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||Between 13 April and 15 September 1996 the exhibition Miscast.
Negotiating Khoisan History and Material Culture was mounted at the South
African National Gallery in Cape Town. The curator was Pippa Skotness, an
accomplished artist in her own right. She applied to the material she had
collected a creative artist's touch and imagination: she set up the exhibition
as an installation. As a result the curator's role as an interpreter
signposting meaning is highlighted. The installation is the creation of the
curator; it visualizes her attitude towards the Khoisan and their history. The
'exhibition as installation' concept deliberately draws the attention of the
visitors to this process of interpretation. Moreover, through the use of
mirrors the visitors too become active participants in the installation.
Indeed, when seeing their reflections, they are confronted with themselves as
viewers. They are thus made to realise that the act of looking is already
tainted by their own convictions, beliefs and prejudices. No encounter can be
The Miscast installation aimed to engage the viewers both intellectually and emotionally. Pippa Skotness adds her voice and, through their active involvement, the voices of the visitors as well, to the history of the encounters between the Khoisan and the Europeans. With the benefit of postcolonial hindsight she lays bare a history of: "[...] brutality, genocide, dispossession, displacement, cultural and language extermination and enslavement [...]" (Exhibition pamphlet 1996: 4). Skotness exposes the gruesome fate of the Khoisan which she attributes to the way they were viewed by the most powerful group, the White conquerors. However, the Khoisan were not only dehumanized by the White colonizers but also by most of the anthropologists who came in their wake and saw them solely as fascinating study objects. This objectifying approach is still very much in evidence in anthropological museum collections which present the Khoisan as bucolic peoples living in total harmony with nature.
Skotness showed that in the past the Khoisan were: "[...] cast out of time, out of politics and out of history - miscast" (Skotness 1996: 17). She denounces White intolerance, cruelty and scientific aloofness and fiercely criticizes the Eurocentric disdain with which the Black 'other' is treated. By re-establishing the historical presence of the Khoisan and by drawing attention to their considerable cultural achievements their human dignity is restored. This can only be attained through the re-interpretation of history. The 'other' has to be given a voice and a place, a presence in it.
The Miscast exhibition makes a significant contribution to the National Gallery's effort of re-appraising the past. This is part and parcel of the Museum's professed policy to grant Black peoples, cultures and individuals their rightful say and place on the cultural and political forum, from which they were banned for all too long and thus to foster reconciliation between the different racial groups. This ideal also lives in South African society at large and finds its most vociferous expression in the ubiquitous media campaign promoting South Africa as a rainbow nation and in the slogan 'Simunye' or 'We are one'. The National Gallery certainly is in tune with the times.
It can be no surprise that the same objectives are also shared by the different South African literatures. The discussion in academic circles about the desirability of establishing all-encompassing South(ern) African literature departments and of writing an all-inclusive history of South(ern) African literature springs from the same revisionist agenda. Moreover, South African writing too is largely preoccupied with dissecting the past. For creative writers the revisiting of South Africa's history seems to be the most effective way of confronting and coming to terms with centuries of injustice. This cleansing operation is seen as a crucial step on the road towards a democratic, non-racial South Africa. It is obvious that Afrikaans literature too cannot escape this re-appraisal process.
In a discussion of the radio play Dias, which was written in 1952, Abraham De Vries (De Vries 1988) contends that it is quite inconceivable for a contemporary author to write a play about the Portuguese seafarer from the vantage point taken by N.P. Van Wyk Louw. Van Wyk Louw glaringly overlooks the issue of race and the racial violence which marred Dias' voyage of discovery around Africa's coastline. He depicts Dias as a discoverer who primarily desires to attain personal honour and glory. The radio play centres on Dias' failure to reach his objectives. His growing desperation forces him to travel the road from hubris to humility. Dias is a White man's play with a White hero written within a European aesthetic tradition for a Western medium. Africa and the Africans are characterised by absence.
The omission of Africans from Van Wyk Louw's radio play is of course just one example of their effective and surreptitious exclusion from Afrikaans literature. Since its inception Africans have been systematically marginalised and when they were allowed to make an appearance in the White writer's text, they were represented in a stereotypical fashion, portrayed mainly as irresponsible happy-go-lucky characters, completely dependent on the wisdom and benevolence of their White masters.
