Standing up for Jan v R not in vogue
LAST year, Stoep commended an unexpected publication about Russians in the Cape in the 19th century, published by the Van Riebeeck Society.
Until that book, I’d known nothing of this society. With it, I learnt that they are quick on the draw.
They suggested that, since I had told the wide world or Stoep Talk’s readers (whichever is the greater) that they were a fine outfit, shouldn’t I put my money where my pen was?
I, a non-joiner person, joined. My R250 went to the pot that produces a book a year on South Africa, usually a book that opens or resuscitates a dead or dying slice of history.
That’s what the Van Riebeeckers have done for 99 years. They’ve just sent me their latest, by RV Selope Thema, who 85 years ago was the first editor of what is now the Sowetan.This is, to me, a fine slice of resuscitation.
Moreover, receiving it by membership feels strangely unlike buying a book on the shelves. That book exists anyway. This one exists because of my R250 and a few hundred or thousand others.
Stranger still, I feel proprietorial towards the 98 books that preceded it. I may be Johnny-come-lately but I’m part of an institution that has created a stack of undead Seffricanism.
Last time I mentioned the Van Riebeeck Society, the response was mainly alarm-bells. “Van Riebeeck?” said people with an I-smell-excrement expression, “No, let that stuff die away”.
These were, of course, pale people (mainly ones who’d once venerated old Jan).
I didn’t quite agree, as you detect. I indeed rejoice when people want to see new, think new, do new. But not this way.
It’s not just that you can’t judge yesterday’s people by today’s values.
You can condemn those who were bastards by their own time’s standards, but condemning the past for being backward is idiocy. People weren’t where we are, like we aren’t where our grandchildren will be.
It’s not just that South Africans in general will come to claim Van Riebeeck, like Brits claim William the Conqueror, not for rectitude or wisdom but for symbolising a step to what is.
It’s not just that to follow fads is being a lemming. If you, in yourself, believe Van Riebeeck is a dirty word, I might argue with you, but I’ll respect your view. If you say “X” is in vogue, so let’s mouth “X” and block our ears to “Y”, no.
It’s also that shunning Jan is a dof substitute for contributing.
We palefaces are a confused gang, closing eyes and hearts to the world around us and treating compatriots as aliens, while simultaneously going frantic to find a famous dark face that will not only join our board/function/ project, but actually pitch up.
That’s doubly dumb. Rather take an interest in the real people while being unabashed in your own skin. It’s all right to be born white, believe it or not. No apologising, no explaining, just generally preferable to be sensible.
Jan v R didn’t want to be here. He did nothing tremendous while he was here. He scuttled off as soon as he could, and he left nothing but his symbolic name (purely symbolic, how many Van Riebeecks have you bumped into lately?). But if people choose to use that name in adding what they add, that would be their right, however narrowly tribally they might define their adding.
When their adding is full and broad, that’s a win-win, for an interest group defined by interest, not by tribe. The tribalists are the ones who say “no, let’s suppress that part of where we came from”.