For all approaches to the South African past the icon of Jan Van Riebeeck looms large. Perspectives supportive of the political project of white domination created and perpetuate the icon as the bearer of civilization to the sub-continent and its source of history. Opponents of racial oppression have portrayed Van Riebeeck as public (history) enemy number one of the South African national past. Van Riebeeck remains the figure around which South Africa's history is made and contested.
But this has not always been the case. Indeed up until the 1950s, Van Riebeeck appeared only in passing in school history texts, and the day of his landing at the Cape was barely commemorated. From the 1950s, however, Van Riebeeck acquired centre stage in South Africa's public history. This was not the result of an Afrikaner Nationalist conspiracy but arose out of an attempt to create a settler nationalist ideology. The means to achieve this was a massive celebration throughout the country of the 300th anniversary of Van Riebeeck's landing. Here was an attempt to display the growing power of the apartheid state and to assert its confidence.
A large festival fair and imaginative historical pageants were pivotal events in establishing the paradigm of a national history and constituting its key elements. The political project of the apartheid state was justified in the festival fair through the juxtaposition of ‘civilization’ and economic progress with ‘primitiveness’ and social ‘backwardness’. The historical pageant in the streets of Cape Town presented a version of South Africa's past that legitimated settler rule.
Just as the Van Riebeeck tercentenary afforded the white ruling bloc an opportunity to construct an ideological hegemony, it was grasped by the Non-European Unity Movement and the African National Congress to launch political campaigns. Through the public mediums of the resistance press and the mass meeting these organizations presented a counter-history of South Africa. These oppositional forms were an integral part of the making of the festival and the Van Riebeeck icon. In the conflict which played itself out in 1952 there was a remarkable consensus about the meaning of Van Riebeeck's landing in 1652. The narrative constructed, both by those seeking to establish apartheid and those who sought to challenge it, represented Van Riebeeck as the spirit of apartheid and the originator of white domination. The ideological frenzy in the centre of Cape Town in 1952 resurrected Van Riebeeck from obscurity and historical amnesia to become the lead actor on South Africa's public history stage.