Not surprisingly,from the first travel documents a colonialist - Eurocentric - perspective dominates the descriptions of Southern Africa and its native inhabitants. The Hottentot or the Khoi are the first indigenous people the White colonisers encounter. They are described in less than flattering terms. In the essay "Idleness in South Africa", J.M. Coetzee (Coetzee 1988) states that these negative portrayals serve to underline the differences with the European colonisers. Indeed, the Dutch with their strong work ethic and racial arrogance could not but condemn what they perceived to be the indolent, wretched way of living of the Hottentot who, In order to climb a few rungs on the ladder of civilisation would have to shed their laziness. Obviously this argumentation simultaneously provides a moral and religious underpinning for the absorption of the Hottentot into the economic system of the White man. If they do not work, they cannot uplift themselves. Only by serving their White masters can the Hottentot become more civilised human beings.
Times have changed. In most of the recently published Afrikaans historical novels about the early history of the colonisation of Southern Africa, the colonialist relationship between Europeans and Africans is radically reinterpreted. By rejecting the myths and dogmas underlying colonialism they hammer the final nail into the coffin of apartheid. In the contemporary Afrikaans historical novels about early White settlement in Southern Africa, history has come full circle. The tables have been turned on the masters.
While Van Wyk Louw is one of the dominant literary personalities of the 'thirties' generation, Jan Rabie belongs to the vanguard of the iconoclastic 'sixties' movement. He is one of the instigators of a thematic and structural revolution which will shake the Afrikaans cultural and political establishment to its foundations. In his 'Bolandia' series, a prose cycle consisting of five novels, Rabie boldly dissects South African history. His approach is radically different from the traditionalist stance adopted by F.A. Venter in the latter's tetralogy of historical novels Geknelde land (Land of oppression) (1960), Offerland (Land of sacrifice) (1963), Gelofteland (Land of the Covenant) (1966) and Bedoelde land (Land of destiny) (1968).
Nevertheless, Rabie does not expose all the skeletons in the cupboard. While he demystifies the past by laying bare the racist attitudes of the majority of the colonisers, he at the same time presents their arrival and the ensuing developments with all their tragic consequences as inevitable. Rabie explains why Southern African history took a particular turn after the arrival of the Dutch but he never questions the legitimacy of their presence in Africa. Neither does he indicate that history could have developed in a different direction. Consequently, the very nature of the colonial enterprise is not given explicit thematic relevance.
Die Groot Anders-Maak (The big remaking) (1964), the second volume of the 'Bolandia' cycle, is set about 90 years after the landing of Jan van Riebeeck in 1652. The first farmers are trekking into the interior. By their very presence they pose a direct threat to the traditional way of life of the Khoi. Indeed, blinded by the material temptations White civilisation has to offer, most of Headman Oasib's clan, including Damoeb, the story's central character, quite readily give up their customs and traditions. Without any pangs of conscience they become the servants of the White trekkers and are thus initiated into the culture of the White man.
This process of acculturation is not portrayed as negative. Damoeb literally sells his Khoi identity for a horse and a gun. He is obviously not aware of the tragic consequences of the betrayal of his own culture. On the contrary, he considers Tom Muller to be his friend but unwittingly seals his fate by addressing him as "baas" (boss). As the events are seen through the eyes of Damoeb, no correction is made to his politically incorrect attitude. The contemporary reader has no option but to accept Damoeb's willing subjection to the white figure of authority and his keenness to imitate a European lifestyle. In consequence, the novel reinforces a Eurocentric view on Africa and its peoples.
Neither Die Groot Anders-Maak nor the other Bolandia novels bring a revolutionary overhaul of early Cape history. The novels do not dig deep enough to fully uncover the roots of colonialism or apartheid. Rabie's novels still show too many lingering traces of Eurocentrism. Rabie, nevertheless, has to be lauded for being the first author to put a re-interpretation of the Afrikaner's past onto the literary agenda and to draw attention to the importance of racist thinking and racist attitudes in the shaping of South Africa. Rabie's historical novels have undoubtedly prepared the way for the far more radical re-writes of South African history by other Afrikaans authors.
