The death of apartheid stalwart, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, laid bare the South African psyche and how much still must be done to heal the wounds of our troubled past. Troubled as it is, our past however presents at the same time, in my view, the ideal vehicle to build social cohesion that our society so clearly lacks.
Ralph Mathekga is a Fellow at the SARChI Chair: African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy at the University of Johannesburg and in the above article Winnie’s funeral a missed opportunity he writes as follows:
“If there is any subject that brings out the differences in people, it has to be history.
Most conflicts in society are not about how to shape the future, but how to read the past and apportion responsibility. Religious conflicts that divide societies and have resulted in sustained conflicts such as the one we see in the Middle East are based on a historical account of the past. In this instance, religious convictions are largely a historical account of how our ancestors adopted religion and spirituality in their struggle for self-determination and survival in a hostile world characterised by good and evil.
Modern religious convictions are often a choice regarding which historical account of past events you believe, and the corresponding beliefs closely reflect one’s historical ancestry.
History is a window through which to look into the future. A nation that has a sense of a shared history, tend to develop a sense of common destiny. South Africans have conflicting versions of history. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s death has laid bare the fact that we do not agree on a common version of history for this country. In fact, the history of South Africa relating to the apartheid years and the struggle against the regime remains the most contested history and source of major differences in the country.
Instead of using Mama Winnie’s passing as a moment to forge a common reflection on the glorious history of this country, including the courageous anti-apartheid struggle, South Africans resorted to desecrating that history by casting aspersions on the struggle role played by the giants such as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.”
His words rings so true and that goes for White people’s understanding of the history and struggle of Black people but also just as much for Black people’s understanding of the history and struggle of White people.
In response to the above article Let’s not stray back in our historical laagers, I wrote as follows recently on Facebook when the author, Solly Moeng, asked for input on the question “How do we recover ourselves as a united, diverse nation, hold hands again and build together for a better shared future?”:
“…………The second aspect that will in my view make a tremendous difference is not to vilify the history of especially the Afrikaner as if it was all just bad as opposed to the all righteous struggle waged by mainly Black people. Fact is our troubled history is not always as clear cut as black vs white or good vs bad. It’s much more nuanced than that and it takes careful consideration to arrive at a fair, balanced and objective view.
The Afrikaner history for example is full of bad and evil, which we all know of and which will be to our eternal shame, but it’s just as much filled with struggle and patriotism. Struggle in overcoming prejudice by the British who saw Afrikaans speaking people as lesser human beings in the 1800’s, struggle in overcoming poverty when in the 1930’s one in three Afrikaner households were living in abject poverty, struggle in overcoming the trauma of losing thousands of men, women and children during the 2nd Anglo-Boer War in the cruelest circumstance etc. Patriotism in fighting for and securing South Africa’s independence in 1961 from British colonial rule, patriotism in realising the error of our ways and breaking from South Africa’s past of segregation by having the courage to vote overwhelmingly yes in the 1992 referendum for change etc.
Fact is we have a common history rather than an White/Afrikaans or Black/Zulu/Xhosa history and if we celebrate it together, and in the right way, it has the potential to unite us as a country, troubled as it may be. Just a small example to illustrate this – when I worked at one of the big 5 auditing firms, I had a consultant working with me Zwile Zulu, who comes from a Zulu Royal background. We one day discussed our common history and realized that in February 1838 his forefathers killed one of my 8th distant cousins, Stephanus Johannes van Vuuren, together with Piet Retief and all his other men. I indicated that five of my forefathers exacted revenge on Dingane in December 1838 for this at the battle of Bloedriver and probably in doing so killed some of his forefathers. Rather than indulging in a debate about who was right or who was wrong back in 1838, we rejoiced the fact that somewhere back in our history our forefather’s tracks did cross, bonding the two of us inexplicably and irretrievably together, Black and White. Does the same not apply to all who are citizens of this country?”
