A separate development
Dutch rioters test a new kind of inter-racial cooperation.
IN THE BRIGHT dawn of post-apartheid South Africa, people talked enthusiastically about a new “rainbow nation” - a country with 11 official languages and a rich mosaic of ethnic groups, where prisoner-turned-president Nelson Mandela forgave his captors after 27 years behind bars.
I was reminded of the rainbow nation (where I spent formative years as a foreign correspondent) by - of all things - the rioting in the Netherlands last week. Officials have been quick to dismiss the unrest as attention-seeking, opportunistic and criminal. But that is also a way to deny the riots any larger significance.
The prospect of finding meaning in the random lawlessness of these events requires a better ideal for society, some higher standard as reference. In principle if not in practice, even a harsh critic can appeal to the better angels of our nature. What are the hoodlums trying to say? Perhaps, then, other interpretations become possible.
Wilders saw youths of Moroccan and Turkish descent among the rioters. His reaction was a coded way of saying the protesters are racially diverse
Idealism is good. But naive or comforting delusions are not. Mostly, human society falls short of our best aspirations. In South Africa, for example, almost everything that has happened since the first all-race election of 1994 (and long before that) involves a reckoning with old habits: corruption, intolerance, mistrust, trauma.
These are the norm. The beautiful crowd of multiracial yuppies who appeared almost overnight on Johannesburg billboards to advertise beer, life insurance and mobile phones, is nowhere to be found in South African cities.
Rainbow nations are a fiction from the canon of liberal fantasy. Most of us are what we know. So most of us, most of the time, are caught in a cycle of ancestral behaviours repeating.
With one striking exception.
I’ll get to that. First, those riots in the Netherlands. Although small in scale and perhaps trivial in intent, at least by comparison to the high ideals of Africa’s liberation movements, the sudden violence on Dutch streets also exploded some cherished fictions. However unpalatable, it’s symptomatic of much older, larger problems.
‘Nothing to do with us’
Hundreds of rioters - relschoppers, most of them teenagers, almost exclusively male, were arrested across the country. On public broadcaster NOS, criminologist Henk Ferwerda described an impromptu revolt of “virus deniers, political protesters and kids who just saw the chance to go completely wild – all three groups came together”.
A consensus view was that legitimate demonstrations against a 9pm curfew imposed on January 23rd had been “hi-jacked”. Ministers blamed criminal elements, who would be “dealt with as such”, said prime minister Mark Rutte. In Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, the city’s Muslim mayor, spoke powerfully to a theme of “shameless thieves” - schaamteloze dieven.
On Twitter, PVV leader Geert Wilders called the rioters 'scum' - noemt de relschoppers ‘tuig’. Perhaps inadvertently, this assessment from the right-wing nationalist was revealing. The rioters had “nothing to do with the Netherlands” - hebben niets met Nederland, he said. They didn’t share ‘Dutch values’ - delen onze waarden niet.
The spectacle of attacks on corona-testing centres, looted supermarkets and burnt-out cars, is a public rebuke to the national self-image
In parliament, Wilders urged the prime minister to deploy the army before the violence became “half a civil war” - voordat dit geweld een halve burgeroorlog wordt. Wilders noticed youths of Moroccan and Turkish descent among the crowds. The hyperbole was a coded way of saying that the rioters appeared diverse, at least in terms of skin colour.
None of the polarising demographic forces in Dutch society is unique, of course. But at the most superficial level, the spectacle of attacks on corona-testing centres, looted supermarkets and burnt-out cars, stands as a public rebuke to the national self-image.
Rioting is both a real and a symbolic rejection of competence, compromise, orderly progress. Stripped of such high bourgeois notions, the underlying social contract has been exposed as fragile.
Which led me to think again about post-apartheid South Africa. There, everyone sees that the comforting illusion of the rainbow - a metaphor for harmonious racial diversity - is an inadequate balm for old wounds. Here such concerns are more likely to be perceived as weakness and liberal hand-wringing.
However tempting, it’s too easy to dismiss the opportunistic teenage rioters as merely hooligans - a kind of societal sub-species previously confined to post-match violence between football fans.
Facts and stats
The news again, in brief. On the weekend of January 23rd, riots broke out in more than 10 cities across the Netherlands. About 240 protesters were arrested as the government tightened corona-rules by imposing a 9pm curfew - avondklok. Protesters threw fireworks and golf balls at police. Riot squads on horseback deployed tear gas and water cannon.
On Saturday night in the northern fishing village of Urk, youths set fire to portacabins housing a mobile Covid-19 testing centre. On Sunday, scheduled demonstrations against the curfew in Amsterdam and Eindhoven turned violent. Riots and looting spread to Utrecht and Rotterdam, then to smaller towns.
Parool reported a ‘suction effect’ - aanzuigende werking - as images spread through social media and online. Rotterdam police chief Fred Westerbeke said 60 rioters were arrested and 10 police officers injured, and a KFC restaurant demolished.
