The uproar sparked by Zelda la Grange at the weekend reminded me that I spotted Jan van Riebeeck in Amsterdam recently. S’true eksê.
I was sampling some of the local delicacies at a cafe in the historic city centre when it happened. I looked up from the bitterballen (meatballs), stamppot (mashed potatoes and other vegetables) and rookworst (smoked sausage), and his face stared out from two old R5 notes affixed to a frame on the wall.
To be honest, I’d not thought about that fellow since we were taught “history” at school during apartheid.
But, like a fashion craze you hope never to see again, there comes Oom Jan floating into view once more. Like skinny jeans on a middle-aged man gone to seed.
Mild surprise at seeing that face, which adorned our currency for so long, turned to unease. I felt a queasiness.
It was not the rookworst . Nor the flavourful Dutch libations.
It was the fact that Oom Jan was the sole representative of the republic on that wall, which was a veritable United Nations of currencies. And that was jarring.
Luckily my lovely wife had in her purse a few randelas. Perhaps because I’m a competitive git, I felt that two R5 coins were not going to cut the mustard, so we asked the waitress/waitron/service executive to add our R20 note to the wall.
Something about that felt right. From then on, whoever sat at the table, looking out at the cobbled streets while sampling the kos, would glance at the wall and maybe see Oom Jan.
But Nelson Mandela’s face is hard to miss. In seeing the two faces, perhaps they would get a small sense of our nation’s journey.
History is what it is. We are what we are because of Van Riebeeck, Moshoeshoe, Shaka, Piet Retief, Dingane, Harry Smith and his wife, Juana María de los Dolores de León Smith, or simply Lady Smith.
We cannot deny them any more than we can deny our own ancestry. As much as it may be uncomfortable or embarrassing, you can’t choose family, folks.
But we are not them. We can’t retreat into those laagers.
Nor can we choose to be anything other than South African. No matter where you are in the world, no matter the passport/s you hold, you will always be South African, even if you ask François Hollande to take you in.
The ensuing debate over La Grange’s comments on the internet saw many, not all, South Africans of various ideologies, hues and ancestry weighing in.
What was disheartening was the tendency to retreat into laagers of racial solidarity, falling into the same trap in which La Grange ensnared her brain when she tried to lambaste President Jacob Zuma through the prism (prison?) of her “whiteness”.
She forgot that je ne suis pas Zuma (I am not Zuma).
That my taxes also paid for Nkandla.
She forgot that we don’t need special welcome mats to be at home in our own country. Some who rightly challenged her view, for which she later apologised, forgot that too.
Je ne suis pas Zelda (I am not Zelda). And Zelda is not Steve.
Our unhappiness at the state of play – the corruption, the mismanagement, the power outages – seems to be picking at the scab of the unhealed wound that is race dynamics in a country still recovering from the pox that was apartheid.
Our constitution enjoins the president of South Africa to be “the head of state and head of the national executive; (he/she) must uphold, defend and respect the constitution as the supreme law of the republic; and (he/she) promotes the unity of the nation and that which will advance the republic”.
Here’s the rub. Our president, through his words and his deeds, does not promote the unity of the nation, nor does he often promote that which will advance the republic.
So much so that criticising Zuma is almost a national sport. Sport and Recreation Minister Fikile Mbalula should consider handing out national colours in that discipline.
But that’s one man’s, and to an extent his party’s, failings. God, in his infinite wisdom, decided to bless all our various population groups with a fair and equal share of underachievers.
– Marvin Meintjies