4 May 2012

Cape Verde: How a Cape Verdean Came to the Helm in Delfshaven

Rotterdam — "I know where I come from, my roots and my parents' history," says Carlos Gonçalves. When he was a toddler, his family left Cape Verde for Rotterdam. Forty years later, Gonçalves chairs the local government of Delfshaven, one of 14 districts comprising the Dutch port city.

"We are islanders, so where there's a harbour, there's a large Cape Verdean community. And so Rotterdam, being the largest harbour in Europe, makes perfect sense," laughs Carlos Gonçalves.

Some 90 percent of the 21,000 Cape Verdeans in the Netherlands live in or around the port city. Gonçalves' migration story began when he was three years old.

"My father decided in 1965 to stop sailing and go abroad," he explains. "My mother's brother, João Silva, had already paved the way for many Cape Verdeans, so we too settled in Rotterdam." Now in his early 40s, the chairman of Delfshaven local government is responsible for over 70,000 Rotterdammers who live and work there. He is known for being tough on crime and strong in neighbourhood involvement.

"Hidden history"

When one of his morning meetings is rescheduled, the busy Gonçalves offers to show me around Delfshaven. We hop on our bikes to visit some of his favourite places, including the only section of Rotterdam that survived the bombings of World War II.

We also visit an empty square in the Lloydkwartier, where Gonçalves mentions ongoing plans to erect a monument commemorating slavery. "Some residents of Delfshaven, originally from Suriname, the Netherlands Antilles and Cape Verde, started a discussion about the Rotterdam harbour's role during the slave trade," he says. "These people, who are direct descendants of slavery, are very committed to the African history of the area and they lobbied for a monument that symbolises this hidden history."


Gonçalves graduated from Rotterdam's Lucia Petrus secondary school and followed that up with a degree in human resource management. For six years, he worked at migrant organisation Platform Buitenlanders Rijnmond (PBR), all the while being active in the Labour Party (PvdA) . In 1998, he began work for the district council.

Despite having almost two decades of experience in party politics, Gonçalves was accused of nepotism two years ago. Various media received anonymous letters accusing him of awarding subsidies to an organisation with which he had close ties. "Those allegations were false," says the politician. "I asked the Bureau Integriteit Nederlandse Gemeenten, the national investigative body on politicians' integrity, to scrutinise the matter. After the probe, my name was cleared."

Fighting the Fortuyn legacy

On 6 May, some in the Netherlands - Rotterdam, in particular - will acknowledge the death anniversary of Pim Fortuyn. Gonçalves partly attributes his own career to the city's maverick right-wing politician, shot dead in 2002.

"I experienced his emergence from nearby," says Gonçalves. "Back then, I was a board member of the Dutch Labour Party's Rotterdam chapter. His strongest emphasis was on migrants' negative influence on Dutch society. Admittedly, there were problems, but there were positive things, too. Fortuyn wasn't painting the full picture. So that motivated me to get into active politics. I am still fighting his legacy."

Ironically, Fortuyn's party was the first in Dutch history to have a sub-Saharan African member of parliament, Cape Verdean João Varela. Gonçalves knows him only peripherally.

"His older brother is a friend since we used to work together at City Hall. João himself was adopted as a child by a Dutch couple, so he has no Cape Verdean identity. He's a Dutch guy with a colour," says Gonçalves.

"A mix of both"

But how Cape Verdean is Gonçalves himself, having come to the Netherlands at such a young age?

"I've always been active in the Cape Verdean community, so I'm part of it," he says. "That means I know where I come from, I know my roots, my parents' history and I still speak the language. I also know the Dutch language and culture. So I'm a mix of both."

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