By Imraan Buccus
Indonesia and South Africa will celebrate 25 years of diplomatic relations in 2019. They are strategic political and economic partners in the evolving geopolitics of the Indian Ocean Rim and more broadly in global politics.
Importantly Indonesia hosted the first Afro- Asian conference in Bandung in 1955. South African anti-apartheid activists Molvi Ismail Cachalia and Moses Kotane attended as observers, and presented a Memorandum against Apartheid, which significantly helped internationalize support for the liberation movement.
Touching down in Jakarta a few days ago, one is immediately moved by the sense of energy and urgency in one of the most vibrant economies in the Asia-Pacific. The new leadership of President Joko Widodo is palpable as one ambles through its buzzing side lanes and the boardrooms of its financial hub.
A not dissimilar energy is bubbling in South Africa with President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Thuma Mina campaign which has given a fresh boost to the economy and national sentiment.
Ramphosa has pledged to raise $100bn in investment over the next five years to give the struggling South African economy a shot in the arm and create millions of desperately needed jobs among young people. While he has concentrated his efforts on North America, Western Europe and the Middle East, it might be timely for him to look east.
China is a natural choice within the BRICS partnership but smaller economies like Indonesia have an enormous interest and appetite for investment both ways.
Indonesia and South Africa share common ground that goes well beyond the quarter century of formal diplomatic relations.
There are historic ties that bind that provide a sound emotional basis for closer, mutually beneficial relations. Much of that is immediately apparent when one meanders the Cape Peninsula from Robben Island to the Cape Flats.
Remnants of the Indonesian heritage are found in the names of the people, their culture, their food, their faith, their language and very importantly in any enduring relationship is their history of struggle against political oppression.
History records that barely 41 years after the Dutch colonial invasion of the Cape, the Dutch East India Company, in 1693, shipped Sheikh Yusuf from Makasar to exile at what they regarded as the Cape of Good Hope.
This imprisonment was on account of his support for Banten Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa’s uprising against the Dutch colonial incursion in his lands. In that period of the seventeenth century, the Dutch seaborne empire’s quest for spices concealed a deep hunger for both land and slaves.
In very much the same way as the diverse Indonesian peoples took up arms against colonial agression, indigenous South Africans also rise in rebellion against the abuse of their hospitality. Although not recorded in the detail that it should be, Khoi and San resistance of both Dutch and British military aggression and land invasion is an important part of the overall story of the struggle for South African freedom stretching almost 400 years.
It is seldom recalled that the Khoi repelled the Portuguese would be invader Don Francisco d’Almeida in 1555 when he made his foray into the Cape. His death did not deter the future invasions of the Dutch and British.
In the period of Sheikh Yusuf’s imprisonment at the Cape, the Dutch had established a firm military control over both the Cape and Indonesia with the latter centered around Batavia. While there is considerable scholarship about the history of the misnamed “Malay” community and the development of the Afrikaans language, the current flavour of African nationalist narratives pay scant attention to this important period in South Africa’s tortured history.
A significant case in point in the past week in the harassment of the delegation of King Khoi as they descended on Pretoria’s Union Buildings after a long and arduous walk across the country to state their first people’s claim to land.
Certain elements from the EFF who were bussed in to the Union Buildings were adamant about bullying them into showing proof of their claims. Land issues are contested and emotional all over the world and neither Indonesia nor South Africa are immune to diverse claims. The resurgence of the Khoisan in wanting to assert its legitimate claim to be counted in the heritage of struggle also has a demonstrable link with Indonesia.
The intermingling of the blood lines of the Khoisan and the Indonesians have created what is still oddly referred to as the Malay and Coloured peoples of the Cape. Sheikh Yusuf’s presence in the Cape as well as that of the other political prisoners and exiles in the penal colony is also felt in the scores on tombs that dot the peninsula including the hallowed grounds of Robben Island to which former President Nelson Mandela makes extensive reference in his writings and speeches.
Another compelling link is the development of the Afrikaans language. Afrikaner nationalism conveniently disregards the strong claim that the first book produced at the Cape in Afrikaans was the Holy Quran. Afrikaans emerged as a creolised Dutch that borrowed from a number of other languages including Indonesian, Khoi, San, Xhosa, English, Bengali and very likely the Dravidian languages of the southern parts of India.
In the period of anti-apartheid resistance, Afrikaans became a rallying point more especially in the Soweto Uprising of 1976. While Afrikaner nationalists appropriated the language as their own and tried to ram it down the throats of black children, very little has been done since political liberation in 1994 to demonstrate that it is actually a language that developed among the then oppressed people. Statistics show that more black people, broadly defined, speak Afrikaans as a home language than do white people. In looking to highlight the historical bonds between Indonesia and South Africa, unpackaging the evolution of Afrikaans could be a potent platform on which to unify our people.
It was Mandela who reminded South Africans that we are many cultures but one nation. Language and our diverse origins need considerably more attention in our school curricula than is currently the case. To neglect those aspects is to give currency to a myopic racist nationalism of the sort that dominates the narrative espoused by the EFF.
Progress in the twenty first century and the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution demands that we open our eyes and hearts to each other and the nations around us.
Visiting Indonesia has shown that distance is not a barrier to working together for progress and mutual prosperity.
*Imraan Buccus is Al Qalam editor, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad program on political transformation