The Dutch were not the first Europeans with whom the native inhabitants of Southern Africa came into contact. Before them the Portuguese Bartholomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama had explored and opened up the sea route to the East. The novella Die eerste lewe van Adamastor (The first life of Adamastor) (1988) by A.P. Brink is inspired by the pre-colonial encounters between Africans and European seafarers on the shores of Southern Africa.
Brink's main character is T'kama, the first incarnation of Adamastor, the titan changed by Zeus into the rocks of the Cape peninsula according to the dramatic description by Luis De Camoes in his Os Luciadas (1572). T'kama is the head of a Khoi clan. One day a party of White sailors, who remain anonymous, lands near the Khoi encampment. From the moment both groups meet, the deception and the corruption of the Khoi set in. The Whites use the Khoi women to satisfy their sexual appetites while the Khoi men fall prey to the alcohol put at their disposal. When a White woman is by accident abducted by T'kama, bloodshed ensues. The rescue party is forced to retreat and later the ships leave without the woman. The Khoi have succeeded in putting the White invaders to flight. With this victory they subvert, albeit temporarily, the traditional colonial power relationship.
T'kama is so taken in by the White woman, whom he names Khois, that he wants her for himself. The Khoi then start on a long journey through the interior. The trip brings them nothing but hardship and suffering. When the Khoi finally arrive back at their point of departure history repeats itself. Khois is recaptured, apparently against her will, by a group of white sailors and taken away on board a ship. T'kama, in a desperate effort to get Khois back, tries to strike a deal with the sailors but is deceived by them, beaten up and left to die. It is his first death, which is made bearable by the thought that his child is with the Khoi clan and therefore in safe hands.
Die eerste lewe van Adamastor is a story about identity, assimilation, acculturation and the flashpoints between different cultures. Whereas the contact with white culture brings them nothing but harm, the Khoi cannot withstand its attractions. Khois in her turn, after the initial shock, quickly adapts to the Khoi way of living. T'kama and Khois learn each other's language and gradually develop a mutual understanding which blossoms into love. Khois even identifies herself to such an extent with the Khoi that she feels responsible for all the misfortunes which befall them. She runs away to avert further suffering. When after a long search T'kama finds her, she tells him why she feels so desperate: "Ek kon tog nie meer nie. Niks wat ek doen is reg nie. Ek verstaan niks van jou of jou mense in hierdie godverdomde land nie. Waar kan ek heen? My eie mense is weg. Dis alles heeltemal onmoontlik. Ek glo niks meer nie. Wat soek ek hier?" (I was at the end of my tether. Nothing of what I do is right. I don't understand anything of you or of your people in this goddamned country. Where can I go? My own people are gone. Everything is quite impossible. I don't believe in anything anymore. What am I looking for here?) (Brink 1988: 58). In this emotional outpouring Khois vents her disillusionment with her presence and role in Africa. In a wider context her outburst can be interpreted as a denunciation of colonialism itself. Brink's text thoroughly destroys the Eurocentric paradigm which lies at the core of Camoes's epic, which is: "[...] het epos van de moderne mens, die erin slaagt nieuwe werelden open te leggen dank zij zijn methodische geest, zijn moed en zijn vertrouwen in zichzelf, een vertrouwen dat gevoed wordt door zijn geloof in een historische zending. " ([...] the epic of modern man who succeeds in opening up new worlds thanks to his methodical spirit, his courage and his confidence in himself, a confidence which is fed by his belief in a historic mission.) (Moderne Encyclopedie der Wereldliteratuur II 1964: 23). Camoes' triumphant, Eurocentric message is counterbalanced in Brink's version by the latter's highlighting of the views of the victims of colonialism.
In Die eerste lewe van Adamastor Brink's criticism of colonialism is still relatively muted. The author acknowledges the presence and influence of European culture in Southern Africa and suggests that the way forward lies in the amalgamation of both cultures. T'kama dies and Khois is taken back to Europe but their child stays in Africa. Through the intermingling of European and African myths and of Western and African story-telling techniques, the same point is made.