Violence simmered on the following nights. A further 180 people were arrested on Monday in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, where Aboutaleb issued an emergency decree giving police broader powers of arrest. For the first time in his career, he authorised the use of tear gas, a far-reaching measure: “Ik heb moeten dreigen met inzet van traangas, een verregaande maatregel,” said Aboutaleb.
In Amsterdam mass demonstrations were already banned, after 143 arrests in the city centre during the previous weekend of January 14. Protesters came anyway. Mayor Femke Halsema designated Museumplein a "high-risk zone", allowing police to frisk people for weapons.
Rioting spread to smaller centres around the country such as Den Bosch, Den Hague, Zwolle, Amersfoort, Alkmaar, Hoorn, Gouda and Haarlem, where police were attacked with stones. Copycat incidents were reported in the Limburg areas of Stein, Venlo and Roermond, and later in Leeuwarden and Nijmegen. Cars were set on fire or shops looted in Helmond and Alphen.
Den Bosch mayor Jack Mikker - burgemeester - called for an independent investigation into the response by authorities, which he suggested was too slow. After two cars were set alight, and one overturned - een auto op zijn kop gegooid on January 24, Mikkers thought that every heart in the town was bleeding - ”Ik denk dat het hart van iedere Bosschenaar bloedt”.
In the aftermath, the 25 regional security chiefs who make up the Security Council decided against a ban on all demonstrations. Ferd Grapperhaus, minister of justice and security, doubted if such measures were possible. The riots on Sunday and in the previous week had nothing to do with a demonstration, he said: “Wat we zondag en vorige week hebben gezien, heeft niks met een demonstratie te maken”.
After the riot, the reckoning
The Netherlands in the time of Covid-19 is becoming a more open and self-critical society. Not yet primed for a serious reflection, but confronted, simultaneously, by many discomforting phenomena.
No doubt this is true everywhere, but the Dutch variant of this newfound mass scepticism entails a new sense of disaffection. All too visibly, Dutch society is not what most people believed it was before the pandemic. The old ways of seeing, and being, can't be restored (even with better vaccine distribution).
And the model, for a rainbow nation: the striking exception?
South Africa today does offer an example of inter-racial cooperation. One sector of the economy is characterised by rapid integration at home and abroad, by public-private partnership and energetic opportunism. This diverse group navigates the disruptions of a globalised economy with agility.
They are criminals.
When it comes to organised crime - from armed robbery to corrupt government tenders, hi-jacking ATM machines and laundering corrupt gains - a rainbow alliance of former guerillas, retired soldiers and violent gang leaders have found common cause. That is a sorry state of affairs, but emblematic of the “new” South Africa.
(It’s also, incidentally, a pointed contrast to the burgeoning Dutch heritage industry in media and publishing built on public nostalgia for native white gangsters. Another story.)
In making this point about organised crime in South Africa, I don’t mean to diminish or disrespect any of the myriad other examples of racial integration. Nor to ignore many hundreds of small acts of kindness, reconciliation and nation-building that happen, unreported, every single day. Still, the crime boom is telling.
The effects of apartheid and colonialism and institutionalised injustice in South Africa today are constant and vivid. Their legacy is writ large in the patterns of settlement, educational outcomes and social mobility. They speak still in the racially charged banter at every supermarket check-out, and in the unlikely spectacle of crime as a model of efficient racial integration. To the point where organised crime poses a real and present danger to organised government.
And what of the Netherlands?
The grievances of teenage hoodlums don’t warrant this comparison. Frustrated by coronavirus regulations, their antics are worlds away from Africa’s high-octane politics or the noble cause of the anti-apartheid struggle.
Even so, the Dutch mob are striking for their broad coalition.
The demonstrations produced a multi-racial rumpus. The rabble of dissenters is, in itself, a commentary. Their ranks are said to include a harder core: vandals, seeking violence, equipped with incendiary tools and golf balls. But when the final tally of arrests is known, it’s probable that the culprits will look familiar.
They are an impromptu, pan-racial alliance of conspiracists and minorities, hell-bent on baiting authority. While it would be grandiose to suggest that the teenage troublemakers in Eindhoven or Rotterdam or Zwolle are any kind of replica of the rainbow gangsters of the post-apartheid South Africa, their diversity may be the most interesting things about them.
Crime - people who defy the law - can reveal as much about a society as the rule of law says about people who make laws. Separation as policy, as an instrument of state power, also known as ‘separate development’, was a Dutch invention: apartheid - apart-ness. Its modern-day legacy, whether in Africa or in the Netherlands, is the hangover from old habits of thinking, and from the violence of the settler state.
These arguments have been well-rehearsed. Often. But to no satisfying effect. The Netherlands is a country far from reconciled to its past.
It’s not far-fetched to suggest that the lawlessness which infiltrated the anti-lockdown protests is also, in some way, another symptom of that lack of closure. A state of disgrace.
The relschoppers of all skin colours, hurling cobblestones from the streets of sleepy Dutch dorps, are raging against their homeland.
No less Dutch, more positively, is the swift defence from the justice minister of the right to legitimate protest and freedom of expression - the cornerstones of an open society. For better and for worse, the roots of the current disaffection are deep. And very local. Riots have everything to do with our values.
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