I’m sure most people among the millions who visit Amsterdam every year, do so to sit in cafés next to tranquil canals, party in extraordinary venues, view rich art collections, and do all those other things associated with the foreign experience of Amsterdam. On my recent visit, when I had the opportunity to meet students and professors of UvA, perhaps the most striking moment came unexpectedly, when visiting the Amsterdam Museum.
‘Amsterdam DNA’, the completely remade main historical exhibition on the city, is as creative, enterprising and respectful as the museum tells us Amsterdam itself is. And on turning a corner into the last of 7 sections of the exhibition, I found the powerful title: HOOFSTAD VAN DE VRIJHEID - CAPITAL OF FREEDOM, 1945 to now.
That made me think quite a bit about Amsterdam and its relation to cities spread around the globe. It’s not just about the famous liberties which bring plenty of people to Amsterdam. Out of histories of slavery, war and oppression, so many citizens have struggled, and are struggling, for the values celebrated in the DNA of Amsterdam – freedoms of conscience and expression, for that matter freedom from want and freedom to be. From today’s São Paulo streets to Djakarta markets, or from Paris to Pretoria, these are shared values and struggles. Once the ruler of a slave trade towards Cape Town, Amsterdam became a secure home of the anti-apartheid movement. These are ties that link democrats and visionaries across continents. Our Universities would do well to join hands in strengthening these networks, inspired by this lovely ‘city museum and meeting place’ (as the Dutch – but not English! webpage has it). I’ll hope to be back!
Alan Mabin is professor of Urbanism at the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg and was previously head of the School (2005-10). His research interests range from African Cities and Government in South Africa to Public and Private sectors in city development and People-centered Development. Last week he gave a special lecture in which he talked about how African cities bear many marks of colonialism and that their histories remain vitally significant in conceptualising their present situation and their contemporary changes.