Die eerste lewe van Adamastor purports to be Camoes source of inspiration. The sharply contrasting interpretations of the myth of Adamastor by Brink and Camoes underline their radically opposed ideological positions. Camoes optimistic prediction that Western knowledge and power will reign supreme has been shattered, while Brink's melting-pot vision, worked out with the benefit of hindsight, still has to stand the test of time. Die eerste lewe van Adamastor is not only a pre-text but also a post-text. The solution it proposes will perhaps turn out to be no less utopian than Camoes prophesy.
Moving into the interior
1. A faltering missionary
Elsa Joubert's Missionaris (Missionary) (1988) is situated at the beginning of the 19th century. The title immediately puts a colonial stamp on the novel. Aart van der Lingen, a lay preacher, leaves The Netherlands for the Cape, driven by the ideal to proselytize the indigenous peoples of Southern Africa. On the surface his missionary activities are not successful. His trips into the interior are dismal failures and even in the Cape his work among the Hottentot is largely fruitless. No wonder Aart is continually beset by self-doubt. His constant critical self-reflection contrasts sharply with the unshakeable faith and confidence demonstrated by his fellow missionaries.
Aart is the complete opposite of the self-assured, heroic missionary. He is a mediocre preacher, has a physical handicap and is loath to get involved in religious controversies. His missionary trips into the interior bring him close to total defeat. His flight from the Black girl infected by smallpox and left to die by her tribe next to an ant-hill, is the clearest evidence of his weakness. The difficulties Aart encounters on his trips, during which his survival frequently depends on the help he is given by the indigenous population, make him aware of his vulnerability and smallness. He is and will remain a stranger in a foreign country.
Aart does not leave his mark on history. He has not attained his goals. His lack of success, in spite of his initial zeal, forces him to reconsider his role as a missionary. It is precisely the recognition of his own failure, the awareness that he is only a weak instrument in the hands of God, which allows him to find inner peace. His trials and tribulations bring him to a new understanding of the nature of God's existence and presence in the world. God does not need him to convert the Africans to Christianity; He has always been in Africa. This insight completely subverts the myth of Western superiority: "Sou dít dan wees waarvoor hy na die verre suidpunt van Afrika moes kom? Sou dit uiteindelik aan sy werk betekenis gee? 'n Aanraking met die onsienlike deur middel van die nederigste van geskape wesens? Nee, nie die nederigste nie. Hy het gekniel langs die Hottentotvrou se bed, hy was die nederige. Sy die begenadigde." (Would this be why he had to come to the southernmost point of Africa? Would this finally give his work meaning? Contact with the invisible through the humblest of creatures? No, not the humblest. He knelt beside the bed of the Hottentot woman, he was the humble one. She the blessed one.) (Joubert 1988: 282). As a result of his illumination Aart becomes the servant of the indigenous population. When a smallpox epidemic breaks out in the Hottentot regiment whose chaplain he is, he stays to care for the sick soldiers at the peril of his own life. This is in sharp contrast with his previous flight. Finally Aart van der Lingen returns to Holland and dies in his father's house. The circular course of his journey accentuates the futility of his endeavours while simultaneously highlighting his radically changed perception of the essence of religion and of life.
Elsa Joubert's re-examination and re-appreciation of the role of Aart van der Lingen signals, like A.P. Brink's Die eerste lewe van Adamastor, a radically changed perspective on history. Her interest in a marginal figure is indicative of a new attitude: the centre is pushed to the periphery; its values no longer hold sway. The adversarial relationship between the white 'I' and the African 'other', which is the most striking feature of colonialism, is replaced by the acceptance of the full equality of the Black 'other'.
Elsa Joubert does not call the presence of the White man in Africa, presented as a fait accompli, into question nor does she treat the religious beliefs of the Africans on a par with Christianity. She shares with Aart van der Lingen the conviction that the spreading of the Gospel is necessary and salutary. Joubert nevertheless proposes a radically different social order built on integration instead of discrimination. This was the challenge at the beginning of the nineteenth century; it still is the litmus test of contemporary South African society. By discarding his colonialist past, the White man can claim a place under the African sun. Aart was defeated by the prejudices inherent in colonialism; the present generation cannot afford to be become the victims of blinding Eurocentrism once again.
