We’ve all come to know that Jan van Riebeeck arrived in South Africa in 1652. Who he found, what transpired next is highly contested. The stories that have come to be known about van Riebeeck and have been circulated under apartheid, defied the material evidence of history in order to suit the narrative of white supremacy. Here’s an excerpt taken from Christine Qunta’s book of essays: “Why We Are Not A Nation” on the arrival of van Riebeeck ……
The drunken ships arrive
Apartheid history teaches that Jan van Riebeeck and his fellow Dutchmen settled in what is now known as South Africa in 1652. The word ‘settled’ has such a placid feel about it, but the truth is that nothing about the arrival of the Dutch was placid. It was in effect an invasion that started a 350-year campaign of relentless violence, dispossession and impoverishment. Its malignant legacy continues to haunt South Africa today.
The Dutch East India Company was a private merchant company formed in Holland in 1602. This transnational company was a monopoly that had wide powers similar to that of a sovereign state, including the right to sign treaties and declare war,7 and exploited the resources of countries colonised by the Dutch and other European countries. It was owned by six chambers of Dutch merchants, for whom it generated massive profits, and it was them who deployed Van Riebeeck to the Cape. Between 1639 to 1649 he had been employed in Java, Sumatra, China and Japan, and was finally recalled to Holland where he was suspended for corruptly trading for his own account in Batavia. He was subsequently despatched to Brazil, the West Indies and Greenland, and then sent to establish a trading post at the Cape.
The company needed to obtain provisions, including meat from the vast herds of cattle and sheep owned by the Khoi who lived in what is now known as Western Cape, so instructions to Van Riebeeck were to obtain such supplies through peaceful negotiations because it wished to avoid costly wars. Van Riebeeck did not share this view as is evident in his own diary entries:
Today the Hottentots came with thousands of cattle and sheep close to our fort, so that their cattle nearly mixed with ours. We feel vexed to see so many fine head of cattle, and not to be able to buy to any considerable extent. If it had been indeed allowed, we had opportunity today to deprive them of 10,000 head, which, however, if we obtain orders to the effect can be done at any time, and even more conveniently, because they will have greater confidence in us. With 150 men, 10,000 or 11,000 head of black cattle might be obtained without danger of losing one man; and many savages might be taken without resistance, in order to be sent to India, as they still always come to us unarmed.8
Van Riebeeck’s attitude increasingly poisoned relations between the colonists and the Khoi. In his journal entry on 5 and 6 April 1660 he relates a meeting with the leader of the Khoi.
[They] strongly insisted that we had been appropriating more and more of their land, which had been theirs all these centuries, and on which they had been accustomed to let their cattle graze … They asked if they would be allowed to do such a thing supposing they went to Holland and they added: ‘It would be of little consequence if you people stayed at the fort, but you come right into the interior and select the best land for yourselves, without even asking whether we mind or whether it will cause us an inconvenience.’9
This was the beginning of the hostilities between the Europeans and the indigenous people of South Africa, and the mission changed from being a supply station to one of occupation. By 1657 employees of the Company had occupied the area they called Rondebosch, and by 1679 had reached what they called the Hottentots-Holland mountains and Stellenbosch, finally reaching Paarl in 1688. This invasive process then continued with the arrival of the French Huguenots who introduced their own campaigns of dispossession and forced the Khoi to become slaves on the vineyards they established.10
Magubane cites the work of Alexander Wilmot, who wrote in The Story of the Expansion of Southern Africa that ‘the Bushman, Hottentots and Kaffirs’ were regarded as the ‘natural enemies of Europeans in South Africa’.11 Wilmot gives accounts of the expeditions mounted by the Dutch settlers to wage what he called a ‘war of extermination’ against the Khoi and San people. One instance was an expedition in 1775 when a commando team under a certain Commandant Van Jaarsveld murdered 122 Khoi people.12 Wilmot recounts further expeditions:
It is recorded that between the years 1786 and 1795 no fewer than 2480 of these people were killed … The Landrost of Graff-Reinet (Maynier) tells us in 1792, that every year large commandos of 200 or 300 boers had been sent out against the Bushmen, and learned by their reports that generally many hundreds were killed by them, the greatest part helpless women and innocent children … At close of the eighteenth century the Hottentot and Bushmen enemy was fairly well disposed of.13
Thomas Pringle, who arrived as one of the 1820 British Settlers, also gave an account of one commando gleaned from an interview with a Dutch farmer, whom he referred to as a Boer, and who had participated in one such raid:
We had surprised and destroyed a considerable kraal of Bosjeman [sic]. When the firing ceased, five women were still found living. The lives of these …it was resolved to spare, because one farmer wanted a servant for this purpose and another for that. The unfortunate wretches were ordered to march in front of the commando; but it was soon found that they impeded our progress … They were, therefore, ordered to be shot. The helpless victims … clung so firmly to some of the party that it was for some time impossible to shoot them. Four of them were at length dispatched.14
So it was that the whole of what we know today as South Africa eventually became engulfed in a series of wars between the settlers and indigenous people. The Eastern Cape bore the brunt of these wars, and over a period of two centuries, for example, nine wars of resistance were fought by the Xhosa people in defence of their land and dignity. Despite their resolve, bravery and tactical abilities, the superior firepower of the settlers eventually won the day.
Written into law
Initially, the enslavement of Africans was accomplished through warfare, extermination and scorched-earth campaigns. In the latter, livestock was looted and crops burnt to induce starvation. These types of campaigns were designed to force people off the remaining land so that they would be without any independent means of income, and thus satisfy the increasing demand for cheap labour on farms and mines.
For example, in the war of 1851 with the Gcaleka people, the British invaded land of King Kreli and confiscated 37 000 head of cattle, 14 000 goats and a few horses. The king’s headquarters were burnt down and a further 10 000 head of cattle were stolen.15 Legislation was used as a kind of mopping-up operation, and land that had not yet been forcibly taken, was expropriated through legislation such as the Land Act of 1913. Not satisfied with this, the colonial authorities ensured that Africans remained unskilled and uneducated and were barred from practising certain trades or competing with white workers for jobs. These measures and legislation were instituted by the British settlers and they predate apartheid, which was formally promulgated in 1948.
There are many examples of these legislative measures. The 1809 Vagrancy Act, for instance, essentially declared all black people who did not work for whites to be vagrants. Arbitrary taxes – including hut and poll taxes – were used to remove African farmers from farming, with the Glen Grey Act of 1894 just one such example. The Act imposed a labour tax on subsistence farmers who, because they did not participate in the cash economy, had to find work on the mines in order to pay the taxes. Job reservation legislation, such as the 1911 Mines and Works Act, named 32 types of jobs for which only whites could be recruited. The 1951 Native Building Workers Act prevented Africans from obtaining apprenticeship, which they had been able to obtain till then, even though the education requirement of completion of Standard Six had already made that difficult.16 These measures, together with influx control and a deliberately inferior education system, accounts for the shortage of skills and the high levels of poverty to which the majority is condemned today.