The coloured community in South Africa is one that has been ignored for many years, left out of most dominant narratives about the country’s history. Recently, films like Action Kommandant (the story of slain Anti-Apartheid activist Ashley Kriel) and now Krotoa, the mother of Afrikaans or at least coloured Afrikaners, tell stories that have been forgotten or erased. These stories are important because of the prevalence of negative stereotypes in the media.
The representation of coloured people and the effect it has on how they are treated in current day South Africa is what Chimamanda Adichie would refer to as the danger of the single story . This is precisely why I was so excited to see the film which came out on August 4, 2017. I booked the ticket for the Tuesday after it was released. Krotoa is particularly interesting because she is a character surrounded by much conflict: the person she was and how she came into being, and the decisions she made. She was branded a traitor for helping the Dutch settle and make agreements with the Khoi Khoi people.
Krotoa was a young girl who was taken from her people to live with Jan van Riebeek, who was one of the first colonisers on the Cape of Good Hope and the first governor of the cape. The story goes that Krotoa’s uncle gave her to the van Riebeek’s so that she could be a young hand to help his wife. She had a natural flair for language and she soon became one of the main translators between the Dutch and the Khoi san.
She played a significant role in settling many disputes between the Dutch and the Khoi Khoi. Caught in between two identities, Krotoa grows up with the Dutch settlers but is also undeniably a khoi woman. Krotoas story ends tragically. She dies of a broken heart on Robben island after being imprisoned for public alcoholism. Her story is nonetheless rather disputed. All the accounts about her were written in the diaries of the settlers. Jan van Riebeeks diary for example has large gaps and open spaces. Even how she came to be at the fort is debated by historians.
This story brings many important questions about South Africa and South African identity to the forefront. Krotoa is painted as the mother of the first nations of South Africa, and her marriage to Pieter van Meerhof as the first interracial marriage. She became the mother of the first mixed race, later known as coloured, children in South Africa.
For a community who’s identity is so heavily contested ‘the coloured question’ is brought up again in this movie. The importance of assessing where you come from is highlighted through Krotoa’s story. It leads us into discussions about the very complicated history of South Africans, especially those of mixed ancestory. The issue is brought to the forefront.
One thing I was particularly struck by in this movie was the violence of colonialism. The essay Discourse On Colonialism by Aime Cesaire comes to mind. I found myself questioning what type of depraved society allowed for and condoned the very much inhumane acts against other beings. Krotoa came from a tribe of people who were non-violent, had gender equality and a deep appreciation for humans and humanity. The tribe was thrust into a violent civilisation that normalised slavery and murder, one in which rape was a thing that happened and was hidden. One can only imagine the psychological harm that the change inflicted on her.
In the film, Jan van Riebeek rapes Krotoa. The film depicts the fall out thereafter. However, her psychological trauma is not placed as something that comes into being as a result of her rape. I found that the film didn’t adequately portray the decline she must have faced after experiencing the trauma of sexual assault.
The movie has been criticised for being told through a white supremist lens. However, the disclaimer before the movie states that it is a fiction that is inspired by historical events. I too found it problematic that Jan van Riebeek was portrayed as a suave traveller as opposed to a deeply immoral man.
Krotoa tells the story of the origins of the colonial project in South Africa, and among the themes are land displacement. European ideas of land ownership come into conflict with the Khoi Khoi’s ideas of sharing in existence very early in the film. As a result of this violent displacement, white South Africans still have a monopoly on the resources of this country. Hundreds of years after Krotoa’s death her decedents live in conditions that breed crime and violence.
Religion is another theme that is brought to the forefront in the film. Krotoa the main protagonist becomes Eva after being baptised by Dutch settlers. She is the first indigenous person to be converted to Christianity In South Africa. She had to forsake her beliefs to marry Peter van Meerhof. Many of these original beliefs have since been lost and even Krotoa’s language, the language of the khoi has been erased almost entirely from the dialect of most South Africans
Krotoa lived a very violent and traumatic life. The existence she lived helps us understand the violence that is lived and perpetuated in South Africa and its origins. Even after the critique of the movie, I cannot deny that it was a very important story to tell, even if it was just for the debates it sparked.
Photo: Channel 24
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