2. An explorer without purpose
Karel Schoeman's novel Verkenning (Exploration) (1996) is, like Missionaris, situated at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Moreover, some of the same characters appear in both novels that deal with similar subject matter: the colonisation of the interior and the drive to convert the Khoisan to Christianity. Nevertheless, both novels are very different in style and thematic development. While the main character of Missionaris comes to the insight that God also speaks through the Hottentot and that therefore they are his equals, no such illumination is attained in Verkenning. The Khoisan are depicted as the victims of colonisation and the journey into the interior undertaken by the anonymous main character only leads to his death. The repeated assurances given to him that: "[...] al wat God van ons verlang, is bereidwilligheid, en dan sal Hy ons self voortlei langs weë wat ons nie verstaan nie, na die duistere doel wat Hy vir ons bepaal het." ([...] the only thing God desires from us is willingness, and then He will guide us along roads we do not understand, towards the dark aim He has determined for us.) (Schoeman 1996: 344) seem to be mocked by the complete absence of the revelation of any ulterior motive or higher purpose at the end of the novel. The death of the main character puts the final seal on his alienation and complete lack of direction. Life seems completely senseless to him and as barren as the African landscape. The central character is killed by a Bushman in the guise of an avenging angel. Verkenning is, in a way, the very antipode of Missionaris.
The main character of Verkenning is a Dutchman who remains anonymous. On his way to the East Indies he is taken ill and has to recover at the Cape. The Cape Governor then asks him to go on a fact-finding mission into the interior which he accepts without much ado. The last stage of his journey brings him to the very limits of White settlement where a Bushman's arrow puts an end to his life.
At the Cape the main character finds himself in a weirdly familiar and at the same time strangely different country. The young visitor from Holland feels like an outsider; he is forced into the role of an observer who is reluctant to voice his opinion publicly. The customs of the Cape Colony are only superficially similar to the ones in Holland. Besides, his background and values, especially in religious matters, are not the same as those of the expatriates. An unfamiliar system of codes sets Cape society apart from Holland. The main character is time and again taken aback by the lack of formality in social contacts and the directness of communication which often create an impression of boorishness. Civilisation and culture are virtually non-existent. Moreover there are often few outward signs of social status and wealth. Schoeman intriguingly describes the people and social patterns in Cape settler society. It is not a flattering picture as the founding fathers and mothers of Afrikaner families and dynasties are generally portrayed from their least attractive angle.
Especially it is the way in which the slaves and the indigenous population are treated which contributes to this less than favourable portrayal. Most settlers, townspeople and farmers alike, own slaves. The latter have no rights and are completely at the mercy of their owners by whom they are ruthlessly and savagely exploited. The same treatment is meted out to the Hottentot who have been subjugated and forced to become downtrodden farm labourers. Only in the remote interior, the Bushmen still desperately resist White encroachment on their traditional territory. They are mercilessly hunted down, decimated or enslaved. In the voices of the slaves and the Khoisan which reverberate through the novel, their sorrowful fate is hauntingly expressed.
The fact that the White settlers are described as very religious puts the way they treat the slaves and the Khoisan in an even more negative light. They do not seem to be capable of applying the teachings of the Bible to their own particular situation. This is also borne out by the sharply opposing views on whether the indigenous population should be converted to Christianity. Most colonists are firmly opposed to the proselytising effort which is supported by a small, very pious section of the White community. Despite their unwavering commitment, the mainly Dutch missionaries face an uphill struggle in which the outcome is very uncertain. The main character repeatedly indicates that the slaves or the Khoisan attending the religious prayer meetings have little or no understanding of what the sermons and Christianity are all about. The narrator even suggests that their conversion seals their enslavement: "[...] aan mense wat met geweld gekneg of in knegskap gebore is [...] is die visioen van komende heerlikheid verkondig en verklaar, en op die beloofde vergoeding van wit kleding en palmtakke moet hulle so goed moontlik teer, in die geloof aan lewende fonteine van water moes hulle bestaande beproewings so goed moontlik probeer verduur." ([...] to people forced or born into servitude [...] the vision of future magnificence is preached and explained, and they have to live as well as possible on the promised reward of white clothes and palms, in the belief in living fountains of water they had to try to endure present ordeals with equanimity.) (Schoeman 1996: 204). In spite of the good intentions of the missionaries, like Van der Kemp who castigates the White community for its hypocrisy, they too are a thread strengthening the colonial fabric. The exposition of the callous disregard of the settlers for the slaves and the Khoisan while at the same time professing their religious fervour completely undermines any moral underpinning the colonial enterprise might have. The Boer community, in spite of the hospitable way in which other Whites are treated, is presented as extremely brutal and racist.
