By Peter Knoope.
2014 has just begun. We have looked back at 2013 over the last couple of weeks and one of the most memorable events of last year happened, without a doubt, in early December. Nelson Mandela left the world of the living. He was the most popular and well respected former terrorist of all times.
I admire him as much as everybody else. No misunderstanding, but everything that possibly can be said about him has already been said. I will not try and add to all the voices that have spoken in admiration. But I like to think that one related issue deserves particular attention.
It may have gone unnoticed to many of the readers of the Diplomat Magazine, but one of the biggest newspapers in the Netherlands apologised, on Saturday 6 December, for an article published on their website the day before. The article directly connected the passing away of Nelson Mandela to the end of Black Piet and so to the discussion about the black assistants to Saint Nicolas. Many are certainly aware that this Dutch national tradition brings joy to many children and grown-ups alike. As it is widely known, the tradition was challenged by those who feel that Black Piet has racial connotations that are unpleasant to people of African origin.
I think however that apologies made by the newspaper are out of place in this case. The Telegraaf (to be quite explicit) may have done the only right thing to do. Although the two have different backgrounds and the two issues have different scopes and social implications; there are some real historical connections. Connections exist first of all and most certainly between some Dutch traditions and Nelson Mandela. There is no need to elaborate on the details. We all are aware of the humbling fact that “Apartheid” is a Dutch word. Mandela was a terrorist that started “Umkhonte we siswe”, the “Spear of the Nation”. He felt that no other language would convince, or at least be listened to by, the Apartheid regime that suppressed the black majority in South Africa. These people had no right to vote. They were pre-determined to be the black assistants to the white ruling class. Mandela’s ANC fought with words and with arms when needed. The ANC under his leadership later developed an all-inclusive strategy that was based on mutual understanding and tolerance. He showed the world “it can be done”.
I am certainly not suggesting that the Black Piet tradition and Apartheid are of similar magnitudes. But there may be some minor similarities in the roots. The black assistant to the white “baas” may remind some of us about the unpleasant power relations between races in our former colonies.
Maybe we should pick up some of the lessons of Nelson Mandela. Maybe we should realise that the voices of victims of discrimination must be listened to. Maybe we should also realise that societal tolerance is very much part and parcel of Dutch tradition as well. And if we do all of that we may find that some aspects of the Black Piet tradition and what Mandela resisted have something in common. And that’s why I think that maybe the newspaper should not apologise, but should seriously rethink and reconsider the argument. The issues are relevant enough.
Mandela’s job in South Africa was not finished. Old and tired he left the future to others to follow in his tradition, in speaking up loudly for those who are discriminated against, with tolerance and understanding of all positions. After all, it can be done.