Speech by minister Weerwind at the Martin Luther King lecture

Speech by Minister for Legal Protection Franc Weerwind at the Martin Luther King lecture on 9 October in Amsterdam.

Professor Bogues,

Professor Brandon,

Esteemed guests,

Once, when I was seven years old, I went to play at a friend’s house. Some of his South African relatives were also there, and at one point I heard someone say, ‘How can you let your boy play with a black kid?’

When I got home I told my father. He said that South Africa had something called ‘Apartheid’, and asked me if I knew what that meant.

No, I said. I had no idea.

Patiently, he explained it to me. But at the time, the true significance of what he said didn’t really sink in.

If he’d asked a white boy my age the same question, my father would probably have received the same blank look. After all, no one is born believing that one person is better than another because of the colour of their skin.

Over the years, I discovered what apartheid – ‘separateness’ – truly meant. At school, my headmaster had no faith in my academic ability. And when I was older, and out on the town, the nightclub door would often be closed just as my brother and I reached the front of the line. This was the day-to-day reality for me and many others.

It would be easy, at this point, to make some cynical remark. After all, this year we’re celebrating 150 years since slavery was abolished.

That should have been the start of a new era, one of equality for all. The formal rules may have been put in place, but the divisions remain to this day.

When I see that my beautiful, mixed-race children are still judged by the colour of their skin every day, it makes me sad. Such injustice can lead to anger, aggression and even to violence.

Fortunately, I’ve never felt the need to resort to violence. And that is thanks to my father, my mother and to Martin Luther King.

Dr King was arrested 29 times. He was spied on. He endured inhuman treatment. Yet he always remained steadfast. He was never tempted to join groups like the Black Panthers. His weapons were the powerful words he used to impassion huge crowds. And not just in the past. His words still inspire us today.

As a teenager, I felt compelled to explore the arguments of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon. I read their books from cover to cover, and started to understand my own life better. To understand the world a little better.

In 1964, the year I was born, Dr King gave a speech in Amsterdam. A lot has been written about that speech, and one line has always stayed with me.

‘We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers and sisters.’

‘Brothers and sisters,’ he said. He didn’t mention skin colour. His call for change went well beyond racial injustice. Goes well beyond it, I should really say. Because, around the world, oppression and slavery are still commonplace.

Take forced labour and forced marriage, for example. So Dr King’s plea remains as valid as ever today.

The awful thing is that a society can simply carry on regardless, in the midst of great injustice.

I now realise that the white perspective on the world is so deeply rooted that it has become part of people’s subconscious. The public debate on the festive figure of Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, is a striking example of this.

In 2013, a UN working group carried out a study of the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas – Saint Nicholas, of which Black Pete was a part. This unleashed a fierce debate, both around the country and in the political arena.

‘Hands off the Sinterklaas News!’ people said, referring to a popular kids’ programme. ‘Tradition is tradition. It’s a children’s festival.’

Ten years have passed since then. And although it’s still a controversial subject, some really good things have come from the debate. The vast majority of the Dutch public – and our politicians – have gained new insights on this issue. For example, we’ve realised that all of us – black and white – need to be aware of our shared past before we can build our shared future.

Nelson Mandela once said that, ‘One of the most difficult things is not to change society, but to change yourself.’ Perhaps that’s why it took so long for Dutch awareness to evolve into action.

Our prime minister once felt that the Netherlands’ role in the history of slavery was indeed a matter of history, and we should therefore put it behind us. But by putting himself in other people’s shoes, he came to realise that centuries of oppression and exploitation still manifest themselves in society today. In racial stereotypes. In patterns of discrimination and exclusion. In social inequality.

Over time, we saw greater acknowledgement in Dutch society of the underlying pain and the grief that the Netherlands’ role in slavery continues to cause. The government could no longer close its eyes to that suffering.

Members of the government visited Suriname, St Maarten, St Eustatius and Curaçao to see, hear and feel for themselves what that history means today to the descendants of enslaved people.

On the first of July last year, at Keti Koti, an event which marks the abolition of slavery, I gave a speech at the National Slavery Commemoration. I said that everyone in our Kingdom would have the chance to get closer to each other.

And I said, ‘What stands in the way, must be moved.’

‘What needs to be said, must be said.’ 

‘What needs to be done, must be done.’

On the 19th of December last year, the government apologised on behalf of the Dutch state for the Netherlands’ role in the history of slavery. The prime minister was very clear: the apology was not a full stop, but a comma. Together, we must find a way to move forward.

In his own apology, on the first of July this year, our king also focused on the future:

After acknowledgment and apologies, let us work together to foster healing, reconciliation and recovery,’ he said.

We must ensure that these apologies are not simply a theoretical exercise.

So we are enlisting the knowledge and ideas of the descendants of enslaved people to help us take the action that’s needed. In the sovereign nation of Suriname. In the Caribbean parts of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. And, of course, here in the European Netherlands.

We’ve worked long and hard to achieve change. And together we’ll ensure that this change takes permanent root in our society.

For example, the Netherlands is opening a National Slavery Museum. Themes such as our colonial past, racism and discrimination will be given a prominent place in Dutch education. And the descendants of enslaved people – in both the European and the Caribbean Netherlands – will soon be able to change their name, free of charge, to one associated with their roots rather than with slave owners.

These kinds of initiatives are essential. But whether our society truly changes is up to you and me. Every individual bears responsibility for our shared future. You can’t delegate it to someone else.

And we still have a long way to go. Once, when a reporter asked Mahatma Gandhi what he thought of Western civilisation, Gandhi replied that he thought ‘it would be a good idea’.

Despite my personal experiences, I stand here today full of hope.

I see the change that’s happening, and I see the white perspective becoming less of a norm. I see the dissatisfaction with inequality growing. And so I want to seize this momentum and say to the new generation: take the trouble to listen to each other. This  can’t  wait. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

You don’t need to blindly adopt or indulge a person’s ideas. But take the time to listen to what they have to say. Be open to discussing our shared history. Talk about how the Netherlands can acknowledge the mistakes of the past while taking concrete steps towards a better future.

Anyone who listens, will learn.

If we can show interest in our own history and in each other’s stories, we will create space for respect.

The same respect that Martin Luther King was able to show, no matter whom he was dealing with.

The same respect that made Dr King such a great man.

The same respect we can use to build a new kind of society, using our shared past as a foundation.

Thank you.