Verkenning brings an unflinching dissection of colonial attitudes. The colonial past holds no redeeming features; Schoeman lays bare the foundations on which colonial empires are built: ignorance, greed, brutality, racism, religious zealotry and sheer desperation. Colonialism is consequently robbed of all its glamour. It is nothing but a scramble for survival and loot at the expense of the 'other'. Man is presented as a cruel animal. Verkenning explores the homo homini lupus theme in a colonial context. At the same time it reflects the very essence of life. It is indeed not without significance that despite its cultural refinement and civilisation, Europe is in the grip of war and therefore seems no different from Africa. Neither on a personal nor a communal level man succeeds in establishing meaningful relationships or building a just society. The result is utter alienation. The death of the main character can therefore be foretold. While Elsa Joubert restores the human dignity of the indigenous population, Schoeman takes it away from the White settlers. In Verkenning the voices of the past have come back to haunt the present-day Afrikaners. Colonial history provides no reason for national pride or glorification.
3. An irrepressible scoundrel
The life of Estienne Barbier, an historical figure, has been the subject of two prose works as well: Wydsbeen (Straddle-legged) (1992) by Zirk van den Berg and Inteendeel (On the contrary) (1993) by A.P. Brink. Estienne Barbier was a French fortune-seeker who arrived at the Cape in 1734 as a soldier in the service of the East Indies Company. He came into collision with the local authorities, was declared an outlaw, captured and put to death in 1739.
Both authors approach their subject from very different angles. For Van den Berg, Barbier is an idealist, not without some major character flaws, dreaming of a better world. The misuse of power by and the corruption of the authorities are the special targets of his wrath. Racial or colonialist issues are not foregrounded. Barbier's fight for justice is set exclusively within the framework of the power games played in the white community. Wydsbeen is therefore a book in the same mould as Van Wyk Louw's Dias.
Brink's novel, in contrast, paints a wholly different picture. Inteendeel traces the history of colonialism in Southern Africa. The three inland journeys Barbier undertakes, correspond with the three main phases of colonial history. His first trip represents the rule by a colonial power. The second is linked to the period of the gradual colonisation of the interior and the cruel subjugation of the indigenous population by farmers who want to gain their independence from the Cape authorities. The third journey is one of atonement. The realisation has dawned on Barbier that in the past terrible wrongs were committed. Once again he crosses the border of the colony in search of groups of Hottentot. When he finds them, he begs them forgiveness for everything the White man has done to them: "Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa." (Brink 1993: 290). As part of the atonement ritual he is harshly punished by the Hottentot.
Inteendeel sounds the death-knell of colonialism. The fact that the novel is presented as a confession from death-row to the slave Rosette, who was maltreated by Barbier and becomes the embodiment of the fate of Africa, gives added credibility to his feeling of guilt and his desire to make amends. In the process, the act of writing itself is stripped of its imperialistic aura. It now connotes humility and distress instead of domination and supremacy. The picaresque, fantastic and even contradictory nature of Barbier's tale are further means used by the author to undermine the traditional colonialist writing culture. Barbier creates a fictitious world in which truth and illusion are no longer distinguishable. But why would his imaginary account be less truthful than the manipulated, so-called factual, renderings of history which, in the first part of the novel were unmasked as wilful manipulations? Inteendeel makes it abundantly clear that the storyteller's interpretation of reality is much more accurate and believable than the historian's.
