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The Arrival of Jan van Riebeeck at the Cape,1652. PICTURE: JOHN HENRY AMSHEWITZ
The Arrival of Jan van Riebeeck at the Cape,1652. PICTURE: JOHN HENRY AMSHEWITZ

When novices on SA from abroad ask me what to read to understand the country, I recommend two books: Native Life in SA by Sol Plaatje, and Islands by Dan Sleigh, and then add they should note that for reasons of market failure, one may need to go the extra mile to get hold of copies: in itself a little insight.

When Sleigh died last week, the eulogies streamed in for the multi-award-winning author and archivist, a pillar of the new, transformed Afrikaner establishment and regarded among historians in general as the foremost expert on the Dutch settlements of the Cape of Good Hope.

For some important new voices, though, he will also be remembered for his clashes with revisionist activists such as Patric Tariq Mellet, writer of The Lie of 1652, which I would add to a B-list of books for novices who get gripped by this country’s woes and sorrows.

Islands consists of a range of loose episodes on the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck at the Cape, which lay in Sleigh’s desk drawer for years, until he read Julian Barnes’ comedic History of the World in 10½ chapters. Inspired by his panache, Sleigh strung these episodes together with his own rendition of the tale of Krotoa, who joined Van Riebeeck’s household as a servant girl and ended up being rejected by her own various communities as well as the settlers’.

The merits of the book for the debunking of falsehoods are suggested by Christopher Hope reviewing it for The Guardian: “The Dutch East India Company recruited as servants and sailors not the impeccable white paragons touted in the apartheid history books but the dregs of Dutch and German gutters. A clutch of brigands passing itself off as a master race which, when it wasn’t being brutal and stupid, was numbingly dull.”

Sleigh excels in his work in weaving small, telling details, culled from a lifetime of labour in the archives of the Cape, into a narrative that knows its limits, avoiding the pitfalls of ideology. One gets the sense that the writer sees his duty as simply to bring to life as vividly as possible the lived experiences of the denizens of the Cape.

This goes for all of them, as Hope continues: “The first settlers cultivated, and then betrayed, a Hottentot chief known to the English as Harry and to the Dutch as Herrie and whose real name was Autshumao. When they tired of him, they locked him up on the island. He was the first indigenous South African to help the pale invaders; the first to be suborned, plied with booze and tobacco; the first of many political prisoners, over the centuries, to be exiled on Robben Island.”

Krotoa ends up on the island too, but also in Mauritius, which Sleigh adds as a counterpoint to the Cape, where there was a much more egalitarian and nonracialist community of settlers and indigenes — indeed, tragedy ensues when the frequent tropical storms battering that island drive their descendants to Cape Town, where they fall victim to the cruelties of a nascent yet inexorable racial segregationism.

Hope again: “Van Riebeeck had not been in the Cape for more than two minutes, historically speaking, before he had built a fort against foreign enemies, followed it with a hedge to divide settlers and native tribes, and then added a castle to shut out the world — and thus set the political tone for centuries to come.”

If Islands was so clearly an illumination of the roots of apartheid in a truthful exposure of its mercantilist driving forces that even traditional Marxists should find useful, why did he and Mellet clash? The value of Mellet’s book, after all, is summed up in the title, which speaks of precisely those lies of history taught for decades in schools and universities here and abroad that Sleigh so utterly destroys.

Just like Sleigh was showered with the accolades of establishment — literary prizes, a Dutch knighthood, residencies, heritage board positions — Mellet’s book was met with an almost feverish wave of extracts, editorials and reviews in left-leaning publications still keen to keep the energies of #RhodesMustFall going. It was written in an erudite style and was appeared to be based on a lifetime of research and thinking through archives too, those he chose to avail himself of, many of them from sciences such as genetics and linguistics.

It is a highly personalised effort, a fact that he does not hide, issuing from the epiphanies of a childhood of the deep injustice of the ethnic cleansing that the Group Areas Act was and during an adulthood of resistance — he unflinchingly reveals himself to have been a cadre of the ANC. The intelligence of his thinking saves it from this in-your-face subjectivity; he comes up with a host of provocatively creative ideas for a new historiography.

It starts with the title, and what he calls the “paradigm of 1652”: the general, little questioned assumption that this was the date the modern SA started, when Van Riebeeck brought the world’s first megacorporation to the shores of the land. Mellet argues that while by the date of his book’s publication, it had become common cause that there were many indigenous communities at the Cape before Van Riebeeck’s “volksplanting”, there is little understanding that the latter still lies at the core of a constellation of Eurocentric concepts and language that determines discourse to this day.

