Who speaks? Voices from the past

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We must question our past and the methods we use to analyse it, and find new, creative ways to repair it — because it is still with us, and still affects us. This was discussed in a webinar titled “Who speaks? Voices from the past”, sponsored by the Kingdom of the Netherlands and hosted by the Mail & Guardian.

South Africa and the Netherlands share a complex history, as the Cape was once a Dutch colony. The webinar was part of the #cocreateIDENTITY Festival held in Cape Town from 4 to 6 June 2022, and in this session the speakers opened a dialogue to rediscover the voices of the past and provide space for their experiences. 

Webinar moderator Anathi Madubela, financial journalist for the Mail & Guardian, opened proceedings, briefly outlining the CoCreate events and introducing the speakers. A short Sites of Memory presentation, with dancers from Cape Town, was shared before the speakers began the debate. 

Anathi Madubela

Why are we exploring stories from the past? Sylvia Vollenhoven, writer, playwright and filmmaker said it is important because history affects us through generations; for example, the fact that her parents were classified as “coloured” during apartheid played a big role in her own life. Her community is plagued by alcoholism and violence, because the coloured folk were obliterated from history, and now they are trying to reclaim their identity. “We need to remember who we are, where we come from, and what our contributions have been, so that we can be proud and our children don’t have to drink themselves to death, and kill each other,” she said.

Cultural historian Jennifer Tosch said the central question she asks in her work is, “what is the future, for the past?” This question is important because of the way knowledge has been recorded, from a Western perspective; she considers herself an epistemological activist. She tries to centre the hidden stories, as history has not been shared equally; there is a “parallel” and forgotten history. Oral history has been largely ignored, for instance. 

Regarding the relationship between South Africa and the Netherlands, Tosch said most people in the Netherlands choose to forget about it; most Dutch people only see things from one perspective or narrative. Many regard the Cape colony as a mere transit point for ships, not an actual colony; however, she said that the roots of apartheid go all the way back to the days of Jan van Riebeeck.

Slavery historian Kate Ekama said slavery was a central part of the relationship between South Africa and the Netherlands, which still affects us today. Her research concerns what slavery was like and what was it about, which she discerns mainly from written texts; she also analyses how these were produced, and why. “A lot of my research comes from court cases, which often detail violent, dehumanising incidents.” She said the fact that slaves were regarded as property has shaped how today’s financial institutions were formed.  

Vollenhoven said that changing the narrative about slavery is extremely important. The academic Carine Zaayman, a descendant of Krotoa (Eva), writes about the “anarchive”, which “concerns the missing parts of the archive we have inherited”. Vollenhoven said the effects of apartheid are damaging for all races, including white people. 

Jennifer Tosch

This brought up the question of, how much are we shoving under the carpet, not just in the past, but still in the present? Tosch said there is still much evidence of collective amnesia in the Cape, which has remained largely unchanged from apartheid days: “I even saw waitresses wearing aprons with VOC [Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie/Dutch East India Company] on them. They were told that this is part of the history of the Cape.” 

We are indeed still shoving violent connections to the past under the carpet, said Tosch; for instance, Amsterdam was founded on colonial conquest, and if you peel away at its facade, there is still plenty of evidence of this. “We are still living our past, and we are still trying to reconcile with it, and how to take it into the future.” What is also swept under the rug is that Africa had plenty of history before the arrival of Europeans. To retrieve this history, we have to sometimes rely on our ancestors and intuition, she noted.

Vollenhoven said that may have to rethink the way history has been written: the recently published book The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by anthropologist activist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow, postulates that perhaps the enlightenment of Europe happened because of sustained contact with indigenous cultures in America and Africa. Much was destroyed because it was not understood, but also, a lot was appropriated. 

Tosch said that there is a lot of emotional labour inherent in the work that they do as historians, and self-care is thus important. “Our colonial history has been mostly forgotten, even though it is hidden in plain sight. We have so little knowledge of the lived experience of people from that time, but we are starting to get a better picture as families share their personal archives.” 

How does language still play a role in furthering the legacies of colonisation, asked Madubela?  Vollenhoven said that language is part of our identity, and the colonists imposed their languages on indigenous people. Language is used as an excuse to be chauvinistic still today. Her mother ensured that her family learned “proper” English, to better their economic prospects, because Afrikaans — especially Afrikaaps — was not recognised.

Kate Ekama

Tosch said that language was a way to divide communities; the colonisers forbade the use of indigenous languages. Language was used to make power; all the records of the Cape were in Dutch, for instance. The concept of race itself was constructed through language; but the Dutch often see themselves as “above” racism, especially today. 

What was the role of religion in colonialism, asked an audience member? Vollenhoven said the colonial concept of religion was accepted along with the language and education systems of the oppressor, despite the fact that the Africans had their own religions before the colonists arrived. “Western religion helped to destroy our connections with ourselves and our ancestors, so we became much more malleable slaves.”


What are the solutions to these challenges? Ekama said discussions with her colleagues and events such as coCreate help to overcome the issues. “Collaboration and research can help us to recover and reclaim our histories, and how to make the finding accessible.” 

Tosch said that we have to question our “knowledge”. We have to question our own stories, and the ways that we recover our past. We have to use fewer traditional academic methods to analyse it. We need to find creative ways to repair the past. White people must question what it means to be white, and reconcile with it. 

Vollenhoven said that in order to redress the past, and our racism and notions of superiority and inferiority, we must look to our artists, who can help us to overcome divides. “To do this, we must support our artists much more strongly, because they are the custodians of our links between past and present; if we don’t look after them, and keep on sidelining them, and allocating to them only what is left in the budget, we will lose our way.”

Derek Davey

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