Leiden Anthropology Blog

Dompas: Apartheid in Utrecht?

Dompas: Apartheid in Utrecht? Photo by ANC archives and Dompas.nl

There is an app that shows you the shortest way to downtown Utrecht, called the Dompas. It is embarrassing that the developers of this app haven’t ‘googled’ this term, and so missed its dirty history in apartheid policy.

Governments use all kind of means and media to control and discipline their population. In a recent article in History in Africa (available via your University library) Lorena Rizzo describes how the South African Apartheid government introduced a system of population registration in Transkei by requiring its inhabitants to carry a ‘reference book’. This reference book was an elaborate kind of passport, containing a photo, fingerprints, work permits, travel permits, etc. This initiative was, understandably, not well received by the Transkei population, and hence they called it the ‘dumb pass’, or ‘dompas’. Rizzo gives detailed descriptions of how, through photos, the South African apartheid government practiced its policy of segregation. By analyzing the dompas by means of the analytical term impersonation she describes how, on the one hand, the government strived to realize a system of total (‘panoptic’) control, while on the other hand people used this same system to create identities for themselves that best fit their ambitions and social activities.

The developer Rhinofly of the Utrecht app Dompas must have been unaware of this dirty history of the dompas, because they launched it by the same name. The Dompas app shows you the shortest way to downtown Utrecht. The makers must have thought themselves very funny, since this word sounds as a pun to Utrecht ears: Dompas sounds like kompas (‘compass’) and it contains the word ‘Dom’ - a reference to the Dom cathedral tower. Utrechters are very proud of the Dom, the highest church tower of the Netherlands. It was constructed in the late Middle Ages as part of a Gothic church, in the same way as many other ‘Doms’/’Duomi’ in Europe. The Utrecht Dom, however, is unique because of the position of its tower: the middle part of the Dom church collapsed in 1674 because of a tornado, and since then the tower has stood alone. This isolated position adds to its magnificence and it has made the Dom into the ultimate symbol for the town of Utrecht.

A popular term for Utrecht is Domstad, ‘town of the Dom’. Utrechters use this term with pride. They ignore remarks by outsiders who argue that Utrecht is a dom(me) stad (‘dumb town’) – they proudly reply that the inhabitants of Utrecht are the smartest of the Netherlands, ‘since there is only one Dom.’

This joke, however, has now been refuted for good by the Utrecht-based Rhinofly team. It may have been asleep or hallucinating (seeing flying rhinos?!), but it clearly demonstrates a lack of general historical awareness and/or lack of ‘savoir faire’ in the Internet age. Unfortunately, in Utrecht there is more than ‘only one Dom’: in Utrecht some people have proved themselves truly dom…


Jan Jansen has lived in Utrecht since 1981 and is the managing editor of History in Africa – A Journal of Method.

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