Unlearning history to combat racism?

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By Rachel Hatcher

[This is the seventh post in the Learning and unlearning history in South Africa’s public spaces series.]

South Africans must, declared South African Human Rights Commissioner Dr. Danny Titus, unlearn the names of the Dutch ships that landed in South Africa in the 17th century. He made this declaration during the Free State’s provincial launch of the Anti-Racism Network of South Africa (ARNSA) in Bloemfontein on 6 April 2016. Titus also stated that there, while there was much to unlearn, there was also much to learn.

The ships-that-must-not-be-named were led by Jan van Riebeeck, who was charged with setting up a way-station for ships on their way to and from the Dutch colonies in the “East Indies.” Landing in what is now Cape Town on 6 April 1652, the arrival of the ships marks the beginning of permanent European settlement in what is now South Africa.

Titus’ comment about unlearning is problematic in the context of a still highly racist South Africa and campaigns against racism for a couple of reasons. First, it suggests a kind of a Whiggish understanding of history, but not one where the past is read as inevitably progressing toward greater liberty and democracy. Rather, insisting that the names of the ships be unlearned points to an understanding of the past characterized by an inevitable regression in terms of liberty and democracy, a continuous closing of spaces until 1948 when the National Party was elected and set about institutionalizing apartheid, there limiting liberty and democracy even further.

If we unlearn the names of the ships, perhaps it would be like they had never existed? Van Riebeeck would have been shipless, unable to complete his mission. Perhaps, after unlearning the names of those ships, we will wake up tomorrow in a Back to the Future-esque world where the past 350 years were not as they were, but were different?

The arrival of those three ships did not set off an unavoidable series of events that led to apartheid. It is important to remember that what happened in South Africa took place in a larger and changing global context, and that individuals and groups of individuals made decisions that pushed the country and its people into apartheid. South African anti-apartheid writer André Brink made this clear in an essay he wrote titled “After Soweto.” Apartheid, he reminded readers, was “enforced from above, and not, as the authorities would have it, one evolving naturally from South African history.”

Nothing was inevitable about apartheid. And nothing is inevitable about un-doing the damage it caused and combatting the racism that inspired it.

This brings us to the second issue with unlearning the names of those three ships, one that related more specifically to the anti-racism mission of ARNSA. As South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission declared, racism came to South Africa in 1652, presumably on one of those nameless ships. Unlearning the names of the ships facilitates unlearning the origins of racism in South Africa, making it difficult to trace its development and expansion over the next 350 years. Without understanding where racism comes from and how it has evolved over time, how can it be addressed and, ideally, overcome?

Rather than unlearning the names of van Riebeeck’s ships, surely it would be easier to address on-going racism by ensuring that the significance of the ships’ arrival on the shores of the future South Africa and what they represent in the longer history of the area is widely known.

Titus is right to say that some things must be unlearned in South Africa. Racial hatred, for example, and a belief in your own group’s superiority. That the Dromedaris, Reijger, and Goede Hoop brought the first colonizers to the Cape, however, is not of these things.

3 thoughts on “Unlearning history to combat racism?

  1. Jason Ellis

    This is an excellent post in an excellent series. You cut right through misconceptions about what it means to study history, that doing so is not the same as celebrating or condoning events that occurred, rather about understanding how they were the result of options exercised or abandoned. Thank you.

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