Having spent most of the last three months in South Africa, a minor culture shock was to be expected when I arrived back in the Netherlands last week. As beautiful a country as South Africa is, it is still dealing with the aftermath of apartheid; while racial segregation has legally been abolished, it persists in socio-economic terms. This in turn feeds into continuing socio-spatial segregation, as the ability to make use of certain amenities is inextricably linked to income. Moreover, having spoken to a bunch of white and black South Africans myself, it is clear that divisive attitudes are still in place, as a large portion of the black population lament their unrelenting marginalization, whereas many whites are fearing a Mugabe-like policy of land and income redistribution that will ‘rob’ them of opportunities. Thus, in de facto terms, South Africa is still by and large an apartheid-state.
The Netherlands, on the other hand, is internationally renowned for its tolerance towards pretty much everything. From hash to hookers to homosexuality, the Dutch condone seemingly everything and anything. While this is something that I am proud of, it has to be said that this widely held image is often a gross exaggeration. The Netherlands itself has been grappling for decades with issues of immigration and integration, and a growing xenophobia has been reflected my the make-up of the Second Chamber (the Dutch version of the House of Commons). Nonetheless, generally speaking, the Dutch remain relatively tolerant and are dedicated towards multi- or even polyculturalism.
This contrast between South Africa and The Netherlands became particularly clear to me when I was doing some groceries in a quintessentially Dutch store, the HEMA. There I noticed that the store was already full of chocolate and candy for Sinterklaas, a Christian holiday that is held every year on December 5. While the name itself, which is derived from the Dutch for Saint Nicholas, already indicates that this holiday has its roots in Christianity, religious elements have over time been eroded and has become much akin to Christmas in spirit and materialism. Despite this, it is not very common for Dutch Muslims to celebrate Sinterklaas. That is to say, they don’t watch the arrival of Sinterklaas with his steam ship; they don’t put their shoes near the window sill and fill it with sugar and carrots for the saint’s horse; they don’t get presents from a dirty brown bag; and they don’t get candy from the white saint’s helpers, who are called Black Peters (oh, the irony of this if you just spent some months in South Africa).
Nevertheless, HEMA has started to challenge this tradition this year by Arabicizing its confectionaries. One very common thing to get or give during Sinterklaas is a chocolate letter of a friend or family member’s first initial. This year, however, the shelves are not just stacked with the conventional ABCs. Instead, some room has been made for Arabic letters.
After the clearly visible separation of black and white in South Africa, this commercial attempt of bridging of cultures in The Netherlands was thus quite literally a culture choc to me.