I must admit that I had mix feelings about the death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. I worked in the townships of the then Witwatersrand and also the Munsieville township in the 1980’s where on 13 April 1986 (ironically a day before the date she would be buried exactly 32 years later) she said her by now infamous words “… Together hand-in-hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country….”. A few days after her speech a township resident, Doctor Nakale Kgogome, suspected to be a police informer was dragged into an open area in Munsieville where he was set alight with a gasoline filled tyre around his neck. He died of his horrific injuries in hospital and this tragic event left an indelible mark on my consciousness.
Given the aforementioned, it was difficult for me personally to deal with the fawning adulation bestowed on Winnie Madikizela-Mandela following her death. At the same many so-called expose’s, documentaries and interviews came to the fore that added nothing new that was not already in the public domain, but which many and especially those in the EFF fold grabbed onto with their life, to erroneously show that Winnie’s has been misrepresented and that their was a conspiracy to defraud her legacy or even worse that she has been sold out by her comrades. This was a crude attempt at revisionist rewriting of history that went as far as to taint the role played by people such as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu as highlighted by Ralph Mathekga above, and even the reputation of of three respected journalists, Thandeka Gqubule, Anton Harber and Nomavenda Mathiane was called into question (in a rather weak apology the Huffington Post astonishingly said that “they felt the public would understand” and that it was “not making a literal accusation”).
In the end I however had to temper my own personal feelings about Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, by appreciating her role in the wider struggle to rid South Africa from Apartheid and what she meant, wrongly or rightly depending on each person’s own perspective, for so many South African’s. I took a lot of personal convincing for me to do so but in the end, just as in the example of me and Zwile Zulu mentioned above, I came to the realization that somewhere in my past, my path and that of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela crossed, and that this bonded the two of us inexplicably and irretrievably together as South Africans with a common history.
As Palesa Morudu, a publisher and writer based in Cape Town wrote in the above article Has truth become a casualty of Winnie’s rejection of accountability?, I in the end also added my voice to those that prayed “May she rest in peace” and “Let us celebrate the glory of her legacy” but who also said lets at the same time “condemn its horrors”.
As Ralph Mathekga noted above a nation that has a sense of a shared history, tend to develop a sense of a common destiny. My wish is therefore for all South African’s to reconsider our common history, troubled as it may be, and what this history tells us it means to be a South African. That we all at the same time acknowledge the past hurt that we caused one another but also recognize that, at various points in our past people, of all races and backgrounds suffered. That we in doing so take off our lenses of prejudice and hatred, and attempts to score points by selectively quoting history, and that we look one another squarely in the eyes, saying that its our common history that binds us all together, inexplicably and irretrievably, Black and White.
Postscript 1: I’m busy reading a fascinating book by Harry Booyens “AmaBhulu – The Birth and Death of the Second America”. In it he documents the birth of the Afrikaner nation, its struggles to find a home it can call its own in Africa just to be robbed of it every time by the British imperialists and the many interactions my forefathers had with the various African tribes. The book brings vividly to life the fact that many times in our troubled past the Afrikaner and the African tribes worked together for the common good and in many instances exchanged land for goods or assistance rendered which goes against the prevailing narrative the Whites always stole the land. I will therefore in a few posts to follow focus on these aspects namely the cooperation between Afrikaner and Black people throughout our history, the history of land occupation in Southern Africa and also highlight the extent to which the Afrikaner suffered under British imperialism and domination.
Postscript 2: I quoted above the second aspect that I thought would assist to recover ourselves as a united, diverse nation, and to hold hands again and build together for a better shared future. The first aspect that I thought would make a big difference are the following as I worded it in my Facebook post:
“The first thing that will in my view make a tremendous contribution is to accept all South Africans as rightful citizens of our beautiful country and for our government to be unequivocal about it in all their messaging. For as long as the word settler or colonialist is being branded around, it will make a lot of people, including me, feel that we are not welcome in the country of our birth and make us to doubt the sincerity of our fellow South African’s. These utterances creates unnecessary breathing space for racists to come to the fore and spew hate.”