Mellet does not mention the EFF or Black Twitter, but a good example would be the frequent invective poured on Van Riebeeck as the origin of all evil when aspiring colonialists had been trading with communities at the Cape for centuries before.

Among other ideas I found fruitful are firstism (the hierarchical manifestations of the idea of first nations), deafricanisation (by which many people are still classified as “coloured” and marginal), revivalism (which contains a denial that suppressed cultures are still being practiced), many cradles of humankind and not one, the Thoathoa (“beginnings”) triangle and circle of archeological findings, and the San as the foundation people of all peoples in SA, including whites, since traces of their DNA are found among all South Africans.

The latter brings to mind how pleased the late artist Judith Mason was to discover that she had the genes of a Congolese “pygmy” ancestor after she had her DNA tested at the Origins museum in Johannesburg. Mellet writes, in a swipe surely at his comrades in the tripartite alliance: “Marginalisation of and discrimination against San communities is a grave injustice. For those who disrespect the San peoples, it translates into having no self-respect as Africans.”

But whereas there was little criticism of Islands, apart from complaints over too many minute details, Mellet’s detractors were plentiful and sometimes comical, like historian Leopold Scholtz who dismissed it as fiction and then confessed he hadn’t read the book. Some of them were people who had lauded Sleigh for his own revisionist take.

The bone of contention between Sleigh and Mellet seemed to be the status of Van Riebeeck’s harbour. Mellet suggested the ancestors of Autsomo and others had already set up one that had been operating for a very long time as the hub of a subregional economy involving several communities; Sleigh said there was no evidence for it and Mellet’s book should be reclassified as fiction. Mellet’s apologists countered that he had in mind a proto harbour. Their exchanges ended in acrimony as several other errors in Mellet’s account were exposed (the most egregious probably that Boer incursions were responsible for repressive disruptions in the interior in the 17th century when none had ventured that far yet).

One could have chalked these all down to professional defensiveness, but something deeper was at work here. Enter Johann Kriegler, the retired Constitutional Court judge turned perspicacious book reviewer, and the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg.

Kriegler manages to choose both sides and then still end with a rousing endorsement of The Lie of 1652 as recommended reading to understand not only SA’s past, but also its future. Yes, he says, Sleigh was correct, his broadsheet full-page attack on Mellet “methodically disproves statement after statement, exposes a distinctive way of accumulating factual errors, and in the process destroys chapter and verse the credibility of the book as historical writing”. Kriegler himself finds that it is “ideologically charged, one-sided opinions are dished up as fact and the narrative is at times clearly implausible”.

But, is his caveat, it is precisely because of these flights of fancy that anybody who is serious about resolving the country’s land and identity problematic should study The Lie of 1652. “It is a rare opportunity for a closer look at the frames of reference, unexpressed (and possibly unconscious) assumptions and driving forces of radical black South Africans,” he writes and adds: “Myths have a real existence.”

This almost throwaway line reverberated in the debate that raged, and was taken up by Charl-Pierre Naudé in a doctoral thesis on Blumenberg’s applicability to various SA phenomena, from author Etienne Leroux’s bikini-attracting beach persona to the myth of Shaka.

Blumenberg is the default philosopher of modern mythmaking, well-known in Europe but virtually nonexistent at SA universities. Naudé applies several of his key concepts to the Sleigh-Mellet standoff, in particular the incestuous relationship between the two sisters of human thought, mythos and logos, or mythmaking and reason.

This, writes Naude, creates “enormous confusion, which can cause many things to crash — politics, governance, self-knowledge and personal relations. … Reason in history frequently failed to spot the mythmaking in its own bosom and frequently underestimated the reason in its mythmaking antagonist”.

Naudé could have referred to the “good-of-colonialism” debate instigated by Helen Zille’s Singapore tweets, but he chose Sleigh and Mellet to show why this ostensibly marginal quarrel speaks to a fundamental schism in the national debate today. Sleigh and Co, he wrote, could have shown greater sensitivity for the position in which the likes of Mellet find themselves: the failure of the cadres of the tripartite alliance to find a non-Western, or African way to replace the Western foundations on which the SA polity rests.

In defence of Sleigh, one could argue that it is hardly the job of the professional archivist to take into account such deep-diving context in the chase for truth via facts and factualities. Naudé invokes another concept of Blumenberg’s to support what he says: the Darwinism of words.

