhibition that detailed the historical connection between the Netherlands and South Africa. Gosselink’s intentions were clear: the exhibition was to reveal a side of Dutch history that has been hidden from its people. “The Dutch really don’t know about this history. They know about Mandela, they don’t know about this,” she explained, as the history goes back to 1652, when Jan van Riebeeck landed in Cape Town. “Zuma was right. The problems did start with Jan van Riebeeck.”

A big area of focus was the question of land, whose ownership has increasingly come under contestation. Although Dutch settlers first bought land from Khoi and San people, Gosselink was quick to stress that the Khoi and San did not have a concept of private land ownership, thus the sale of this land was not done with a full understanding of what the Dutch intended to do. “You cannot own water. You cannot own air. You cannot own land.”

Dr. Matlou spoke widely on the system that Dutch colonisation initially created — a system he firmly believes is still in existence today. “Apartheid may have been removed from the statute books, but the system remains,” he said. Here on his first visit to Grahamstown, Matlou pointed out the monuments and churches that represent only one part of the history of the town. The Monument to the Anglo-Boer war, the building where the discussion took place, does not speak of the 1818 war between General Makana’s troops and the British army. Even the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. George is a part of this system. “We have beautiful churches, but the system that built them was slavery and oppression,” stated Matlou, as he stressed that different perspectives must be taken into account when it comes to shared histories. This is important because history is not stuck in the past. It is a vital part of South African current affairs, and ignoring one side of the story does the country at large a great disservice.

Last to speak was Sibiya, an artist from Soweto who did a residency at the Rijkmuseum. He was critical of the Good Hope exhibition. “I don’t know if I came out of the Goede Hoop exhibition a better person, or if I just came out bitter,” he expressed. Although he acknowledged that the exhibition was created for a Dutch audience, Sibiya disapproved of the lack of representation of South African artists. “I didn’t see myself in that exhibition,” he said, pointing to the fact that there were instances where South African artists could’ve  been given exhibition space, but they weren’t approached. His critique was not reserved to the exhibition, but to the way it was advertised to audiences outside the museum. Images of Nelson Mandela, splashed across billboards just outside the Rijkmuseum, served as adverts for the Good Hope exhibition, and as someone who personally feels betrayed by figures such as Nelson Mandela, the use of his image to attract visitors did not sit well with Sibiya. “The one who gets to tell the story is either the puppet master or the one with the biggest cheque book.”

There was time for a Q&A session with the audience after the presentations. This led to the discussion running well over its time slot, as several audience members directed questions at each panelist. Audience members asked questions on repatriation of stolen artefacts, of commercialising history, and inclusion of different sources, with the panelists answering each question and generating conversation on the way forward in addressing painful historical moments. With a summary and closing words from the Dutch ambassador to South Africa Marisa Gerards, the debate was over, but all the questions and topics it raised still linger.

By Mako Muzenda