Stand­ing up for Jan v R not in vogue

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS -

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”.

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