In a nutshell: in our daily discourse, ranging from the political to the mundane, we constantly produce a mishmash of reason and mythmaking. In the process certain striking metaphors, phrases keywords — and nowadays memes — get repeated and reinforced through distribution by others. As time passes, and through a survival of the fittest “natural cultural selection”, a good sackful of these survive.

After the passage of generations and centuries or even millennia, the origins of these expressions, whether they started off as angry or fearful mythmaking or deeply contemplative reasoning are long lost. For too many academics devoted to fact and reasoning, the axioms on which they base their hard work may have been as ephemeral as urban legend or UFO spottings are today.

The wielders of reason are usually from the master classes, and the underlings easily observe such blind spots. This is what Mellet as the still wounded victim of a totalitarian system aims at with The Lie of 1652, to jolt us to at the very least review our assumptions. In response to attacks on him, he was quick to point out an irony at the heart of Sleigh’s own project as a novelist: that to get people interested in the early history of the Cape he had to invent his own fictions.

One can be swamped by facts — just expose yourself to the contemporary digital news cycle — but to make them palatable, best is to put them into a story (which is how those ostensible purveyors of fact, journalists, rationalise their sometimes myth-based reports). And it is easy to point out the further underpinnings of Islands by Eurocentric mythmaking, the hyper-individualism alluded to in one of the most oft-quoted phrases in English: John Donne’s “no man is an island”.

There may be method in the [EFF] madness of willy-nilly applying farcical mythmaking based on struggle-era slogans to opportunities for mob rule. Some of the spaghetti may stick to the wall. Then again, the guarantee that it will be tomato sauce that does the sticking, and not blood, is absent as yet.

As for Mellet’s other aim, to replace the 1652 paradigm of lies with a new paradigm of lies, one could sum up Naudé’s argument that this is a necessary stage in a new stage of the Darwinism of words. What the decolonisation debates across the world have achieved, is impressive, he writes, but their weakness is that the test of time has not yet lasted long enough to weed out the toxicants around the fruit trees.

Extrapolating, such a lens could be useful in assessing the EFF’s extremism. There may be method in the madness of willy-nilly applying farcical mythmaking based on struggle-era slogans to opportunities for mob rule. Some of the spaghetti may stick to the wall. Then again, the guarantee that it will be tomato sauce that does the sticking, and not blood, is absent as yet.

As for Sleigh, in the days after his death, it is just decent for his detractors to assess what he has achieved, and what his work can still do. What many decolonisers throw out in their anger and in the excitement of intellectual barricading, is that there has long been a process of decolonisation among all people in SA, white, black, Indian and coloured (to keep to the racialised state classifications).

Islands shows the Vereenigd Oos-Indische Compagnie, the prototype of modern corporations, to have been the real culprit at the Dutch Cape. While in accordance with European race theories arising at the time, the indigenes were held off as barbaric, its attitude towards the sailors and migrants in its shipholds was only slightly better. Gallows from which hung the transgressors of petty crimes were a constant feature of the Mother City landscape. This is what Sleigh found in the archives and what he transformed into literature.

It informed a scepticism of his towards power that we can all take inspiration from, as he described it in an interview with Murray la Vita: “Governments that mess around people and send them on difficult, almost impossible missions. And then not really being interested in these people. They are only interested in their own conquests and what they can get out of it.”

And in reality he and Mellet fight in the same trench, albeit maybe at opposite ends: “History syllabuses are designed to withhold the truth from people, bury everyone in ignorance and give politicians enough space to chase power and a place on the gravy train.”

For decolonisers valuing intersectionality, Sleigh should get high marks. Apart from his sensitive treatment of female characters, he always tested anything he wrote with fellow historian Helena Scheffler. As he told La Vita: “It is better to discuss such a thing with a woman to have balance; that you do not have a one-sided male view, because it is not human.”

The decolonisation movement is in full swing, and it is already moot whether it is justified or not. Much great work is destined to come out of it, but there is the danger that in SA its labour could simply end up as resources for a black African nationalism that shoves whole communities and regions aside.

The archive is rigged, as the otherwise excellent critic Wamuwi Mbao wrote about The Lie of 1652, by which he means it is so suffused with Eurocentrism, that it automatically engenders false conclusions. That this is not the case, is proved by Sleigh’s novels — it is more accurate to say that it is incomplete.

Sleigh’s death should be mourned by decolonisers and Eurocentrics alike, and his work taken at face value, as debunking the untruths of state propaganda and sowing some of the seeds of a new future.

Hans Pienaar is an author. His latest novel, ‘Drie’, is out soon.

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