Inteendeel is undoubtedly the furthest a White writer can realistically go in apologising for all the wrongs done in the past by his race. Indeed, Barbier does not only speak in his own name but he takes the collective guilt of the White tribe, and hence of colonialism, upon his shoulders. The exhortation above the entrance door of the hospital in Cape Town which expressed Barbier's initial desire: "Om iets van die vreemde te ontdek, om die wildernis te tem, om naam te gee aan wat nog naamloos was, om orde en betekenis af te stempel op hierdie marge van die beskaafde wereld." (To discover something of a strange world, to tame the wilderness, to give a name to what still was without a name, to put a stamp of order and meaning on this margin of the civilised world.) (Brink 1993: 72) changes in the course of the novel into a bitterly ironical exhortation and a stinging accusation.
The historical novels discussed show a clearly discernible trend. While Jan Rabie stresses the racist logic inherent in the colonisation process, A.P. Brink, K. Schoeman and E. Joubert present the reverse side of Eurocentrism and colonialism. If only the colonisers had been less arrogant and more open, history could have taken a radically different course. The sole option now available to the former White masters is to unreservedly apologise for all the injustices of the past and to work determinedly for reconciliation. The old colonialist assumptions have irrevocably lost their relevance. The ideological content of the contemporary Afrikaans historical novels discussed contrasts sharply with the colonialist and Eurocentric perspective from which the first travel stories were written. The old story-lines have been redrawn; early Cape history is radically rewritten. The historical novels focus attention on a side of history which has remained hidden for all too long, their aim is to set the record straight. Consequently apartheid is shown to be the product of indoctrination and racism and thus stripped of its legitimacy. By rewriting the history of early European settlement in Southern Africa, Afrikaans authors have made an important contribution to the destruction of the myths on which the apartheid ideology is based.
Of course while history can be rewritten, it cannot be changed. Guilt can be expressed but a wrong cannot be undone. The primary purpose of the contemporary historical novels is to impress on their present-day readership that the acts of injustice perpetrated in the past should not be repeated. Racial equality has to be the guiding principle of a new democratic society. This is only possible after the cleansing of the past through the admission of guilt by the White community. The dissection of history in the contemporary historical novels about early White settlement in Southern Africa is a literary means of engaging in a debate about the present and the future. It functions as the White Afrikaans writer's deposition to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
In contemporary Afrikaans literature, Afrikaner history and the question how to deal with it from the perspective of the present are core issues. Much of contemporary Afrikaans literature attempts to redefine the relationship between the past and the present by focusing on the perspective of the victims of the colonial conquest, on the irrelevance of the traditional myths and on the impossibility of uncovering the master-narrative of history. Afrikaans writers are fully aware that the debris of the past needs to be cleared away before a new start can be made. In her foreword to Pippa Skotness's Miscast. Negotiating the presence of the Bushmen, Marilyn Martin links the renewed interest in Saartje Baartman, a Griqua woman put on humiliating display in Europe in the 19th century, to the objectives of the Miscast installation: "For all of us she stands as a reminder of the agonies of the past, of our need to face and deal with history and memory, and of our collective responsibility to resist a desire for historical amnesia. The debates around her also impact on issues of redress and restitution of land, and land is inextricably linked to place and identity. Facing history and accepting the challenges to work through the past and find solutions for the present reside in the exhibition Miscast" (Skotness 1996: 9). This definitely holds true for Afrikaans literature as well.
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Professor Luc Renders is professor in the Languages Department of the Limburgs Universitair Centrum in Belgium. He takes a special interest in Afrikaans literature and in the Dutch literature on the former Belgian colony, the Congo. He publishes regularly on both subject areas in a wide spectrum of periodicals. In the 'Snoecks Jaarboek' he provides an annual overview of Afrikaans prose. At his university he also organizes a yearly seminar on Afrikaans literature or linguistics.
|Paper presented at the African Studies Association of Australasia & the Pacific 22nd Annual & International Conference (Perth, 1999)|
New African Perspectives: Africa, Australasia, & the Wider World at the end of the twentieth century