For the course “Researching Africa in the 21st Century,” we were asked to conduct research and present it in a specific format on the theme of “Africa in The Hague.” Since it is difficult to approach such a broad theme, my colleague and I started exploring the city with the preliminary idea to focus on African elements in the public sphere. After our first observations in the city, we realized that there are many landmarks and streets connected to the Netherlands’ colonial past in the public domain. More specifically, we discovered that there was a street behind the Den Haag Centraal railway station that was named after Jan van Riebeeck, the first Dutch colonist to settle in the city of Cape Town in South Africa in 1652 and one of the founding fathers of Apartheid. Discovering this street was extremely surprising to us, especially since we were unaware of and could not find any evidence that this was a controversial issue being discussed in the Dutch media. Hence, our research was mainly focused on discovering how South Africans living in The Hague would react once they had learned about these street names. Our main hypothesis was that our interviewees would have strongly negative reactions towards the street name. As such, we interviewed a total of three participants from South Africa: A historian, a student and a professor from the African Studies Center. In order to provide viewers with a more in-depth understanding of the matter, we decided to examine two different perspectives, being the historical one as well as those of our interviewees. In each interview, we intended to ask the same questions to all the participants. In this paper I will mainly focus on the perspective of the student and the professor, as my colleague's job was to focus on the historical perspective. (Please see the the post for more information about the questions that were asked. )
Once we established our thesis statement and methodology, our research process went through different stages as we encountered various challenges. Firstly, when we decided to explore the area and interview people walking on the Jan van Riebeeck Street, the weather became much worse, preventing us from filming the desired footage or getting any interviews on the spot from passersby. Due to this inconvenience, we realized that there was little we could do and that it would be better to focus on prepared interviews. Secondly, putting together and conducting interviews as our research method was a time-consuming process that involves flexibility and requires all parties to be available. During one of the interviews with the historian, we discovered that strictly following and formally presenting our interview questions was creating a very artificial ambiance and not putting the participants at ease. Hence, we switched to using more informal language before we presented the questions, which benefited our project immensely. Other challenges related to this type of methodology involved carrying the technical equipment with us and making sure that everything worked properly during the interviews, as well as finding a quiet and suitable place to do the interviews. Thirdly, participant selection was probably one of the biggest challenges we encountered. This is because in order to provide a more comprehensive understanding of people’s reactions to the street name, we wanted to interview both white and black South Africans. However, we were not able to find an equal number of participants due to time constraints. Thus, we learned that time limitations are a reality and that we must adapt and try to make the most of the interviews we already had. One of the ways in which we enhanced these perspectives was by adding our own research and referencing interviews or documentaries that we found online for our topic.
Furthermore, even though we went through numerous challenges, we encountered unexpected findings. For my role, which mainly involved analyzing people’s reactions concerning the Jan van Riebeeck Street name, I realized that the results of our research were multidirectional. For instance, in the interview with Madi, the Professor working at the African Studies Center (white South African) we noticed that she did not have a strong opinion concerning the Jan van Riebeeck Street in The Hague. In fact, she neutrally spoke about the issue of how to deal with history, indicating that while it might be painful for some people, it does not necessarily mean that we should omit it. She then concluded the interview by stating that “history is history.” This made me reflect on my own context in Spain where the government passed a law called Ley de la Memoria Histórica de España in 2008, requiring the removal of all street names or statues in the public sphere alluding to Francoist Spain. As a Catalan, I felt that this was a necessary step for the state to become more democratic as well as a symbol of respect to all those who had been persecuted during the Franco regime. Therefore, Madi’s indifference to the Jan van Riebeeck street came as a surprise to me in light of my own experiences. However, she did mention the symbolic importance of the #RhodesMustFall movement, explaining that it was an important first step towards decolonizing universities in South Africa. Nonetheless, our hypothesis was confirmed when we asked the same questions to Vuyu (Black South African). She was furious and insulted when we informed her of the existence of this street name. During her interview, she explained that her parents were freedom fighters during the Apartheid regime and that racism remains institutionalized in the country as she experienced it while living in Cape Town.
The final product of this research is going to be presented in the form of a documentary, which was chosen for different reasons. Firstly, this is because documentaries are approachable to the public and the information conveyed can reach a wider audience than through the written form. For instance, young children would be able to understand better information transmitted visually rather than if conveyed in an academic article. Another advantage to publishing content in the form of a documentary is the fact that it is possible to present more information in a limited amount of time. Furthermore, this form allows one to present ideas in a dynamic and captivating manner, capturing emotions in a way that is not easily possible in the written form or more difficult when using a website. Nonetheless, displaying information in the form of a documentary also comes with a few disadvantages. For example, the participant’s consent is essential in order to be able to freely publish the documentary. If this consent is not given by all participants, it might decrease the possibilities of publishing the video. Another disadvantage to publishing documentaries involves marketing them and ensuring that they reach the targeted audience. Since documentaries are typically informative and non-commercial, they can be less physically or electronically accessible to laypeople who are not actively searching for documentaries to watch.
To conclude, I would like to reflect on my role as a researcher. Researching colonial relations between the Netherlands and South Africa has been challenging, especially considering the sensitive nature of the topic as remnants of the colonial era remain visible in Dutch public spaces. While conducting the interviews, I learned that it is important to give participants enough space to freely express themselves and to ask at the end of the interviews whether they would like to share any final thoughts or experiences. Furthermore, it is also important to acknowledge my position in this study due to the conclusions that were formed and explained in the documentary. Working with my colleague made me realize that conclusions can be biased and that it is important to let the viewer know that the perspective that is shown reflects your own position as a researcher. After all, “we do not ‘store’ experiences as data, like a computer: we ‘story’ it.” As humans, we store information and process it based on what we already know and who we are. At the beginning of this course almost four months ago, I asked my professor about how it would be possible to remain objective after assessing the data that has been gathered in a research project. The professor’s response was that while being neutral is technically impossible, this does not necessarily mean that it is something negative. While I vaguely understood what was meant at the time, it is only now that I have experienced it that I have realized that every single interview and observation gathered through research will always shape and affect our perspective on the world. Hence, while I am fully aware that there is still much that I need to learn when it comes to research, I am still excited to acquire this knowledge by gaining more practical experience. On a final note, as the reader will have noticed during this paper, I have used the words ‘black’ and ‘white’ South African. Even though I am against specifying a person’s color, I thought it was important for our research. For instance, when comparing Vuyu’s responses to Jan van Riebeeck to Madi’s, I noticed that Vuyu was much more emotional and connected to the topic. One of the reasons why I personally think this was the case, is because of the legacy of Apartheid, and the differences of living in the country for white and black South Africans. Finally, if i would have to summarize what I learned from this research in one sentence I would say that: while it is important to remember history, commemorating those who represented a horrible part of a nation’s past should be (at least) omitted from the public sphere.
(Featured image shows our first encounter with the Jan van Riebeeckstraat. )